Skip to content

Nicolai Aleksandrovich Nevsky


Nikolai Aleksandrovich Nevsky and his wife Iso (Isoko) Yorozuya-Nevskaya (1901-1937), and their daughter Yelena. Photograph taken in Japan, c. 1929.
Photo: rf. Ten no Hebi, The Life of Nicolai Nevsky, Kyuzo Kato, Kawade Shobō Shinsha Ltd.,

A Russian scholar of Japan and the Orient (1892-1937). In particular, on the recognition that the ancient language and customs of Japan had survived in its margins, he studied and reported valuable findings to the academic world upon the Oshirasama religion of Tōhoku or the Ainu language in the north, as well as the language, culture, and traditional songs of Miyako in Okinawa in the south.

Nevsky was born in Yaroslav in central Muscovy, the matrix of Imperial Russia. His mother died before his first birthday, and his father when he was four. His maternal grandfather took him in, and his aunt brought him up. After graduating from the gymnasium, by the advice of his aunt, Nevsky entered the St. Petersburg Institute of Technology, which he left the second summer. Then he went to the Department of Oriental Language of St. Petersburg State University and studied the Chinese and Japanese languages, graduating in 1914. In July 1915, he received a governmental scholarship, dispatched by St. Petersburg University to study in Japan for two years, where he began a solitary study of Japanese ancient cultures. There he met Nakayama Taro, who introduced him to Yanagita Kunio, Orikuchi Shinobu, Kindaichi Kyosuke, Yamanaka Kyoko, and Sasaki Kizen. 

The Russian Revolution broke out in 1917, just before his two years were up, discontinuing his stipend. He took up a position in a private trading company temporarily and then became a Russian language instructor at Otaru Commercial High School in 1919, allowing him some financial stability. It was around this time that he learned the Miyako dialect from Kamiunten Kempu (later Inamura Kempu), a student of Tokyo Higher Normal School, while learning the Ainu language from Kindaichi Kyosuke. In April 1922, he moved to the Osaka School of Foreign Languages; in the summer, he made a first research trip to Miyako with Inamura as his guide. He was introduced to such scholars as Tomimori Kantaku, Karimata Kichizo, Motomura Keiko, and Kuninaka Kanto, as he collected languages, old customs, songs, and so on. The same year, he married Yorozuya Iso. He returned to Miyako for further research in 1926 and 1928 with the aid of Kiyomura Konin and others. 

There are many more stories left about him. For example, on his first trip to Miyako, he surprised the people on board, not to speak his fluent Japanese, but by greeting them in the Miyako dialect as well, or making polite addresses to passersby in Miyako. In Irabu, he asked a woman to sing “Isunmī nu akouki1,” taking notes as she sang. “He wrote down the words in shorthand and read them back aloud, asking if they were pronounced correctly. Every single word was exactly correct, to the surprise of the audience,” wrote Kuninaka Kanto in his diary. 

Nevsky published the results of his research on Miyako in an academic journal Minzoku. They include “Ayago (Ayagu) Kenkyū no Nihen2,” “Ayago no Kenkyū3,” “Bijin no Umarenu Wake4,” “Miyakojima Kodomo Yūgi Shiryou5,” etc. His “Tsuki to Fushi6” is especially famous for its influence on Orikuchi Shinobu’s Wakamizu no Hanashi

In September 1929, he returned to Russia alone where he taught Japanese at Leningrad University and The School of Oriental Languages. He published numerous books and articles on the Tangut language, the folklore of Ainu, the language of the Tsou people, and so on. Upon Okinawa, he published “Ten no Hebi to Shiteno Niji no Kannen7” and more.

In October 1937, eight years after his return to Russia and four years after his family joined him from Japan, Nevsky was arrested by the KGB during the Great Purge with Iso. They were executed in November. The reason is yet to be disclosed. In 1962, he was awarded the Lenin Prize and his honor was more or less restored. 

For more details about Nevsky’s biography, Ten no Hebi by Kato Kyuzo is recommended. There is also a Japanese translation by Karimata Shigehisa et al. of Nevsky’s Miyako no Fōkuroa8, which gives detailed information on his research in Miyako.

Editor’s Note:

  1. A sea fig tree in Ishimine
  2. Two pieces of research on Ayago
  3. Researches on Ayago
  4. Why No Beautiful Women Are Born
  5. Materials on the Children’s Plays of Miyako Island
  6. Moon and Eternal Life
  7. The Notion of the Rainbow As Heavenly Snake
  8. The Folklore of the Miyako Islands, Фольклор островов Мияко