Yuri Knorozov was the luminary who unlocked the secrets of this ancient culture’s writings. Four decades post his groundbreaking revelation, he finally set foot in Mexico. Many perceived the soft-spoken introvert as peculiar.
His personal life remained largely undisclosed, earning him labels like enigmatic genius and mystic; tales about him were truly strange. An ardent feline aficionado, he often endeavored to include pictures with his treasured cat, Aspid, in his academic writings (even listing her as a co-contributor, though editorial teams erased her mention).
Additionally, he had a penchant for the esoteric – penning a dissertation on shamanism, probing connections between the Ainu, an indigenous Kuril group, and Indigenous Americans, and delving into the riddles of Easter Island’s script and the Proto-Indian tongue.
When Knorozov journeyed to Mexico in the 1990s, he was celebrated as a celebrity. To this day, Mexican children recognize his name, yet back in Russia, he remains largely unknown.
Remarkably, Knorozov unraveled America’s greatest enigma that had eluded Hispanic scholars for ages – he decoded the Maya civilization’s script. What led him to this achievement, and what sparked his interest?
In 1922, Knorozov entered the world in Kharkiv to an erudite Russian lineage. He endured the devastating Soviet Ukraine famine of the 1930s and was later exempted from military duties.
While pursuing his studies at Kharkiv National University’s History Department, the Nazis occupied the city. Details of Knorozov’s existence during this period remain scanty, as discussing it during the Soviet era was taboo.
Post-occupation, his family resettled in Moscow. Amid challenges, Knorozov transitioned to Moscow State University, developing a fervent passion for ethnography. The Soviets often eyed residents of occupied zones with suspicion, deeming them potential Nazi collaborators.
This aspect of Knorozov’s past influenced his future – denying him postgraduate studies and foreign excursions. Relocating to Leningrad, he commenced work at the Ethnographic Museum, shielded by his academic mentors. His lifestyle was humble.
Given a small accommodation near the Museum, he had a uniform attire. Sharing workspace with peers, amidst mounds of dusty tomes, he sought answers to mankind’s greatest questions during his leisure hours.
In Moscow, a paper by German academic Paul Schellhas, labeling the Maya script as indecipherable, piqued Knorozov’s interest. While assisting with archival tasks at Moscow State University, Knorozov unearthed a 1930 reproduction of three extant ‘Maya codices’ from the Berlin Library’s war spoils.
Concurrently, he encountered another pivotal document – ‘Relación de las Cosas de Yucatán’ penned by Yucatán’s Catholic bishop, Diego de Landa, in the 16th century, post the Spanish conquest of Mexico and the Mayans.
This manuscript shed light on Maya culture and script, offering about 30 glyphs and a proposed Latin alphabet-based interpretation. In 1952, he showcased his methodology in the article ‘Ancient Writing of Central America’ in an ethnographic journal.
This stirred interest, prompting his Moscow advisor to propose a doctoral thesis on the subject. Impressively, during his defense, the panel recommended he be granted a doctorate directly, bypassing the usual intermediate degree, a rarity in Soviet academia.
His deciphering of the Maya script presented an invigorated understanding of the enigmatic Maya, deepening insights into their heritage, which captivated scholars globally, particularly in Hispanic regions.
Post the 1956 publication of ‘The Mysteries of the Maya’ in the ‘Sovetsky Soyuz’ magazine, the international arena acknowledged his accomplishments. Additionally, he composed a monograph on Mayan script and astoundingly got permission for a foreign trip to the Americanist Congress in Copenhagen, presenting his findings. Mexicans, spanning students to politicians, journeyed to Leningrad to honor Knorozov.
Even Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán, Guatemala’s deposed president, paid a visit, leaving a tribute to the “benevolent Soviet academic Yu.
Knorozov, who holds immense significance for our Maya lineage.” In the 1970s, the pioneering Soviet Mayanist released translations of available Maya texts. Recognized for his contributions, he clinched the USSR’s State Prize and drew parallels to Jean-François Champollion, the 19th-century decipherer of Egyptian hieroglyphs. Naturally, such accolades deeply gratified Knorozov.
Only in the 1990s did Knorozov’s aspiration to witness actual Mayan inscriptions materialize – a dream realized 40 years after his seminal work, in his twilight years. Traveling to Guatemala upon its president’s personal beckoning, he subsequently explored Mexico thrice.
At long last, he beheld major Maya landmarks like Palenque, Mérida, Uxmal, Dzibilchaltun, and more. Additionally, the Mexican envoy to Russia honored him with the prestigious Order of the Aztec Eagle, a recognition he cherished deeply.