November 19 in Russian history

Could there be some sense in astrology? Hardly. But this day, November 19, seems to be a good day to be born. It's the birthday of many outstanding people, like Mikhail Lomonosov, Ivan Kruzenshtern, Meg Ryan (I hope you'll pardon this little sign of my tender affection for this lady :). Also, today is the birthday of another famous Russian scientist.


On this day, 85 years ago, Yuri Valentinovich Knorozov (or Knorosov) was born. At least, according to the documents. He insisted that he was born on August 31, but celebrated none of these dates. He was born in Ukraine, near Kharkiv, in a Russian family. His grandmother was an Armenian actress, widely popular in Armenia. The family legend told that she was a Turkish orphan, adopted by an Armenian merchant. Before the adoption, she used to sing and dance on the streets. One of the favorite childhood stories often told by Knorozov was that when they played croquet with his brothers, the ball struck his head and he almost lost vision. As he used to joke, the doctors restored the vision, but he became a decipherer. The family survived the famine of the 1930s. He was almost expelled from school for his eccentric behaviour, but it's hardly possible that he was just an average street boy. He was a good violinist, painter and he wrote romantic poems. His violin was broken in 1941, during the war, but he preserved it till his death.

In 1940, Yuri left Ukraine and entered the Moscow university, where he studied ethnography. He specialized in Egyptology and was deeply interested in shamanism. Then the war began. His mother stayed on the occupied territory and this became a serious obstacle for his career. He was not allowed to hold the exams for the candidate's degree (a rough analog of the master's degree in the Anglophonic countries). Knorozov went to the army as an artillery spotter. He survived and in 1945, in a Berlin library he stumbled upon a book with the reproductions of three Mayan codices. He was intrigued and took the book. In 1946 he resumed his studies in Egyptology and started working on comparative cultural studied in Sinology. His thesis, however, was a work on shamanist practices. He visited Kazakhstan, where he participated in esoteric rituals of Sufis. The Sufist shaman, porkhan prophesied in trance, but his clairvoyance was, probably, insufficiently well trained and Yuri was slightly disappointed. At about this time, Yuri read a book by Paul Schellhas, title "The decipherment of the Mayan writings — an unsolvable problem?" The penultimate adjective sounded like an insult. He abandoned the studies of shamanism (the result was the break up with his professor, Sergey Tolstov). Fortunately, another professor, Sergey Tokarev, helped Knorozov and found a job at the Ethnographical Museum in Leningrad for him. The museum was founded as a personal museum of emperor Alexander III and there were enough rooms for the personnel. Knorozov lived in one such room.

In 1947, he finished his dissertation on the De Landa alphabet, a work of Diego De Landa, who recorded some Mayan symbols and proclaimed that he knew the phonetic meaning of these symbols. This "alphabet" was far from being a real alphabet, it was incomplete, contradictory and in some places just wrong. However, Knorozov was sure that it was the only real key to the Mayan writing system.

In 1952, he already had the first results of the decipherment and published a paper titled "The ancient writing system of Central America". In 1955, he was ready to defend his dissertation. The dissertation was titled simply "Relación de las Cosas de Yucatán as an ethno-historical source". Actually, it was the proof of the phonetic nature of the Mayan writing system. As Knorozov told later, when he went to the hearings, he didn't even know how it all might end. The problem was that one German wrote in the XIX century that the phonetic writings can only exist in the state societies. He also was sure that there were no states in the pre-Columbian America. The worst thing was that this German was Friedrich Engels, the alter ego of Karl Marx. The speech of Knorozov was 3.5 minutes long and after this speech he received not the candidate's degree, but the doctor's degree.

In 1956, Knorozov visited an international congress of American studies in Copenhagen, but after this congress till 1990 he was not allowed to leave the USSR. He didn't even know about the invitations sent to him by the foreign academic institutions. Fortunately, the Western scientists, like Michael Coe and David Kelly, quickly understood what was the problem and came to visit Knorozov in Leningrad. Of course, some scientists refused to accept Knorozov's work. Eric Thompson, the leading specialist in Maya studies since 1930s, whose many years of work were suddenly lost because of Knorozov, tried to convince other historians that his opponent's views are erroneous (has anybody got the text of his famous letter to Michael Coe?). However, even he had to accept the achievements of Knorozov later.

In the early 60s Knorozov was offered to participate in the development of a computer program that should translate Mayan writings. A group of computer programmers from Novosibirsk used his materials to build a database of the Mayan symbols. Some time later, they proclaimed that they have developed the "theory of decipherment" and published Knorozov's data as their own. They even presented these four volumes to Khrushchev. The specialists understood very well that there was nothing new in this "research", but the general public (including Khrushchev) was impressed. Probably, this story was the reason why Knorozov received the State Award of the USSR only in 1975.

The Mayan writings were not the only field of his research. He used the same methodology, called positional statistics, to study the Easter island writings, Harappan writing system, Mesoamerican writings, general semiotics, archaeoastronomy, shamanism and many other exotic areas. Knorozov also worked in social sciences. He maintained that the social systems have some crucial features that differentiate them from the biological systems. He worked on the theory of communication and the theory of collective. In 1973, he published an article "On the questions of the classification of signal systems" and insisted that it was co-authored by his cat, Asya (full name is Aspid, Russian for "asp") and her kitten, Fat Kys. He was a great cat lover and sometimes even confused his interlocutors by expressing his emotions with mewing :).

Yet another of his eccentricities was that he asked his colleagues to call him Don Jorge. Nobody dared to, though, not even foreign visitors.

Knorozov had his own theory on the peopling of Americas. In the early 1980s the generally accepted date of the earliest migrations was about 20,000 years ago. Knorozov was sure that 40,000 years is closer to the real date and every year organized expeditions to the Kuril islands to search for evidences that would support his theory.

In 1990, Knorozov for the first time was able to visit the land of Maya — Guatemala and Mexico. Later, since 1995, he came to Mexico some more times. In 1995 1994, he was awarded the Order of Aztec Eagle. In his speech, he said: "Mi corazón siempre es mexicano", "I am always a Mexican in my heart." (note the comments below, though)

Three volumes of his works were being in print in Mexico, the government of Guatemala planned to invite him to award another order, the Harvard University prepared the Proskuriakoff Award for him, when Yuri Valentinovich died of pneumonia on March 30, 1999, alone, in the corridor of one of the Leningrad hospitals. Now, the Center for Mesoamerican Studies in the Russian State University for the Humanities is called the Knorozov Center.


Veronica Khokhlova said...

This entry is so interesting - thank you! Please keep up the good work! Spasibo!

Dmitri Minaev said...

Aha, finally I have a chance to say what I wanted to say so often in the last months :).

Dear Neeka, thank you very much for your work at globalvoicesonline.org, for noticing this blog and for linking my articles. And for your own blog, which I read, too :)

Anonymous said...

Very interesting, except for two small inaccuracies: Yuri Knorozov was awarded the Aguila Azteca in 1994 and he did not make a speech at all. He only said, in a voice broken by emotion, "I have no words" ("net slov" in Russian). How do I know? I was there.

Dmitri Minaev said...

Thank you for this correction. Many Russian sources erroneously say that it happened in 1995. I did check the date, but all the articles I could find at that time gave the same year. Sorry. I;ll fix it in a moment.

As for this quotation, I found it in only one article published on the web-site of the Russian State University of Humanities. Probably, he said these words after the award ceremony, not in his speech. Or, even if he didn't, he thought so, I'm sure. :)

Thank you!