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Yuri (also Juri, Jurij) Lotman (1922-1993)


Russian-Estonian semiotician, aesthetician, and culture historian, founder of the Moscow-Tartu School in the 1960s. Yuri Lotman's early studies on literature drew largely on the tradition of formalist structuralism. Later Lotman expanded his structural-semiotic approach to the study of different culture systems.

"A text and its readership are in a relationship of mutual activation: a text strives to make its readers conform to itself, to force on them its own system of codes, and the readers respond in the same way. The text as it were contains an image of its 'own' ideal readership, and the readership one of it 'own' tetx." (from Universe of the Mind: A Semiotic Theory of Culture by Yuri M. Lotman, translated by Ann Shukman, 1990, p. 63)

Yuri Mikhailovich Lotman was born in Petrograd. His mother, Aleksandra, was a dentist. Mikhail Lotman, his father, was a lawyer, who worked at the Leningradskaja Pravda, formerly the Petrogradskaya Pravda, a daily newspaper, which had been founded in 1918 by the Communist Party. He died during the siege of Leningrad in 1942. Lotman wrote in Universe of the Mind, that the "history of the city is inseparable from its mythology." (Ibid., p. 195) However, Lotman did not have in mind the Soviet era mythology, but to the nineteenth-century literature, that had contributed to the creation of Petersburg's fame. Characterized as a "new Rome", its name had been St. Petersburg until it was renamed Petrograd in August 1914, and then changed in 1924 Leningrad after the death of V.I. Lenin. Solomon Volkov said in his history of the city that in the post-WWII St. Petersburg the main feeling was hopelessness. "The self-awareness and self-esteem of the city on the Neva seemed past all hope of renaissance." (St. Petersburg: A Cultural History by Solomon Volkov, Free Press Paperbacks, 1997, p. 465)

Following his graduation in 1939 from the former Peterschule, Lotman entered the Leningrad State University, where he studied philology. His teachers included some of the great names of the Russian formalists – Boris Eichenbaum, Vladimir Propp, Boris Tomashevskii, and Viktor Zhirmunskii. Also the work of Mikhail Bakhtin inspired Lotman, and they both shared the view that in the literary text, conflicting structures have a dialogic relationship. During World War II, Lotman served in the artillery, resuming his studies in 1946 at the university as a decorated soldier. As most veterans, he was a member of the Communist Party. His first article, which dealt with the early Decembrist movement, was published in 1949.

In the late 1940s, the Soviet press launched a campaign against "cosmopolitanism", largely targeted at the Jews. Lotman, who was of Jewish origin and was not able to find employment as a researcher, moved in 1950 to Estonia, perhaps the most European Soviet state. "Dressed in a slightly taken-in black suit of my father's, which was my only "holiday" suit, I went to Tartu, and I stayed there for the rest of my life." (Non-Memoirs by Yuri Lotman, Dalkey Archive Press, 2014, p. 65) Tartu hosted the first Soviet Jazz festival in 1964 and "politically incorrect" art flourished under the relatively tolerant regime. Most of  northern Estonia was reached by Finnish television programs.

Lotman worked first as a teacher of Russian language and literature at Tartu Teacher Training College, and in 1954 he became a docent at the University of Tartu – his Jewishness was not an obstacle as it was in Leningrad. In 1951 he married Zara Grigorievna Mints (1927-1990), a teacher and literary historian, who wrote several works on Russian Symbolism.

Lotman's dissertation on Russian literature in the pre-Decembrist period was published in 1960. In 1963 he was appointed professor at the Department of Russian Literature. A year later Lotman launced the series Trudy po znakovym sistemam (Studies in Sign Systems), published by the University of Tartu, but closely associated with the Institute of Slavonic Studies in Moscow – Lotman corresponded with structuralist scholars in Moscow. He also edited the series Trudy po russkoi i slavyanskim literaturam. At first his works were published only by his own university.

During the reign of Stalin, Formalism was opposed to Socialist realism; it was a heresy which could lead to the deportation to Siberia. In 1962, following a revival of structuralist study of literature, the Institute of Slavonic Studies of the Academy of Sciences in Moscow published the report on a Symposium of the Structural Study of Sign Systems. In Tartu the first summer school of semiotics was organized in Kääriku in 1964. Its papers were published in Sémeiotiké; the word was originally coined by John Locke, meaning "the doctrine of sign". The first volume of the journal included Lotman's lectures on the structural poetics. Between 1965 and 1975, the journal was a bi-annual edition, over 500 pages is size. Over 20 contributor participated in each volume.

In spite of accusations of "Formalism", summer seminars continued and started to attract international fame. However, in the Soviet Union the work of the Tartu-Moscow received only half-hearted recognition on the part of the official Soviet academic world. Basically the Tartu School of Semiotics offered a non-Marxist scientific worldview which posed a threat to the ideological monopoly of Soviet Marxism. It was not until 1986, when Lotman was allowed to travel to the West.

One of the most controversial papers Lotman published in the 1980s in Sémeiotiké was 'New Methods of the Statistical Analysis of the Narrative-Quantitative Material in Ancient History' by Mikhail M. Postnikov and Anatoly T. Fomenko. Both were distinguished mathematicians. They claimed in their conspiracy theory that the historical record of humanity before the fifteenth century is totally distorted and invented by the early modern scholars and the Jesuits. Lotman thought it was nonsense, but decided "we will publish it nonetheless." (The Soviet Empire of Signs: A History of the Tartu School of Semiotics by Maxim Waldstein, 2008, pp. 70-71) The paper was the first publication of what became Fomenko's The New Chronology.

A highly prolific writer, Lotman became the leading theoretician of the Tartu-Moscow Semiotic School, first known especially on the Continent and then in America. Despite its fame, the Tartu-Moscow school was largely isolated from European academia: "they were aware of Claude Levi-Strauss and Roland Barthes . . . The name of Derrida became familiar to some of them only during perestroika . . . They lived and worked as if no one else is in the world." (Lotman's Cultural Semiotics and the Political by Andrey Makarychev and Alexandra Yatsyk, 2017,  p. xxvii) It has been said, that reading Lotman's writings was common among those who sought to identify with the liberal minded. As a result of this reputaion, the KGB searched in 1970 his home for "forbidden literature". Lotman had a copy of Doctor Zhivago and some Brodsky's poems, but during the search he put them in his briefcase and "went to work."  (Non-Memoirs by Yuri Lotman, Dalkey Archive Press, 2014, p. 74) Occasionally western visitors in Tartu or Tallinn smuggled semiotic texts out of the country to be published abroad. One of the most famous guests in Tartu was the Russian-born linguistic theorist and Slavic scholar Roman Jakobson, who participated in the summer school of 1966.

Lotman's article, 'Metodi esatt i nella scienza lett eraria sovietica' (1967, Exact Methods in Russian Literary Science), written for the Italian journal Strumenti critici, attracted wide attention. The Brown University Press published in 1968 Lotman's Lektsii po struktural'noj poetike (Lectures on Structuralist Poetics) and in 1976 appeared the English translation of Analiz poeticheskogo teksta (Analysis of the Poetic Text). Although Lohman's writings covered a wide range of subjects, from cinema to poetics, card games to animated cartoons, and mythology to the history of culture, his major interest was in literature. Lotman published studies on such Russian writers as Aleksandr Pushkin, Nikolai Karamzin, Aleksandr Radishchev, Pyotr Vyazemsky, etc. He hold in high regard Mikhail Bulgakov's Master and Margarita. The author's third wife Elena Sergeevna Bulgakova was a close friend of the Lohmans. Estonian literature remained for Lotman a secondary interest. Writers such as A.H. Tammsaare or Jan Kross are not mentioned in his book of memories and recollections, Ne-memuary (1995, Non-Memoirs).

Much of Lotman's early studies in structural semiotics were based on Saussurean notion of the sign, with emphasis on the dynamic interactions which shape cultural sign systems. Lotman rejected Saussure's principle of arbitrariness in the connection between signified to signifier, stating that the "sign is the model of its content." In Semiotika kino i problemy kinoestetiki (1973, Semiotics of Cinema) Lotman made a distinction between two independent and equally important types of signs, which largely correspond visual arts and literature – pictorial or iconic signs and conventional signs, such as words. In general, Lotman paid little attention to music, perhaps the most problematic semiotic system, and music is also excluded from this analysis on the film. In a talk delivered in January 1968 at a conferenc in honor of Sergei Eisenstein's 70th  anniversary, Lotman criticized the director for adjusting himself to the government's distortation of historical facts. According Lotman's friend, the linguist Boris Uspensky, he once compared Eisenstein the artist to a prostitute. ('Semiosphere and history: Toward the origins of the semiotic approach to history' by Mikhail Trunin, Sign Systems Studies, Volume 45, Issue 3/4, 2017, p. 342)

One of Lotman's central arguments was that the text is a meaning-generating mechanism: "Nowadays Hamlet is not just a play by Shakespeare, but it is also the memory of all its interpretations, and what is more, it is also the memory of all those historical events which occurred outside the text but with which Shakespeare's text can evoke associations." (Universe of the Mind , p. 18) Natural languages are according to Lotman primary modelling systems. The language of art, cultural rules, religion etc. are secondary modelling systems, or more complex languages built upon natural language. Superficially the construction has similarities with the marxist sociological model of base and superstructure, transferred to study of semiotic structures.

In his last major work in cultural semiotics, Universe of the Mind, Lotman introduced the all-embracing term semiosphere, which he defines as "the semiotic space necessary for the existence and functioning of languages". (Ibid., p. 123) Lotman sees the term analogous to Vernadsky's biosphere, "the totality of all organisms present on the earth at any time." ('The Biosphere and the Noösphere' by W.I. Vernadsky, American Scientist, Vol. 33, No. 1, January 1945) Many of the ideas in the section 'Historical laws and the structure of the text' were discussed with Boris Uspensky.

The whole semiosphere is a complex self-regulating system, "the result and the condition for the development of culture." (Universe of the Mind, p. 125) Outside it, the space of culture, there is no communication or language. In Tartu semiotics the emphasis was on culture and "thinking structures" with only a loose connection to biology. Lotman did not deal with biosemiotics, but it is known, that he collected insects in his childhood and toyed with the idea of becoming a biologist, before he decided to study philology. In an interview in 1990 he said: "We can describe quite well the behavior of higher animals, a semiotican will be interested in it as a form of communication. For more complicated, I guess, would be the description of insect behavior." (Towars biosemiotics with Yuri Lotman by Kalevi Kull, Semiotica 127(1-4), January 1999, p. 119) 

In 1969 Lotman was elected one of the four Vice-Presidents of The International Association for Semiotic Studies, and his articles were published in Semiotica, the official journal of the association. Lotman was a member of several prestigious scientific organizations and professional societies, among them the Social Sciences Council of the UNESCO. He was a honorary member of the American Society of Semiotics and in 1979 Lotman was made honorary member of the Semiotic Society of Finland. A selection of Lotman's writings, covering the period of 1973 to 1985, was published by the friendship society Suomi Neuvostoliitto Seura (Finland Soviet Union Society) under the title Merkkien maailma (1989). Lotman also lectured in 1987 at the University of Helsinki. In 1990 he was appointed member of the Estonian Academy of Sciences.

The last years of Lotman's life coinced with the fall of Communism and the triumph of liberalism, or the "end of history", as Francis Fukuyama famously put it. Maxim Waldstein suggested in The Soviet Empire of Signs (2008) that the Tartu School had an imperial agenda concealed under the concept of semiosphre: the create an empire of signs by claiming "expertise  over almost any field of knowledge on the basis of the assumption that semiotic mechanisms take place everywhere". According toWaldstein, Lotman's real models were the "Holy Roman Empire, Austria-Hungary, the British Empire". (The Mystifications of a Nation: "The Potato Bug" and Other Essays on Czech Culture by Vladimír Macura, 2010, p. xi) Vladimir E. Alexandrov has argued that Lotman's attempt to seek grounding for his new type of semiotics in evolutionary biology is undermined by fundamental difference between the two systems, and this leads to a confusion of biological and semiotic principles. "In biology, the organizatorial rules for more complex structures differ unpredictably from those that operate on simpler levels, while in semiotic systems the same rules work on all levels." ('Biology, Semiosis, and Cultural Difference in Lotman's Semiosphere' by Vladimir E. Alexandrov, in Comparative Literature, Vol. 52, No. 4, Fall 2000, p. 347)

In his old age, with his uncommon mustache, Lotman had a resemblance of Einstein. Exercising his undeniable talent as a painter, he made numerous self-portraits. Between 1992 and 1993 Lotman dictated his memoirs to his assistant Jelena Pogosjan – he had made the promise to his wife that some day he would write the story of his life. Yuri Lotman died of embolus in Tartu on October 28, 1993. His son Mihhail Lotman, professor at the Estonian Institute for Humanities, became also a semiotician. The Lotman-Institute for Russian and Soviet Culture at the Ruhr-University of Bochum was established in 1989. Lotman's grave was vandalized in 2011; its bronze cross was stolen.

For further reading: Iuriĭ Lotman: o smysle, tekste, istorii: temy i variatsii = Yuri Lotman: on meaning, text, history: themes and variations by Suren Zolian (2020); Lotman's Cultural Semiotics and the Political by Andrey Makarychev and Alexandra Yatsyk (2017); The Texture of Culture: An Introduction to Yuri Lotman's Semiotic Theory by Aleksei Semenenko (2012); The Soviet Empire of Signs: A History of the Tartu School of Semiotics by Maxim Waldstein (2008); Conversations With Lotman: Cultural Semiotics in Language, Literature, and Cognition by Edna Andrews, Iu. M. Lotman (2003); 'Lotman, Iurii Mikhailovich' by James Scanlan, in Biographical Dictionary of Twentieth-Century Philosophers, ed. by Stuart Brown, Diané Collison and Robert Wilkinson (1996); Iu. M. Lotman: Tartusko-moskovskaia semioticheskaia shkola, ed. by A.D. Koshlev (1994); Literature as Communication and Cognition in Bakhtin and Lotman by Allan Reid (1990); Semiotics and the History of Culture in Honor of Jurij Lotman, ed. by Morris Halle et al. (1988); Semiotics of Russian Cultural History: Essays by Iurii M. Lotman, Lidiia Ia. Ginsburg, Boris A. Uspenskii by Alexander D. Nakhimovsky, Alice Stone Nakhimovsky (1985); Theories of Literature in the Twentieth Century, ed. by D.W. Fokkeman, Elrud Kunne-Ibsch (1978); Literature and Semiotics: A Study of the Writings of Yu. M. Lotman by Ann Shukman (1977); Semiotics and Structuralism: Readings from the Soviet Union, ed. by Henryk Baran (1974) 

Selected works:

  • Lektsii po struktural'noi poetike: vvdenie, teoriia stikha, 1964 (introd. by Thomas G. Winner, 1968)
  • Struktura khudozhestvennogo teksta, 1970
    - The Structure of the Artistic Text (translated by Ronald Vroon, 1977)
  • Predavanja iz strukturalne poetike; uvod. teorija stiha, 1970
  • Analiz poeticheskogo teksta, 1972
    - Analysis of the Poetic Text (translated by D. Barton Johnson, 1976)
  • Semiotika kino i problemy kinoestetiki, 1973
    - Semiotics of Cinema (translated by Mark E. Suino)
  • Aufsätze zur Theorie und Methodologie der Literatur und Kultur, 1974 (edited by Karl Eimermacher; translated by Karl Eimermacher, et al.)
  • Roman A.S. Pushkina "Evgenii Onegin": Kommentarii: Posobie dlia uchitelia, 1980
  • The Semiotics of Russian Culture, 1984 (with B.A. Uspenski; edited by Ann Shukman)
  • Struktura dialoga kak princip raboty semioticeskogo mechanizma, 1984 (in Trudy po znakovym sistemam, vol. 17)
  • O semiosfere, 1984 (in Struktura dialoga kak princip raboty semioticeskogo mechanizma, Trudy po znakovym sistemam, vol. 17)
    - On the Semiosphere (translated by Wilma Clark, in Sign System Studies, 2005)
  • Sotvorenie Karamzina, 1987
  • V shkole poėticheskogo slova: Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogolʹ, 1988
  • Universe of the Mind: A Semiotic Theory of Culture, 1990 (translated by Ann Shukman, introduction by Umberto Eco)
  • Kultuurisemiootika: tekst, kirjandus, kultuur, 1990
  • Kuljtura i vzryv, 1992
    - Culture and Explosion (edited by Marina Grishakova; translated by Wilma Clark, 2009)
  • Izbrannye statʹi: v trekh tomakh, 1992-1993 (3 vols.) 
  • Dialog s èkranom, 1994 (with Yuri Tsivian)
  • Besedy o russkoi kulʹture: byt i traditsii russkogo dvorianstva XVIII-nachalo XIX veka, 1994
  • Pushkin, 1995 (ed. by B.F. Egorov)
  • Ne-memuary, 1995
    - Non-Memoirs (translated and annotated by Caroline Lemak Brickman; edited by Evgenii Bershtein; afterword by Caroline Lemak Brickman and Evgenii Bershtein, 2014)
  • O poetakh i poezi, 1996
  • Vnutri mysliashchikh mirov: chelovek, tekst, semiosfera, istoriia, 1996
  • Velikosvetskie obedy, 1996 (with E.A. Pogosian)
  • O russkoi literature: statʹi i issledovaniia (1958-1993), istoriia russkoi prozy, teoriia literatury, 1997
  • Pisʹma, 1940-1993, 1997 (edited by B.F. Egorov)
  • Russkaia literatura i kulʹtura Prosveshcheniia, 1998 (ed. by L.O. Zaionts, et al.)
  • Semiosfera, 2000
  • Istoria i tipologiia russkoi kulʹtury, 2002
  • Za tekstom: Zametki o filosofskom fone tartuskoi semiotiki (Stat'ja pervaja), 2002 (in Lotmamovskii sbornik, by E. Permiakov, M. L. Gasparov, IU. M. Lotman)
  • Statʹi po semiotike kulʹtury i iskusstva, 2002
  • Perepiska, 1964-1993 / Yuri Lotman, Boris Uspenskii, 2008 (ed. by O. Kel'bert, et al.)
  • Chemu uchatsia liudi: statʹi i zametki, 2009
  • Nepredskazuemye mekhanizmy kulʹtury, 2010 (ed. by T.D. Kuzovkina and O.I. Utgof)
  • Dialog s ėkranom, 2014 (with Yuri Tsivian)
  • Non-Memoirs, 2014 (translated and annotated by Caroline Lemak Brickman; edited by Evgenii Bershtein; afterword by Caroline Lemak Brickman and Evgenii Bershtein)
  • IU. M. - B. A. Uspenskiĭ: Perepiska. 1964-1993, 2016 (sostavlenie, podgotovka teksta i kommentarii O. IA Kelʹbert i M.V. Trunina; obshcheĭ redaktsieĭ B.A. Uspenskogo)
  • O strukturalizme: raboty 1965-1970 godov, 2018
  • Culture and Communication: Signs in Flux: an Anthology of Major and Lesser-known Works, 2020 (edited by Andreas Schönle; translated from the Russian by Benjamin Paloff)

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