At school, the young Yuri was a difficult and somewhat eccentric student, who made indifferent progress in a number of subjects and was almost expelled for poor and wilful behaviour. However, it became clear that he was academically bright with an inquisitive temperament; he was an accomplished violinist, wrote romantic poetry and could draw with accuracy and attention to detail.
In 1940 at the age of 17, Knorozov left Kharkov for Moscow where he commenced undergraduate studies in the newly created Department of Ethnology at Moscow State University's faculty of History. He initially specialised in Egyptology.
At the closing stages of the war in May 1945, Knorozov and his unit supported the push of the Red Army vanguard into Berlin. It was here, sometime in the aftermath of the Battle of Berlin, that Knorozov is supposed to have by chance retrieved a book which would spark his later interest in and association with deciphering the Maya script. In their retelling the details of this episode have acquired a somewhat folkloric quality ("...one of the greatest legends of the history of Maya research"; Kettunen 1998b).
According to the version of the anecdote which became widely reproduced (particularly following the 1992 publication of Michael Coe's Breaking the Maya Code ), while stationed in Berlin he came across the National Library while it was ablaze. Somehow Knorozov managed to retrieve from the burning library a book, which remarkably enough turned out to be a rare edition containing reproductions of the three Maya codices which were then known (the Dresden, Madrid and Paris codices). Knorozov is said to have taken this book back with him to Moscow at the end of the war, where its examination would form the basis for his later pioneering research into the Maya script.
However, in an interview conducted a year before his death, Knorozov provided a different version of the anecdote. He explained (Kettunen 1998a, 1998b) that:
"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."The "National Library" mentioned in these accounts is not specifically identified by name, but at the time the library then known as the Preußische Staatsbibliothek (Prussian State Library) had that function. Situated on Unter den Linden and today known as the Berlin State Library (Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin), this was the largest scientific library of Germany. During the war, most of its collection had been dispersed over some 30 separate storage places across the country for safe-keeping. After the war much of the collection was returned to the library, however a substantial number of volumes which had been sent for storage in the eastern part of the country were never recovered, with upwards of 350,000 volumes destroyed and a further 300,000 missing. Of these, many ended up in Soviet and Polish library collections, and in particular at the Russian State Library in Moscow.
While still an undergraduate at MSU, Knorozov found work at the N.N. Miklukho-Maklai Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology (or IEA), part of the prestigious Academy of Sciences of the USSR. Knorozov's later research findings would be published by the IEA under its imprint.
As part of his ethnographic curriculum Knorozov spent several months as a member of a field expedition to the Central Asian Russian republics of the Uzbek and Turkmen SSRs (what had formerly been the Khorezm SSR, and would much later become the independent nations of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan following the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union). On this expedition his ostensible focus was to study the effects of Russian expansionary activities and "modern" developments upon the nomadic ethnic groups, of what was a far-flung frontier world of the Soviet state.
At this point the focus of his research had not yet been drawn on the Maya script. This would change in 1947, when at the instigation of his professor, Knorozov wrote his dissertation on the "de Landa alphabet", a record produced by the 16th century Spanish Bishop Diego de Landa in which he claimed to have transliterated the Spanish alphabet into corresponding Maya hieroglyphs, based on input from Maya informants. De Landa, who during his posting to Yucatán had overseen the destruction of all the codices from the Maya civilization he could find, reproduced his alphabet in a work (Relación de las Cosas de Yucatán) intended to justify his actions once he had been placed on trial when recalled to Spain. The original document had disappeared, and this work was unknown until 1862 when an abridged copy was discovered in the archives of the Spanish Royal Academy by the French scholar, Charles Etienne Brasseur de Bourbourg.
Since de Landa's "alphabet" seemed to be contradictory and unclear (e.g., multiple variations were given for some of the letters, and some of the symbols were not known in the surviving inscriptions), previous attempts to use this as a key for deciphering the Maya writing system had not been successful.
In 1952 Knorozov published a paper which was later to prove to be a seminal work in the field (Drevnyaya pis’mennost’ Tsentral’noy Ameriki, or "Ancient Writing of Central America".) The general thesis of this paper put forward the observation that early scripts such as ancient Egyptian and Cuneiform which were generally or formerly thought to be predominantly logographic or even purely ideographic in nature, in fact contained a significant phonetic component. That is to say, rather than the symbols representing only or mainly whole words or concepts, many symbols in fact represented the sound elements of the language in which they were written, and had alphabetic or syllabic elements as well, which if understood could further their decipherment. By this time, this was largely known and accepted for several of these, such as Egyptian hieroglyphs (the decipherment of which was famously commenced by Jean-François Champollion in 1822 using the tri-lingual Rosetta Stone artefact); however the prevailing view was that Mayan did not have such features. Knorozov's studies in comparative linguistics drew him to the conclusion that the Mayan script should be no different from the others, and that purely logographic or ideographic scripts were not actually so.
Knorozov's key insight was to treat the Maya glyphs represented in de Landa's alphabet not as an alphabet, but rather as a syllabary. He was perhaps not the first to propose a syllabic basis for the script, but his arguments and evidence were the most compelling to date. He maintained that when de Landa had commanded of his informant to write the equivalent of the Spanish letter "b" (for example), the Maya scribe actually produced the glyph which corresponded to the syllable, /bay/, as spoken by de Landa. Knorozov did not actually put forward many new transcriptions based on his analysis, nevertheless he maintained that this approach was the key to understanding the script. In effect, the de Landa "alphabet" was to become almost the "Rosetta stone" of Mayan decipherment.
A further critical principle put forward by Knorozov was that of synharmony. According to this, Mayan words or syllables which had the form consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC) were often to be represented by two glyphs, each representing a CV-syllable (i.e., CV-CV). In the reading, the vowel of the second was meant to be ignored, leaving the reading (CVC) as intended. The principle also stated that when choosing the second CV glyph, it would be one where the vowel sound matched that of the first glyph syllable. Later analysis has proved this to be largely correct.
The situation was further complicated by Knorozov's paper appearing during the height of the Cold War, and many were able to dismiss his paper as being founded on misguided Marxist-Leninist ideology and polemic. Indeed, in keeping with the mandatory practices of the time, Knorozov's paper was prefaced by a foreword written by the journal's editor which contained digressions and propagandist comments extolling the State-sponsored approach by which Knorozov had succeeded where Western scholarship had failed. However, despite claims to the contrary by several of Knorozov's detractors, Knorozov himself never did include such polemic in his writings.
Knorozov persisted with his publications in spite of the criticism and rejection of many Mayanists of the time. He was perhaps shielded to some extent from the ramifications of peer disputation, since his position and standing at the institute was not adversely influenced by criticism from Western academics.
During the 1960s, other Mayanists and researchers began to expand upon Knorozov's ideas. Their further field-work and examination of the extant inscriptions began to indicate that actual Maya history was recorded in the stelae inscriptions, and not just calendric and astronomical information. The Russian-born but American-resident scholar Tatiana Proskouriakoff was foremost in this work, eventually convincing Thompson and other doubters that historical events were recorded in the script.
Other early supporters of the phonetic approach championed by Knorozov included Michael D. Coe and David Kelley, and whilst initially they were in a clear minority, more and more supporters came to this view as further evidence and research progressed.
Through the rest of the decade and into the next, Proskouriakoff and others continued to develop the theme, and using Knorozov's results and other approaches began to piece together some decipherments of the script. A major breakthrough came during the first round table or Mesa Redonda conference at the Maya site of Palenque in 1973, when using the syllabic approach those present (mostly) deciphered what turned out to be a list of former rulers of that particular Maya city-state.
Subsequent decades saw many further such advances, to the point now where quite a significant portion of the surviving inscriptions can be read. Most Mayanists and accounts of the decipherment history apportion much of the credit to the impetus and insight provided by Knorozov's contributions, to a man who had not as yet set foot outside of his native Russia, but had still been able to make important contributions to the understanding of this distant, ancient civilisation.
The Government of Mexico awarded him the prestigious Orden del Águila Azteca (Order of the Aztec Eagle), the highest decoration awarded by Mexico to non-citizens, which was presented to him at a ceremony at the Mexican Embassy in Moscow on November 30, 1994.
Knorozov had broad interest in, and contributed to, other investigative fields such as archaeology, semiotics, human migration to the Americas and the evolution of the mind. However, it is his contributions to the field of Maya studies for which he is best remembered.
In his very last years, Knorozov is also known to have pointed to a place in the United States as the likely location of Chicomoztoc, the ancestral land from which --according to ancient documents and accounts considered mythical by a sizable number of scholars-- Indian peoples now living in Mexico are said to have come.