Nikolai Marr – a talk by Donald Rayfield 17 February

BGS is delighted to invite all members and friends to a talk by Professor Donald Rayfield, on the fabulous genius of Nikolai Marr, Stalin’s favourite linguist, a man whose theories, particularly about the Georgian language, had the most extraordinary and unexpected results within the field of linguistics and far beyond.

Professor Rayfield is Emeritus Professor of Russian & Georgian at the University of London. He is the author of seminal books on Russian and Georgian Literature, & on Stalin; he wrote the definitive History of Georgia, “The Edge of Empires”, and is the editor-in-chief of the Georgian-English Dictionary. Not only an extremely distinguished academic, Professor Rayfield is also a most entertaining and erudite speaker, whose great knowledge – & personal experience – of Russian and Georgian history & politics adds immeasurably to all his reflections.

Georgian wines will be served!

Where: The Georgian Embassy, 4 Russell Gardens, London W14 8EZ

When: Tuesday 17th February at 7 pm

Please email if you wish to attend.

Donald Rayfield has kindly supplied a printed version of his talk which can be read below.

Commemorating Niko Marr


It would be remiss to ignore the 150th anniversary of the birth of the twentieth century’s most infamous linguist, Nicolas Marr. (In Russia he was Nikolai Iakovlevich; to his Georgian intimates he was Niko.) From the 1890s he was lauded to the skies, mostly in Russia and Georgia, for phenomenal work on Caucasian languages, then for his ‘Japhetic theory’, which grew into a ‘Marxist’ doctrine of language, opposing ‘bourgeois’ theories with a postulate that language is a class phenomenon, mirroring the progression from tribalism to communism. In 1950, fortunately after Marr’s physical death, he was denounced and dethroned by Stalin, but his ideas still haunt linguistics.

            So far this year, this most famous Anglo-Georgian has been commemorated only by Voice of Armenia (a Erevan suburb has a Marr Street, and the street in Sukhumi housing the Abkhaz Academy of Sciences recently changed its name from Engels to Marr). Things were not always so: Marr shared with Stalin, Mao Ze-Dong, and Maxim Gorky the privilege of seeing circulated in his lifetime a book of excerpts from his works (in Marr’s case, Japhetidology). When he died in December 1934, schools closed for a day and the authorities proposed renaming after Marr two towns, Zinovievsk (Zinoviev had just been disgraced) and Mirgorod (a Ukrainian town celebrated by Gogol. But Sergei Kirov, assassinated weeks earlier, took precedence: Zinovievsk became Kirovograd. Marr’s request to be buried in the grounds of Tbilisi university was spurned (he had opposed a university specifically for Georgia): his grave is in Leningrad.

            Marr’s origins are as extraordinary as his career. His father James Montague Marr came from Lewisham (but the Marrs are of Scots origin). Marr’s grandfather Patrick William Marr (1753-1806) owned and ran a school, Lewisham House, where instruction was in French (which explains James’s lifelong use of French, even in Georgia). Patrick bequeathed Lewisham House to his eldest son to educate the younger sons in. James Montague came into his inheritance at 21 and immediately married Facunda Villa Nueva who had come to Kent from Rioja. By 1821 James was in Odessa working for J. Atwood (one of many English shipping agents who set up shop when Odessa became porto franco).

            That year James Marr landed on the western coast of Georgia, at Redut-Kale, where few ships docked: there was no natural harbour, the area was dominated by a Turkish garrison at Poti, and conditions in Western Georgia — agriculture, roads, civic administration, health — were so appalling after the Russian suppression of King Solomon II of Imeretia that trade was unattractive to Europeans. James Marr was first noticed by the Russian civil governor when he reached Tbilisi and tried to break into trade, then controlled by Armenian cartels:

To judge by complaints from Tiflis merchants to the authorities, the foreigner Marr is apparently selling his goods here retail; at the wishes of the Chief Commander of Georgia, I order the police to immediately stop Marr making these sales and to tell him that he may only sell wholesale the goods he has brought.


James Marr retreated west, to the Georgian principality of Guria adjoining the Turkish border on the Black Sea coast. Times were bad. General Ermolov’s punitive expeditions had left the country half-starved, semi-depopulated and plague-ridden. The ruling prince, the Gurieli, and his family faced dispossession or exile. But Marr was befriended by Mamia V Gurieli and given land to set up a model farm and vineyard; here he planted fruit trees and set up Guria’s finest winery.

Several foreigners tried to exploit western Georgia: most failed. The French, supported by their Tbilisi consulate, were especially active. A certain Castella founded a silk-spinning mill, but died; Joseph Morénas, a tropical forestry expert, proposed to make western Georgia habitable by clearing its forests and swamps, but died of a fever; the consul himself, Jacques-François Gamba, set up sawmills to send timber down-river to the sea, but died before making any profit; another Frenchman, Meillot stole copper and hides and was deported to Siberia; only the Conte de Rosemorduc, a Breton horse-breeder, succeeded. Marr prospered: the Commander-in-Chief of the Caucasus states:


as early as 1836 a contract was drawn up between several Gurians and the Sardinian subject Paulo Boso and the English subject Yakov Morro to deliver oak timber worth 40 thousand roubles.


Other enterprises floundered: an official report complains:


The Englishman Mar living in Guria undertook to supply 1,350 pounds of leeches at 1 rouble a pound, but could not fulfil the contract and delivered only 450 pounds.


(Leeches were the mainstay of the Military Hospital in Tbilisi.)


In their second uprising against Russian authority Gurians destroyed all Marr’s vines and fruit trees, 2000 litres of his wine and his house. He and his wife, he wrote in a complaint to western Georgia’s governor, were left ‘naked’. He claimed from the authorities in Kutaisi 2,122 roubles and 44 kopecks to rebuild his two-storey wooden house (30 feet by 24) and winery and to compensate for the loss of 27 pigs (20 of them pregnant sows), 60 turkeys, 200 chickens, cushions, blankets, overcoats, trousers, shirts, underpants (three in a good state, one old), lady’s chemises, stocking, pistols, his wife’s diamond and three hundred books, including a valuable History of Marine Architecture.

Marr rebuilt his farm and in 1848 planted 200 tea bushes, Georgia’s first successful tea plantation. (Later, tea was grown in quantity by Prince Eristavi further north and, the art of fermentation finally mastered, Georgian tea won medals at international exhibitions.) Marr was now valued. In 1854, during the Crimean War, enemy aliens were forbidden to roam the Russian empire; James Marr, however, was left to his own devices, the Kutaisi military governor reporting, ‘Mr Marr is at present feeling unwell and is unable to come to Kutaisi.’ By now Facunda had died, and Marr’s children had settled in as Russian citizens. His son Ivane started a family (whose descendants still live in Georgia); his daughter Eugénie became a schoolteacher and was allowed by General Read to open a girls’ school in Tbilisi. (Later, as Madame Fabre, she disappears from history.)

            Marr moved to Kutaisi and founded a horticultural college. (In the Gurian capital, Ozurgeti, a similar establishment operated under his and the Gurieli family’s patronage.) In 1864 Marr married Aghati Maghularia, a young and exceptionally beautiful orphaned peasant girl brought up as gentlewoman in Ozurgeti; very shortly Niko was born (in January 1865, Niko Marr stated; in July 1864 insist those who doubt Niko Marr was born in wedlock).

James Marr was then only 71 (not 85, as many report): there is little reason to doubt Niko’s legitimacy, for his adventurous behaviour, multifarious talents and temperament so resemble his father’s and grandfather’s. Stories persist, however, that Niko’s biological father was a Gurieli: such rumours are typical Georgian folklore, in which all heroes have aristocratic fathers. Stalin was ascribed similar paternity — the Prince Egnatashvili who subsidised his education, just as Grigol Gurieli paid for Niko’s schooling. Niko Marr’s wife later insisted that Niko was the spitten image of Grigol Gurieli; more persuasively, Marr’s lifelong friend Professor Ekvtime Taqaishvili, a philologist renowned for saving Georgia’s artistic treasures from the Bolsheviks (they were removed in 1921 to France in 69 crates and returned to Stalin by De Gaulle in 1944, together with Professor Taqaishvili). Taqaishvili never lied (he was recently canonized): he insisted that it was common knowledge in the family that Niko was not James Marr’s child.

Father and son had little contact. James Marr spoke only a little Russian and Georgian, Aghati had no French. James tried to teach Niko French using Georgian letters: French remained Marr’s most fluent European language. Niko learnt little English, to judge by his postcard of 1923 to the Oxford don Conybeare: ‘I have to took from Y a information, when you like. Some monthes ago I have become a photographie of georgian-hebrew palimpseste…’

James Montague Marr died in 1874: Ivane, his elder son, claimed in Ozurgeti’s court that Niko, being illegitimate, should not inherit their father’s property. The claim was partly rejected, but James’s possessions, especially the house and books, were taken by Ivane’s family. Aghati and her son ended up in a smoky hovel with no ceiling or floor. Then Aghati married a Mingrelian Sharashidze, probably one of three brothers who ran the Ozurgeti horticultural college, and the remaining books were used as fuel or wallpaper.

            Niko was sent as a boarder to Kutaisi Gimnazia: one of the Russian empire’s great schools, from which several notable Russian and Georgian poets and Bolsheviks would matriculate. Niko was admitted as a British citizen (and excused his ignorance of Russian and of Scripture); brilliant at languages, he was often in fights (he was once stabbed in the thigh, and nearly had a leg amputated). We note similarities with Stalin’s boyhood: Niko Marr was, like Ioseb Jughashvili, a fine chorister. He also defected, twice fleeing to Tbilisi, once to be a telegrapher, once to be, like his father, a botanist. The school thought him demented, but re-admitted him because he could master a language in days. Of his schooling Marr said, ‘I got used to listening to everyone who tried to give me advice, so as to do the exact opposite.’

Marr was a fabulous autodidact: as a schoolboy he read Greek, Latin, Armenian, Italian, English. But he always made mistakes – even his Russian had to be edited, and in his published correspondence with Ekvtime Taqaishvili, the editors had to insert [sic] after grammatical oddities even in his native Georgian. In his paternal language, French, he got genders wrong (la comble for le comble). But he took both master’s and doctor’s degrees in Armenian with such virtuosity that he was appointed Professor of Oriental Languages in St Petersburg and, uniquely for a non-Armenian, interpreter between Tsar Nicolas II and the Armenian Patriarch Matteos V, and Armenian translator for the gendarmerie. However, it is reported that Marr, speaking in Armenian in Armenia, was once interrupted: ‘You’ve got that phrase wrong, and I am a native speaker.’ To which Marr retorted, ‘So a fish thinks it’s an ichthyologist?’

Marr reached St Petersburg university at the ideal time: oriental languages were being moved from their old Tatar centre in Kazan, and St Petersburg had become internationally recognized as a centre for oriental studies and linguistics. However horrified both Georgians and Armenians were by Marr’s appointment (Georgians because he specialised in Armenian, Armenians because he was Georgian), Marr fell on his feet. Marriage gave him more advantages: he wooed Aleksandra Alekseevna Zhukovskaya, the daughter of one Iranologist and sister-in-law of another, Vasili Bartold. Despite Marr’s preference for Caucasian and Semitic, he now dominated mainstream oriental studies. He also had an adoring wife who accompanied him on all his many expeditions.

Marr’s family life was his most appealing, if often tragic side. Of his three sons, only the eldest, Yuri (who became a futurist poet and would, but for ill health, have become a world-class Iranologist), would outlive him, and that by just one year. A second son, Andrei, died in infancy; the youngest son, Volodia, would die in the Civil War as a Red Army cadet. In his letters to Yuri, Niko appears sane: there is no mention of Japhetic theory, nor of the four magic syllables SAL, BER, ROSH, YON from which he pontificated that all human language derived. Yuri responded as a devoted son: at the age of four, he wrote about his strict mother and indulgent father:


Daddy and I are poor creatures,

We haven’t been allowed to taste the jam.

We like to drink, we like to eat,

But we may not even sit at table.

To his family, Niko Marr was known as Lylybai (perhaps he recalled James Marr singing him lullabies): in his futurist phase, Yuri composed a poem:

All-blessed Lylybai hasn’t forgotten or abandoned us,

He’s reappeared from Odessa,

Like a steel penny from a tin-foil vessel

In your tongue or throat, anywhere, it’s fluid ecstasy.

Hurry up, immediately accept whatever he shows you,

Even if it’s superfluous.

He’s polite, he’s considerate and tender with his fists,

He will reveal something new and unknown: he’s Lylybai.

Niko Marr shows an even more human face in his forty-year correspondence with Ekvtime Taqaishvili: throughout their vicissitudes — from 1921 Ekvtime worked for the Georgian government in exile at Leuville sur Orge — the friendly exchange of ideas, family news and books between dzmao (brother) Niko and dzmao Ekvtime continued. As in the family letters, Japhetidology and the magic four words SAL, BER, YON, ROSH were never mentioned by either of them.


Yet early in Marr’s career, his reputation was marred by a sweeping, untested hypotheses, careless etymologies and errors of fact. He was obsessed with finding hitherto unrecorded, unsuspected relationships between languages of different families and eras. Marr’s very first publication (in Georgian) on the ‘Nature of Georgian’ in 1898 perturbed experts by insisteing on Semitic links, which he tried to demonstrate by describing Georgian roots as, like Semitic ones, tri-consonantal. (In fact, a Georgian word can have a root with anything from zero to six consonants). Georgians were not flattered when Marr progressed to a theory that Georgian represented an archaic ‘Japhetic’ element from which Semitic later developed.

This was followed by works on classical Armenian, also emphasizing hidden ‘Japhetic’, i.e. Caucasian, elements underlying its Indo-European nature. Now Marr found himself in collision with a major contemporary, Antoine Meillet, then an Armenologist, and soon to be Europe’s most respected Indo-Europeanist: it was thanks to Marr’s precocious work on Armenian manuscripts in Echmiadzin, the Armenian ecclesiastic capital, that Meillet could in 1891 study a corpus of classical Armenian texts, but he was horrified by the theoretical wildness and inaccuracy of Marr’s work: ‘I dropped from a great height when I read it. To think he’s employed by the University of St Petersburg…’ When Marr’s grammar of Armenian was published in 1903, Meillet concluded, ‘Marr’s mind is one entirely void of scientific sense.’ Meillet was soon to be famous for his Law, demonstrating how Armenian erku ‘two’ is regularly derived from an Indo-European root in dw-: his work on Armenian, as an Indo-European language with an unknown substratum, remains seminal. Meillet and Marr would denounce each other in print for the next three decades. Although Meillet, like many linguists, loved the languages he studied but despised the speakers and loathed the country, whereas Marr found a Byronic delight in exploring the exotic scenes of his research, Meillet acquired an unassailable reputation, while Marr found himself criticised by all but his fellow-countrymen and a few credulous German scholars.

Marr’s most enduring work on Armenian was funded by Armenian patrons. It involved five years’ spade-work on the ancient site of Ani. Ani was destroyed in World War One and Marr’s archaeological reports and his book on Ani are now almost all that is left for historians.

Like his archaeology, Marr’s textology was above criticism. In expeditions to Mt Sinai and Jerusalem he discovered several lost Georgian mediaeval masterpieces. Like other Georgian manuscripts which he edited and published, he did so more accurately and with more insight into date and authorship than any of his compatriots. To this day, his readings and ascriptions remain authoritative.


At first, Marr was a university professor with a string of distinguished pupils: they included the leading historian of  Georgia, Ivane Javakhishvili and later the leading linguist, Akaki Shanidze, as well as the great scholar of Ossetic, Vasili Abaev. As Marr’s theories became arbitrary and compulsory, these pupils, however, began to distance themselves. But Marr’s prestige after the Ani excavations led to promotion: in 1914 became, like many Russian professors, an actual state counsellor, a rank equivalent to an army general’s. His publications were countless: the books, mainly grammars of lesser-known Caucasian languages, such as Laz and Abkhaz, had few reviewers qualified to criticize them.

In 1909 Marr introduced the fatal term ‘Japhetic’. Languages had long been classified by their legendary forebears, Noah’s sons and grandsons: Semitic, Cushitic and Japhetic: in 1265 ‘Japhetic’ meant ‘European, not Semitic, Asian or African’. Marr first used Japhetic for indigenous Caucasian languages, thus burdening future linguists with the hopeless task of proving the common origin of the three disparate Caucasian groups. Soon, the term Japhetic became broader and vaguer: an earlier stage of language, represented by languages that were later swamped by conquering races, such as the Indo-Europeans, but which could be recovered from relicts in modern languages, from place names, etc. Marr’s etymologies became arbitrary and absurd, ignoring the discipline of finding regular correspondences, or of analysing each language’s words into roots and affixes.

Revolution forced Marr to make a political and a theoretical leap. As a professor with links to the Tsar, the gendarmerie, the Orthodox church, as a supporter of the Russian empire, of Armenia and Georgia as protectorates of Russia, with his son Yuri a White Army cavalryman, Marr was an intellectual better advised to emigrate before being deported, imprisoned or shot. Instead, he contacted the most liberal of the Bolsheviks, Anatoli Lunacharsky, the education commissar, and Nikolai Bukharin, ‘the darling of the Party’ and secured support for a ‘Japhetic Institute’ of languages that would become the ‘Marr Institute for Language and Thought’. Marr ransacked Marx and Engels for scriptural support; to defend his Japhetic theory, he cited Marx’s Kapital: ‘The name of a thing is not related to the nature of a thing’ and Engels: ‘The Manchester proletariat speaks a different language from the aristocracy.’

He had his institute by 1921, and was allowed, and funded, to make one of many expeditions to Europe and Asia. First he went to France and, after getting visa support from the Basque scholar Julio de Urquijo y Ibarra, crossed into Spain, waxing lyrical about the Basque country as a second Guria, and pursuing with his usual lack of discrimination the chimerical myth of relationship of the Basque and Georgian languages, e.g. seeing Basque ibili, ‘to go’ as the root of Georgian biliki, ‘path’. The chimerical theory was convenient to the Soviet authorities and to Basque communists, as a reason to maintain contact. European luminaries, however, were unimpressed: Emile Benveniste dismissed Marr as ‘pseudoscientific phantasmogoria’; Nikolai Trubetskoy, leader of the Prague School of linguistics, wrote in 1924:


I’m deeply convinced that a critical review of Marr’s article must be made by a psychiatrist, not by a linguist. Unfortunately for linguistics, Marr is not mad enough to be locked up in an asylum, but it’s clear to me that he’s mad.


Marr became a Soviet icon: in 1923 the symbolist poet Valeri Briusov, another Leninist turncoat, proclaimed: ‘From the days of Atlantis the Japhetidologists bring us revelations!’ In vain critics disparaged Marrism as ‘Marxism + marasmus’. Marr, asked in Europe if Marxism was compatible with his linguistics, replied ‘Just as well for Marxism’ and added the Russian proverb, ‘If you live with wolves, howl like a wolf.’ But in the USSR Marr was given responsibility. He headed Lenin’s campaign to introduce the Latin alphabet to minority languages, Finno-Ugrian and Caucasian, and to Central Asian languages previously written in Arabic script; but Marr fenced off Russian and Ukrainian, deferring the abolition of Cyrillic, and also saving Georgian and Armenian, for whom Byzantine missionaries had fifteen hundred years earlier devised perfect alphabets. By 1926 Marr was Director of St Peterburg’s Public Library, where he created a unified catalogue; he was appointed vice-president of the Academy of Sciences, the last institution in Leningrad to resist the communist party’s drive to transfer all central institutions to Moscow. For some time Marr was the only Party member in the Academy.

His prestige bore international fruit: Albert Einstein agreed to join him in a ‘Creative Scientific Laboratory’. Marr had now a theory of language that presented no proofs  — ‘There are things which need not be proved and can only be shown’ — and brooked no criticism. Speech, he insisted, was a recent development after hundreds of thousands of years of sign language, and derived from animal cries, which evolved into a few words, each of which had many connotations — for instance the word for ‘heaven’ could mean tree, mountain, up etc. All vocabulary came from SAL, BER, ROSH, YON, syllables still present in place and tribal names: Et-ruscan was a ROSH-word, Ionian — a YON-word, Volga — a SAL-word, Iberian a BER-word. (Marr was not the first to propound such nonsense: before the Revolution a D. P. Martynov, director of schools in Petrozavodsk, published a pamphlet Revealing the Secret of Human Language and Denouncing the Invalidity of Scholarly Linguistics, arguing that human language came from the verb ‘to eat’.) Languages, Marr asserted, underwent stages, as the class struggle progressed, and did not constitute nations. European linguists were wasting their time on artificial languages of oppressor-nations (e.g. Greeks, Romans), ignoring the substratum of these languages. Marr claimed that comparing his to Europeans’ linguistics was like comparing the science of botany to the practice of horticulture.

Over time Marr plundered countless languages, from Hottentot to Eskimoan, alleging them all to be fundamentally Japhetic. In the 1920s and early 1930s such radical approaches matched the fashions in Soviet history, where Professor Pokrovsky (‘the professor with a pike’) ousted conventional historians from their posts by insisting that only classes, not nations, had history; likewise in biology genetics was declared bourgeois, and Lamarckian principles of acquired inheritance justified trying to grow wheat in the Arctic. Marr’s pretensions had no limits: his last publication would be ‘On the domestication of the dog’. Worse, he acquired fanatical acolytes, Valerian Aptekar and Sergei Bykovsky, to denounce linguists who dared to sneer. Many lost their jobs: the brilliant orientalist Evgeni Polivanov who denounced Marr in 1929 found himself banned from publishing or teaching: he was eventually shot in 1938 as a ‘Trotskyist’; Russia’s greatest Slavonic specialist, Afanasi Selishchev, after refuting Marr in 1932, received a five-year prison sentence and survived (as did others) only because Stalin realised in 1939 that the USSR could not function without linguists to monitor material written in the languages of neighbouring states.

In Georgia, Marr was less welcome. One leading scholar, Arnold Chikobava, persisted in deprecating Marr, but survived, because Lavrenti Beria protected competent scholars (unless he had reason to hate them or to fancy their wives, daughters or mistresses) from persecution. Marr failed to get Beria’s support for another Institute in Tbilisi and, summoned to a party meeting in 1933, hastily fled to Moscow, where he suffered a stroke from which he never recovered.

Students were fascinated, even infatuated with Marr. Olga Freidenberg, Pasternak’s cousin and eventually a leading scholar of classical Greek, recorded:


Marr comes into the room, in the middle of a conversation, his eyes alive, full of blazing life… We sit and have a fine conversation, interrupting one another. My life is lit up! […] I walk away into a new life with my heart in my hands… His mental generosity was amazing, I was bewitched by his frankness and communication of all he has experienced. Marr was made of glass, he was a model of lofty openness…

[after Marr’s stroke] His eyes became guilty: undoubtedly, he had been through a shattering drama… He was mentally thawing, in anguish at the ghosts which tormented him, when the whole country honoured him and was preparing for his jubilee.


Freidenberg was Marrist enough even in 1949 to join in persecuting the great theoretician Viktor Zhirmunsky ‘for ‘aggressively fighting with Marr while taking a salary from his institute.’ Yet privately she herself turned on Marr;


The more influential he became, the more violently he forced his doctrine and politics on others… I wanted to throw off his name, which weighed on my scholarly individuality; I was fed up with enduring persecution for the defects in his theory and having my scholarly achievements credited to his name.


            Soon after Marr’s death, despite the enforcement of Marrism in major universities, Soviet ideology began backsliding. First, Stalin stopped Latinisation and made newly literate languages adopt a Cyrillic alphabet; then Stalin restored conventional national history, in which kings, queens and Christian empires became stepping stones to socialism in one country. Marr’s most prestigious follower, Meshchaninov, a man known only for ‘ambition and vodka-drinking’, lacked the authority of the ‘magician of ethnological enquiry’. Marr’s greatest enemy, Antoine Meillet, was published in Russian in 1938. The Great Terror killed off both conventional linguists and fanatical Marrists: Bykovsky was shot in 1936, and Aptekar in 1937.

            Georgia had made Marr and would unmake him. Around 1942 Arnold Chikobava composed an apparently innocuous pamphlet on ‘The Ancient Structure of Noun Roots in the Kartvelian Languages’, demolishing Marr’s work on the subject: Chikobava handed it to the first secretary of the Georgian Party, the literate and humane Kandid Charkviani; Charkviani passed the pamphlet on to Lavrenti Beria in Moscow, and it ended up in Stalin’s library. Stalin (who had once promised ‘to carve out 45 minutes’ for an interview with Marr) had read a five-volume selection of Marr’s theoretical works published in 1935: his blue pencil had approvingly marked many passages (for instance, one claiming Russian culture stemmed from the North-West Caucasus). Perhaps Stalin forgot Marrism until Charkviani came to Moscow in December 1949 and offered Stalin a critique, compiled with Chikobava’s help, on Marrism and the stultification of Transcaucasian linguistics. Stalin was still denouncing ‘slavish’ kow-towing to western science: nobody expected him to approve an overthrow of Niko Marr. Yet in April 1950 Chikobava, now editing an 8-volume dictionary of the Georgian language under Stalin’s patronage, was summoned to Moscow, not knowing whether to expect arrest or promotion. He had supper at Stalin’s villa with Beria and Charkviani. Then Stalin told him to stay in Moscow to compose an essay on Marr’s failings. Stalin was stirred by the paper Charkviani had presented him: Marr’s theories, it explained, ranked languages in an order of refinement that put English at the top, Russian below and implied that Georgian was fossilized. Marr also appeared to advocate that Russian should adopt the Latin alphabet, and to contradict Stalin’s new views on nations as peoples united by a common language. Worst, Marr’s four-syllable theory had led to a Turkish imitation, güneş dil, arguing that all human language came from Old Turkish for the sun, . That Turks could claim priority over Russians was unthinkable.

            After a month, Chikobava’s essay was worked up, together with a book on linguistics published in Tartu in 1912, into a work that obliged the Communist bloc to acknowledge Stalin as a genius in linguistics: Marxism and Questions of Linguistics. This inspired the GULag prisoner Yuz Aleshkovsky’s quatrain:


Comrade Stalin, you’re a major scholar,

As for linguistics, you know every trend.

But I’m a simple Soviet convict,

And the grey wolf is my only friend.


In 1951 Marr had a second funeral: two magnificent volumes of essays in linguistics by former Marrists and victims of Marrism, Against Vulgarization and Distortion of Marxism in Linguistics. The book was edited with relish by V. V. Vinogradov, recently expelled from the Academy of Sciences ‘for ignorance of Marr’. Unusually, Stalin had restored a branch of scholarship to the international fold. Some Party members resisted this move: they sent one prominent Marrist, Serdiuchenko, out of harm’s way to China, where he tried in vain to persuade Mao Ze-Dong to adopt the Latin alphabet for China.

            Marrism did not altogether die. The brotherhood of Caucasian languages and Basque remained official doctrine, giving the KGB an excuse, after General Franco’s death, to send agents to San Sebastian to learn Basque. Soviet linguists devised a ‘Nostratic’ theory that proposed the relationship of seven major families, including Kartvelian and Dravidian. Its proponent Ilich-Svitych died in a plane crash before the Nostratic doctrine could monopolize Soviet scholarship. In the late 1960s, Noam Chomsky, whose somewhat Marrist theories of deep structure imply that all languages are related by a wiring system in the human brain, suddenly achieved recognition in the USSR when he began campaigning against the Vietnam War.

            In 1985 in Georgia lingering yearning for Marr emerged at a conference, as elderly former pupils and adversaries, including the dying Chikobava, marked the 120th anniversary of Marr’s birth. They had more reason for nostalgia than their Russian colleagues: when writing in Georgian, Marr restricted himself to acceptable themes and ideas of textology, of ethnogenesis and linguistic influence. But this was an ephemeral tribute: Marr’s interest in Armenian and his rejection of Georgian nationalism remained unforgivable.

            Yet we cannot entirely dismiss Marr as a charlatan and tyrant. He never tested his hypotheses or even gathered usable material for others to test them, but a few of his assertions bear investigation:


(1) He was one of the first to insist that languages coalesce, as much as they ‘derive’, that constructing family trees is to over-simplify a process by which one language absorbs another;

(2) Research into animal cries does suggest that language might evolve from a limited range of syllables indicating, for instance, danger and its direction.


Marr was many things: savant, genius, fraud, opportunist. His work, Patrick Sériot concluded, is to linguistics what alchemy is to chemistry. And his writings are often so impenetrable that he seems to be a Moses in need of an Aaron: Sériot also complained, ‘Nobody emerges unscathed from a thorough reading of Marr.’

Donald Rayfield          16 March 2015

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