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Famous Ukrainian Jews Commemorated on Postage Stamps

Isaak Dunayevsky (1900-1955)

Read about other commemoratives here.


"…He genuinely believed in a bright future"

This is the commemorative postal card that Russia released in 2000. Dunayevsky is portrayed on the cachet in the tradition of "social realism" to make extremely cler who is depicted. We see a composer writing music next to the piano. He is a respectable person in a good suite decorated with the Order of the Red Banner. Behind the window a May Labor Day demonstration is passing by. Happy workers march through Red Square while singing his great optimistic songs.

January 2000 marks the birth centennial of the outstanding Russian composer Isaak Dunayevsky. A unique personality in the history of Russian culture, Dunayevsky’s music is the essence of the Soviet song. Unlike many other composers, he was immensely popular in his lifetime. 45 years after his death, his radiant, cheerful and optimistic melodies have lost none of their charm.

In one Russian newspaper I read an article about the American Jewish songwriter Irving Berlin. As an explanation of his importance as a songwriter it says that Berlin is for America what Dunayevsky is for Russia. Perhaps Dunayevsky means to Russia even more than the renowned author of “God Bless America” means to the USA.

Life was tough in Russia and the road to success was more than bumpy. Nothing could insure a bright future or safety from the Gulag’s labor camps. It was impossible to simply write good songs, make money and enjoy your place in entertainment’s stardom. For many people life was a struggle to survive; and few succeeded in Stalinist Russia.

Independent Ukraine now claims the great composer as well as Russia, and also commemorated his anniversary through philately by issuing postal cards with the original stamp and cachet featuring a portrait of Ukraine’s own celebrity.

Dunayevsky came from Lokhvitsa – a small Ukrainian town where Jews made up half of population. His family loved music; his grandfather was a cantor and his mother and uncle played various instruments. He learned music from violinist Iosif Ahron, who also taught him beginning composition. Dunayevsky was not only musically talented; he also graduated from gymnasia with a gold medal and was accepted to Kharkov University.

He could have learned a different profession, but it was the time of the 1917 Revolution followed by the bloody Civil War of 1918-1920. His family was ruined and music appeared the best way to provide for a living.

In 1923 Dunayevsky moved from Kharkov to Moscow and then again to Leningrad (now St.Petersburg) in 1927, where he was invited to work in the local Music Hall writing music for the legendary Russian Big Band leader and singer – Leonid Utyosov. Utyosov recommended Dunayevsky to the movie director Grigory Aleksandrov, who in turn produced two well-known movies in the beginning of the 1930s with Dunayevsky’s music and songs: “Jolly Fellows” and “Circus.”

This 2001 Russian stamp depicts the movie star Lubov’ Orlova, who performed his songs in several films. On the stamp, her portrait is shown with a backdrop scene from the movie Circus, in which a parade of people sing Dunaevsky’s most renowned patriotic song about their Motherland (he wrote the music). The lyrics declare:  From Moscow to the remote borderland,
From the Southern Mountains to the Northern Seas.

"A Man can go as the Master . . .

Around his vast Motherland!" As a joke people used to replace the last line with the words: “If he, of course, isn’t a Jew!” This harshly accurate observation was sung in rhyme and tempo with the original lyrics (in Russian).

An overture from the film "The Children of Captain Grant" (based on the Jules Verne novel) and music suite from the film “Circus” became tremendous hits and were frequently performed by Russian orchestras.

The prime of his career fell under Stalinist rule during the 30s, 40s and 50s. This was a time of political trials and mass reprisals, as well as a time of turbulent industrial development, great enthusiasm and great hopes. In the 30s the young Soviet Republic, battered by the high-winds of the 1917 revolution and the civil war of 1918-1920, was making a speedy recovery. Many new cities, plants and electric power stations were built. Lots of movie-houses and dance pavilions were opened. Perhaps there had never before been as much singing and dancing as in the 1930s. This is a jollier, lesser-known side of the Stalinist era.

Composer Yuri Saulsky wrote that Dunayevsky, "was one of those who genuinely believed in a bright future, a brilliant composer with a lucid attitude to life. That's one of his most striking qualities. Dunayevsky's music is always cheerful."

Some critics call him a court composer of the Stalinist era because he wrote numerous patriotic songs. Others say that he created a world of bright illusions against a background of gloomy reality. Still others, among them the well-known writer Mikhail Bulgakov, believed that Dunayevsky's music was a reflection of his romantic dreams. There were different periods in Dunayevsky's life. He was, indeed, encouraged by the government and given awards. Moreover, the people loved Dunayevsky. There were also dramatic aspects to his life, as was the notorious anti-Semitic campaign against "cosmopolitism" in the beginning of 1950s when Dunayevsky fell into disgrace. While Soviet authorities initiated a “repentant” open letter to the major Soviet newspaper “Pravda” for famous Jewish personalities to sign, Dunayevsky was one of only four people brave enough to refuse. In turn, high-ranking officials in the Soviet Ministry of Culture accused him of all mortal sins and made libelous remarks about him.

Russian prestamped envelope with standard stamp and official cachet portraying Isaak Dunayevsky that was issued in Soviet Union in 1979.

During WWII, Dunayevsky fell into a deep depression. From 1941 to 1946, he did not write for movies; and the few songs he did write did not render the usual quality of excellence. He thought that his sunny, optimistic music did not match the tragic time. Despite this standstill, he made a fresh beginning in 1947 writing operettas and music for new movies. The fruits of his labor were again the great successes he had previously enjoyed. Dunayevsky worked in excess of his fragile health. Even in the last year of his life he wrote an operetta and music, full of vivifying meaning and the energy, for three movies.

Isaak Dunayevsky died at the age of 55, leaving behind true musical gems. Some sources indicate that he committed suicide.

  • Last Modified: 02-20-2012
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