The great Knorozov, who deciphered the Maya language, studied at home, like Alisa Teplyakova

The photo of the scientist with his beloved cat Asya was transferred to the facade of a house in Balashikha near Moscow (Novaya St., 9) by the Mexican artist Coca Engelbert Serna.  Photo: Denis VORONIN/Moskva Agency

The photo of the scientist with his beloved cat Asya was transferred to the facade of a house in Balashikha near Moscow (Novaya St., 9) by the Mexican artist Coca Engelbert Serna. Photo: Denis VORONIN/Moskva Agency

Everyone saw this crazy photo of Yuri Knorozov and Asya. A man in a suit, looking unkindly from under bushy eyebrows, holds the same gloomy Siamese cat in his hands. The picture has long been sold in memes and gifs (pictures-symbols, repeating images). A month ago, the image also appeared in the form of a mural (a large picture on the wall of a building) in Balashikha. A Mexican artist participating in the “Cultural Footprint” competition depicted Yuri Knorozov as a tribute.

The grateful descendants of the Maya (the ancient civilization of America) were able to appreciate the work of Knorozov. In Mexico, our Yuri Valentinovich is a national hero.


According to scientists, the contribution of Yuri Knorozov to science is no less significant than the achievement of Champollion known to every historian (French orientalist, founder of Egyptology. Thanks to his decoding of the text of the Rosetta Stone on September 14, 1822, it became possible to read Egyptian hieroglyphs). A restricted Soviet scientist who had never seen Maya inscriptions with his own eyes managed to decipher the most complex writing system while sitting in his office in Leningrad! November 19 marked the 100th anniversary of his birth. On the eve of the memorable date, Galina Ershova, a student of Knorozov and author of the biography “The Last Genius of the 20th Century. Yuri Knorozov: the fate of a scientist. She tried to tell what kind of person Yuri Valentinovich was.

Knorozov owns the famous saying:

Knorozov owns the famous saying: “What is created by one human mind can be unraveled by another.” Photo:


His father’s profession is connected with the railways. Even before the birth of the younger Yuri, the family had to withdraw and leave for the small town of Yuzhny, near Kharkov, where there was not even a school. Therefore, the mother was engaged in the upbringing and education of children. The children played the piano and the violin and read a lot. The results of my mother’s education: all four sons and a sister became prominent scientists, and in different fields of science, and the eldest son even received the Stalin Prize for his discovery in the field of aerial cartography! Nowadays, the amazing Knorozovs would become news heroes, like the Teplyakov family (see KP Help). After all, they had their own method of education.

– In those years, Bekhterev’s theory (an outstanding scientist-encyclopedist: neuropathologist, psychiatrist, morphologist, physiologist, psychologist. – Ed.) came into fashion that human development not only biologically, but also intellectually repeats the species, – says Ershova. – In particular, children’s drawings reflect the evolution of the brain.

So the parents, in all seriousness, studied the drawings of their children and made conclusions in which direction their child was leaning. In this sense, Yuri’s drawings still amaze researchers.

– Little Yura began to compile an encyclopedia, like Bremovskaya (Alfred Brem is a German zoologist, author of the famous encyclopedia “Animal Life” – Ed.), – continues Galina. – In this “encyclopedia” came across strange “animals”. And dragons, and birds, and the mysterious “death-eater” and – attention – a snake, which Yuri called “palenka”. As an adult, Yuri Valentinovich learned that Palenque, or the “Snake City”, is an ancient Mayan city. From somewhere, he, five years old, already knew this …


Yuri entered the Kharkov Institute at the Faculty of History. Study fell on the war years, a lot was missed. When he tried to transfer to Moscow State University, they did not want to take him. Father had to go and negotiate with the rector.

After the war, Knorozov was placed in charge of the oriental collection in the Museum of Ethnography of the Peoples of the USSR, destroyed after the siege of Leningrad. “Knocking dust off Turkmen carpets,” he joked. Knorozov lived with Leva Gumilyov (son of Nikolai Gumilyov and Anna Akhmatova) in the right wing of the Russian Museum. But the relationship didn’t work out.

– Gumilev spoke vilely about his mother. Knorozov was ashamed to listen and repeat this, – says his student Galina Ershova.

But the very poetess Knorozov was very fond of. Once Akhmatova gave him a hat. Yuri Valentinovich did not part with her, brought her to the point that she was bald, and was terribly angry with the student when she, putting things in order in the apartment, threw out a priceless rarity.

Mayan hieroglyphs represent individual syllables.

Mayan hieroglyphs represent individual syllables.


Yuri Knorozov owns the famous saying: “What is created by one human mind can be unraveled by another.”

With his mind, he solved the greatest riddle of mankind (see “Specifically”). In 1955 he defended his dissertation on deciphering. And soon Knorozov published a monograph on the decoding of the Mayan script. That’s how fame came to him.

Stamps with his portrait were issued in the Union, the famous reporter Agranovsky dedicated one of the essays about young scientists from the Happy series to him, and the journalists besieged by crowds and got so tired that once, during the visit of another film crew, Yuri Valentinovich took and bandaged his eye with a handkerchief, hoping that they will leave him alone. In this form, with a bandaged eye, he was filmed for a popular science film. Yuri Valentinovich did not like to talk at all, and some assure that the decipherer of the ancient language himself did not speak any foreign language!

One of the first scientists spoke about the need for computer assistance in research of this kind. By his order, a computer program was created, which Novosibirsk scientists undertook to implement. However, according to the student, they presented the works of Knorozov to Khrushchev as their own research.

“Scientists of the Novosibirsk sciences,” Knorozov joked about them.

Drawings by Yuri Knorozov

Drawings by Yuri Knorozov

A photo: Sergei SELEDKIN


Order of the Aztec Eagle

The Mayan language was not the only scientific interest of Yuri Valentinovich. He studied shamanism, in the last years of his life he was interested in the writing of Easter Island and Ainu pictography (the Ainu are the most ancient population of the Japanese islands).

But, as Yershova notes, the scientist experienced an excessive addiction to alcohol and during trips abroad she had to strictly control the frequency of the teacher’s libations.

The nineties were both a difficult and happy time. Knorozov did not have enough money, he had to pick up bulls on the streets. But at this time he is invited to other countries. In 1990, he was awarded the Grand Gold Medal of the President of Guatemala. And in 1995, during a visit to Mexico, he was awarded the highest award of this country, which can only be awarded to a foreigner – the Order of the Aztec Eagle.

Yuri Valentinovich died on March 30, 1999 from the effects of a stroke.


How a scientist read an ancient language

In Mayan manuscripts, Knorozov counted all the signs. It was necessary to determine what type of writing the language belongs to: alphabetic, ideographic (a sign is a certain concept) or syllabic (a sign is a certain syllable that add up to words).

Knorozov got 355 characters. There is a lot for the alphabet (in Russian, for example, 33 letters), for ideographic writing it is not enough (in Chinese there are about 50 thousand hieroglyphs). This means that each sign in the Mayan language is a separate syllable. Based on this discovery, Knorozov began to decipher the ancient writings.


Who are the Teplyakovs

A large family from Moscow became famous when a nine-year-old Alisa Teplyakova I passed the Unified State Examination and entered the Faculty of Psychology of Moscow State University. Her brother Heimdall followed in the footsteps of Alice – he received a certificate and passed the exam at the age of 8. The head of the family, Yevgeny Teplyakov, teaches children according to his own method, which, however, he talks about very vaguely.

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