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This article is taken from PN Review 224, Volume 41 Number 6, July - August 2015.

Commemorating Niko Marr Donald Rayfield
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 (an 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 ...


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