Valerian Borisovich Aptekar

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Valerian Borisovich Aptekar
Born 24 October 1899
Died 29 July 1937 (1937-07-30) (aged 37)
Nationality Russian
Occupation Historian, linguist

Valerian Borisovich Aptekar (Russian: Валериа́н Бори́сович Апте́карь, 24 October 1899 – 29 July 1937) was a Russian linguist, a propagandist of Nicholas Marr's New Theory of Language. In 1937 he was accused of anti-Soviet activity, arrested and shot.[1]


V.B. Aptekar was born in Warsaw in 1899, the son of a dentist.[2] He studied at the gymnasium in Zolotonosha between 1910 and 1918. In 1918 he was appointed a clerk at the local labor exchange, and became a trade union member.[3] He joined the communist party in 1918, and during the Russian Civil War was a political commissar.[2] After being wounded, he moved to Poltava, where he worked as an investigator in the Special Section. In 1919 he went to Moscow and entered the military engineering course for Red Army leaders, but he was soon recalled to work in the Political Department of the internal security forces. He studied External Relations in the Social Sciences department of Moscow State University between August 1922 and October 1925. While still a student, between October 1923 and October 1925 he taught at the Military Political School of the Moscow Military District.[3] In the 1920s he also worked as a propagandist for the Communist Academy and worked as a censor for the State Publishing House.[2]

In February 1926 he was appointed an Associate Professor at the Faculty of Education of the Moscow State University. He was Deputy Chairman of the language section of the Oriental Institute from 1928 to 1929, and was appointed Scientific Secretary of the material linguistics section in the Communist Academy.[3] V.B. Aptekar had no systematic training in archaeology, ethnology or linguistics, but as a devoted follower of Nicholas Marr he was sure that following "true" methodologies could compensate for that lack. He played an important role in destroying the old schools of archaeology and ethnology and introducing Marrist and Marxist theories into Soviet academia.[4] Aptekar was working at the State Academy of the History of Material Culture in April 1929 when he launched his most effective attack against ethnography.[5]

In 1932 Aptekar was expelled from the party for concealing his involvement with supporters of Gavril Myasnikov. He was arrested on 14 May 1937. On 29 June 1937 he was sentenced to death for participating in a counterrevolutionary terrorist organization, and he was shot the same day.[3] Aptekar was executed within a few weeks of Y.D. Polivanov, his main opponent in the debate over linguistics.[6] His ashes were buried in the Donskoy Monastery in Moscow. He was rehabilitated in 1958.[3]

According to the classical philologist Olga Freidenberg, who first met Aptekar in 1928, "Happily and self-confidently he admitted his lack of education. Guys like Aptekar, ignoramuses, would come from the villages and out of the way places, bone up on party slogans, Marxist schemes and newspaper phraseology and feel like rulers and dictators. With a clear conscience they would instruct scholars and were sincerely convinced that for the correct systematization of learning ('Methodology') knowledge itself was not necessary."[7]



Aptekar expressed his opinions forcibly in a debate on "Marxism and ethnology" on 7 May 1928 at the society of Marxist historians. He argued that ethnology was not scientific, that the concepts it dealt with were vague, and that by treating the development of mankind in terms of the evolution of cultural forms the ethnographers denied the more fundamental forces of production and class struggle. He described ethnology as a "bourgeois social science that is a parasite on the body of Marxist sociology and history." The subject could only be approached in terms of dialectical materialism.[8] He said, "If you look into the history of ethnology, you'll see that it was created by priests, missionaries, merchants, slave-owners and travellers who founded colonies."[9]

The ethnographer Sergei Aleksandrovich Tokarev disagreed, and said so publicly. Although he accepted the need for a more scientific approach, and for the subject to be treated from a Marxist-Leninist viewpoint, he defended the study of ethnology as dealing with realities that could not be ignored.[10] Aptekar returned to the attack in April 1929 in Leningrad, where he was opposed by the philosopher P. F. Preobrazhensky, winning the debate which concluded that ethnography should move to a Marxist basis, studying only socio-economic systems with focus on social and cultural development.[11] In this debate, Aptekar said that the "old" ethnographers were "ideological opponents of the new order."[5]


Aptekar was a believer in Marr's "Japhetic theory", which held that the Kartvelian languages[a] of the Caucasus area such as Georgian were related to the Semitic languages of the Middle East, in contrast to the school that held that these languages were Indo-European (for example, Arnold Chikobava). This grew into an ideological issue, with support for Japhetism being required for professional advancement. By 1928 Aptekar was a leading proponent of the theory.[2] As members of the "Methodological Bureau" of Marr's institute, Aptekar and S.N. Bykovskij organized a series of linguistic debates in which they angrily attacked leading traditional linguists, whom they accused of being bourgeois, as well as other opponents. One of these, the leading Soviet linguist Yevgeny Polivanov, described them as "language-less linguists."[13]

In 1929 there was a debate over moving to the Latin alphabet, for both Russian and the many other languages of the Soviet Union. Proponents considered that the Latin alphabet was simple, rational, international and easier to learn than the "Church-Slavonic" cyrillic script. Aptekar was among those violently opposed to the change, which failed to gain momentum.[14] In 1934, Aptekar spoke against "bourgeois linguistics", saying "At the present time there is nothing that can come from its prolonged and tortured agony. It has to die along with the bourgeois sociality that gave rise to it, clearing the way for the Marxist-Leninist theory of language that is being built in our country."[15]


  • Valerian Borisovich Aptekar, Sergei Bykovsky (1931). The current situation on the linguistic front, and the immediate tasks of the Marxists-linguists. State Academy of the History of Material Culture. p. 47. 
  • Nikolai Yakovlevich Marr, Valerian Borisovich Aptekar (1934). Language and Society. State Academy of the History of Material Culture. 
  • Valerian Borisovich Aptekar (1934). N.Y. Marr and the new doctrine of language. State Socioeconomic Publisher. p. 185. 
  • Nikolay Yakovlevich Marr, Valerian Borisovich Aptekar (1936). Collected articles. Power to the Soviets. p. 207. 



  1. ^ Kartvelian languages are very different from Semitic and Indo-European languages, although there is evidence of borrowing. If these languages share a common ancestor, it is far back in the past.[12]


  1. ^ Boškovi 2008, p. 28.
  2. ^ a b c d Smith 1998, p. 93.
  3. ^ a b c d e Vasilkov & Sorokin 2003.
  4. ^ Kohl & Fawcett 1996, p. 124.
  5. ^ a b Hirsch 2005, p. 210.
  6. ^ Suny & Kennedy 2001, p. 252.
  7. ^ Freidenberg 1997, p. 8.
  8. ^ Anchabadze 2010, p. 127.
  9. ^ Suny & Kennedy 2001, p. 249.
  10. ^ Anchabadze 2010, p. 128.
  11. ^ Anchabadze 2010, p. 129.
  12. ^ Anthony 2009, p. 97.
  13. ^ Van Helden 1993, p. 26.
  14. ^ Smith 1998, p. 110.
  15. ^ Alpatov 2011, p. 26.