YURIY VALENTINOVYCH KNOROZOV was a historian, a specialist in the ethnography of Central America, in semiotics, in comparative historical linguistics, in mathematical research methods in unknown scripts, in archeoastronomy, shamanism, and brain evolution. The founder of Mayan studies who has a monument in Mexico in his honor.


How were these ingenious discoveries made? Albert Einstein put it brilliantly: “Everyone knows it is impossible. But then an ignorant person comes along who does not know this, and figures it out.” After reading this you get the feeling that the author of the theory of relativity knew Yuri Knorozov personally.

The historian-ethnographer had by chance read the publication of German Paul Schellhas about the impossibility of deciphering the Mayan hieroglyphs. Yuri allowed himself to disagree with the venerable scientist, stating: “What is created by one human mind cannot but be solved by another.”

After years of hard work, he released his own hypothesis. Paradoxically enough, John Eric Thompson, the leading Mayanists, publicly denounced the “nonsense of the little squirt from Kharkiv”.

Why were these scholars quarreling? Scholars were convinced that each Mayan hieroglyph was a separate symbol. Yuri Valentinovich, who had not even been to Latin America until 1990 (not all scholars could leave the USSR), denied this “dogma” brilliantly. He proved that each character is not a separate symbol and not even a letter, but a syllable. Everything else was a matter of technology, though it was incredibly complicated.

Thus, in 1975, the first ever dictionary of Mayan hieroglyphs in human history appeared, which not only allowed modern people to restore the history of the great Mayan people after reading ancient manuscripts (there are about 6 million Mayan descendants in various countries in Latin America), but also to start a new stage of the study of pre-Columbian civilizations.

Page of the manuscript with the alphabet of Diego de Landa, which Knorozov relied on in his breakthrough


Yuri Knorozov was “blacklisted”, meaning he was not allowed to travel abroad. Apparently, because he had questioned communist dogmas since he was young. Even these bureaucratic obstacles did not stop the scholar’s mind.

A small sensation occurred even before the defense of the candidate’s dissertation: rumors of a brazen attempt of a “Marxism revision” circulated in the academy. It consisted in refuting the axiom of Friedrich Engels about the absence of states in pre-Columbian America (and, hence, the absence of phonetic letters). They even awaited the possible arrest of this little-known upstart.

Fortunately, it was a year after Stalin’s death. And the defense went brilliantly. First, the process took less than four minutes. And, secondly, Yuri Knorozov was almost unanimously (one vote against) awarded the degree not of a doctoral candidate, but of a full Ph.D.

Yuri Knorozov at work

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Knozorov did not only have a way with ideas, but also with words. Commenting on the long-standing bureaucratic hold-up with his research trip to Latin America and the endless calls to the meetings of the regular “faculty bureau”, he stated serenely: “All the members of all the commissions had already been to Mexico and weredeciding whether or not to send me there.”

In the upper drawer of his desk he kept a picture depicting a giant lizard being torn into pieces by a cluster of small creatures.

“Is that an illustration of the proverb that even a donkey can kick a dead lion?” colleagues asked him once. “No, this is a meeting of our academic council.”


Knorozov with his Siamese cat Asya


- The walls of the scientist’s house were decorated with Mayan hieroglyphs.

- American scientist John Eric Thompson, a recognized Mayanist, called everyone who shared Knorozov’s point of view (and not his own), “witches who saddled wild cats at Yuri’s orders and were racing down the midnight sky.”

- Knorozov claimed that his gift of decipherment was the result of his head having been hit by a ball, and suggested this “method” for training young talent.

- At celebrations on the occasion of being awarded the Aztec Eagle, Knorozov said: “I always remain Mexican in my heart.”
- Once, this scientist from Kharkiv named his cat Asya as a co-author of one of his academic pieces, and was very displeased when the editor crossed the cat’s name out.

- There is a film about Yuri Valentinovich’s creative career, made in Mexico.

- For many years, rumors spread that Knorozov had died alone, forgotten by everyone, not even in a hospital room where there was no place for him, but in the corridor of one of the St. Petersburg hospitals. However, Ekaterina, the daughter of the scientist, denies this information and claims that the family was with him until the very last.

- Knorozov’s only daughter Ekaterina also made a scholarly career. She has a very rare specialization as a Vietnamese philologist.

Yuri Knorozov had a monument erected to him in the Mexican city of Merida, Yucatan


- Knorozov was born on November 19, 1922 in the town of Pivdenne (Kharkiv region). He graduated from the labor faculty at the Kharkiv Medical Institute (1939), studied at the Historical Faculty of Kharkiv National University (1939), and graduated from the Moscow State University (1948).

- He was a research fellow at the Miklukho-Maclai Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, the Institute of Ethnology of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. 

- He was a veteran of World War II.

- He was a member of the US National Geographic Society.

- He was an honorary member of the Madrid Society for the Study of the Maya. 

- He was a recipient of the Guatemalan Large Gold Medal (1990). 

- He was a commander of the Mexican Silver Order of the Aztec Eagle (1995).
- He was a personal guest of the President of Guatemala, Vinicio Cerezo Ar valo (1990) and the President of Mexico, Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1995).

- This world-class scientist died on March 30, 1999 from complications following a stroke. He was buried near St. Petersburg. 

In 1995 Knorozov became a Commander of the Mexican Order of the Aztec Eagle.

A JOKE ON THE TOPIC: " Which of the ancient earthly civilizations is the most prominent? – No doubt, Maya! They scared every civilization with their calendar." 

The Mayan calendar suggests that time does not ride along a line, but moves in a circle where everything repeats itself over and over again. There is also no beginning and no end of a year: only the rhythm of planetary cycles. The calendar also contains data on the movement of planets and constellations

This article by Nadiia Avramchuk and Mykola Sukhomozsky is reprinted with the publisher's permission from the book (UN)Celebrated Ukrainians Who Changed the Course of History, SAMIT-KNYHA, Kyiv, 2020. 

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