Toukokuu 5/98

Harri J. Kettunen

Relación de las cosas de San Petersburgo: An Interview with Dr. Yuri Valentinovich Knorozov, Part II

Dedicated to the memory of Dr. Linda Schele, a great scholar and a challenging mentor.

The first part of the interview with Dr. Knorozov was released in Revista Xaman's March edition, and subsequently it was received with certain uneasiness among the academic circles along with laical Maya enthusiasts. The arisen disturbance was twofold: on one hand, the conditions where the renowned academic is living at the moment didn't meet the expectations of most people; and, on the other hand, the flattening of one of the greatest legends of the history of Maya research, the "Berlin Affairs", was, understandably, welcomed with either certain amount of disbelief or disappointment. As a great admirer of the work of Dr. Mike Coe, my intention was not to make his version and portrayal of Dr. Knorozov (and his Berlin Affairs) questionable, but to examine and revise "wie es eigentlich gewesen". Since all this was rather vaguely rendered in the first part of the interview, I let Dr. Knorozov speak for himself: 

"Unfortunately it was a misunderstanding: I told about it [finding the books in the library in Berlin] to my colleague Michael Coe, but he didn't get it right. There simply wasn't any fire in the library. And the books that were in the library, were in boxes to be sent somewhere else. The fascist command had packed them, and since they didn't have time to move them anywhere, they were simply taken to Moscow. I didn't see any fire there." 

Great legends and anecdotes have wide wings: while staying in Guatemalan highlands two weeks ago, I came upon the story (as told by Mike Coe) retold by a Guatemalan tour guide. When I tried to tell him that it didn't go exactly that way, the phraseless response between the lines was something like "don't eat my bread". For him the "Boris Knorozoff" story was a true story, and probably will be for most of the people in the future as well. I personally feel bad having told the "other" story, and I was as amazed (when hearing it from Yuri K.), as the people to whom I retold it - even though I put forward the question for Yuri because I thought the story was too good to be true. For comparison, not for depreciating Mike Coe's work, I give here the other version from "Breaking the Maya Code": 

"That Knorozov survived the terrible carnage of that conflict is a miracle. Serving as an artillery spotter in the 58th Heavy Artillery, his unit reached Berlin at the beginning of May 1945, during the death throes of the Third Reich; the Soviet Flag flew at last over the Reichstag. The young artilleryman found the National Library on fire. Out of the thousands of books being consumed, he managed to snatch one from the flames. Incredibly, it was the one-volume edition of the Dresden, Madrid, and Paris codices published in 1933 by the Guatemalan scholars Antonio and Carlos Villacorta. Knorozov brought this old trophy back home with him, along with his four battle medals." (Coe 1992: 146). 

During the interview I moved to another area, where I thought I would get a definite response: J. Eric S. Thompson and the Cold War politics. But how wrong I was: Knorozov's attitude towards Thompson was that of "understanding the realities during the Cold War era". His only comment was that of "Thompson being another Marx" (as stated in the first part of the Interview). This taciturnity and reticence when talking about Thompson, surely wasn't the case in the 1950's and 1960's, when Knorozov was reportedly a lot more verbose and loquacious on the matter. The whole discussion shifted to the person of Thomas Barthel: 

"To put it this way: he's my old foe. He continues [continued] to publish his own ideas, and doesn't care what other people do or write. He doesn't acknowledge the results made by me or my group. So how is it going to be in the future: nobody admits what other people have accomplished, and everybody will challenge and object to each other." 

Mike Coe sheds light on Knorozov's trenchant critique on Barthel in his Breaking the Maya Code: Barthel had been a cryptographer with the Wehrmacht during the war, he was, like Knorozov, occupied with epigraphy, and both of them were trying to crack the Maya script and the Rongo-rongo script of Easter Island. These facts spiced with a not-so-warm encounter at the 32nd International Congress of Americanists in Copenhagen 1956, gave Knorozov a deadlier foe than Thompson had ever been. (See Coe 1992: 153-154). 

My last question to Dr. Knorozov: "What advice and instructions would you give for the new generation of Mayanists?" led to a more than one hour reply and conversation ranging from the actual question asked to the characteristics of left-handed people, excavations in the Kurile Islands, Japanese investors in Yucatan, and the presence of dwarfs in the Maya ceramics. Knorozov's advice for the new generation of Mayanists was clear: Don't jump from one place to another. 

"I think that the next generation would do the right thing if they took a certain concrete glyph group or element in the iconography, and study it thoroughly. The principal works for doing so are these [Kerr volumes and Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions]. Everyone of us has personal interests, and an idea what to study and what not to study. Some people are interested in the night sky and astronomy, some people are drawn into studying political history. There is numerous amount of material of all of these topics; vast amount of material: just like in Egyptology. There are a lot of cities still unexplored. But what I think, is that whatever man has invented, man can solve. This is my point of view, has always been, and still is." 

Dr. Knorozov and his colleagues in Moscow are presently working with the scenes in the ceramics. He praised Justin Kerr's Vase Books, but lamented that he can't make any sense of the numbering system of the roll-outs. The other project that has been occupying Dr. Knorozov and the Moscow School, is a Maya glyph dictionary, which will be released some time in the future in Mexico. His group is trying to increase the amount of deciphered glyphs, and he bewailed the method of North American epigraphers who, according to Dr. Knorozov, give decipherments (to the glyphs) that haven't been carefully cross-checked, examined, and confirmed. 

Aquí termina la mecanografía de la Relación de las cosas de San Petersburgo.

The interview took place in the city of St. Petersburg on the 7th of February 1998.

Interpreter on-site: Jorma Turpeinen, a prominent authority of Russian language and culture.


The more detailed account of the Knorozovian method for non-professional Mayanists promised in the first part of the "Relación de las cosas de San Petersburgo: An Interview with Dr. Yuri Valentinovich Knorozov", is superbly given in Coe 1992: 145-166, Schele & al. 1998: 7-16, briefly summarized in Kettunen 1997: 11-14, and naturally well presented in Dr. Knorozov's own works, that it would be a waste of readers energy to try to make sense of it in this humble text-based article.


COE, Michael D. 1992. Breaking the Maya Code. Thames and Hudson Inc., New York. 

KETTUNEN, Harri J. 1997. Landan "aakkoset" ja mayahieroglyfitutkimus. Teoksessa Diego de Landa: Kertomus Jukatanin asioista (Kääntäneet Helinä Karttunen & Ulla Ranta). LIKE, Helsinki. 

KNOROZOV, Yuri V. 1952. Drevniaia Pis'mennost' Tsentral'noi Ameriki. Sovetskaia Etnografiia, Vol. III, 100-118. 

KNOROZOV, Yuri V. 1963. Pis'mennost' Indeitsev Maiia. Akademia Nauk SSSR, Institut Etnografii, Moscow-Leningrad. 

KNOROZOV, Yuri V. 1967. Selected Chapters from "The Writing of the Maya  Indians" (Transl. Sophie D. Coe, ed. Tatiana Proskouriakoff). Russian Translation Series of The Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Vol. IV. Peabody Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

KNOROZOV, Yuri V. 1975. Ieroglificheskie Rukopisi Maiia. Akademia Nauk SSSR, Institut Etnografii, Leningrad. 

SCHELE, Linda - Nikolai Grube - Simon Martin 1998. Notebook for the XXIInd Maya Hieroglyphic Forum at Texas. Department of Art and Art History, the College of Fine Arts, and the Institute of the Latin American Studies. The University of Texas at Austin.