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Lotman, Iurii Mikhailovich

(1922–1993), scholar of literature, culture, and semiotics. Iurii Mikhailovich Lotman founded the Tartu school of semiotics and was the author of numerous important works on the semiotics of culture, and the structure of poetic and literary texts.

Lotman was born in Petrograd to an educated family: his father was a lawyer, his mother a dentist. After graduating high school with a gold medal and thus skipping university entrance exams, he began studying at Leningrad University under such luminaries as Viktor Zhirmunskii, Boris Eikhenbaum, and Vladimir Propp. After one year, he was conscripted and served in the army from 1941 to 1945. He resumed his studies in 1946, graduating with a “free diploma” that exempted him from mandatory job assignment. However, postwar antisemitism prevented him from attending graduate school. Both his “candidate’s” and “doctoral” dissertations (the former equivalent to a Ph.D.) were written while he worked first at the Tartu Pedagogical Institute (1950–1954) and then at the University of Tartu, in Estonia.

Lotman moved to Tartu, the city he would be associated with for the rest of his life, in 1950, because a fellow student had found work there; in 1951, Lotman was joined by his wife, the literary scholar Zara Mints. He chaired the department of Russian Literature from 1960 to 1977, but lost his appointment because of antisemitism and vague associations of his work with political dissidence. Indeed, as early as 1970, the KGB conducted a search of Lotman’s apartment and hindered the publication of the scholarly journals he had initiated. The persecution reached its height in 1984, when the entire run of the 645th volume of Uchenye zapiski Tartuskogo universiteta: Problemy tipologii russkoi literatury (Transactions of Tartu State University: “Problems of Russian Literary Typology”) was destroyed.

It was paradoxically at this time that Lotman took a step closer to fulfilling his dream of creating an institute of semiotics. In 1983, he and Linnart Mäll, also under suspicion by the authorities, became directors of a laboratory on history and semiotics. This development marked the beginning of the institutionalization of semiotics at the University of Tartu, leading to the creation of the Department of Semiotics in 1992. Thus, in the last year of his life, Lotman also became professor of semiotics.

Lotman was also the founder, in 1964, of the world’s first periodical devoted to semiotics, Trudy po znakovym sistemam (Sign Systems Studies) and remained its editor until his death; he also edited the series Trudy po russkoi i slavianskoi filologii (Studies in Russian and Slavic Philology), created in 1958. His first semiotic monograph, Lektsii po struktural’noi poetike, vvedenie, teoriia stikha (Lectures on Structural Poetics), was published in 1964 as the opening issue of Sign Systems Studies. The book was based on a special course held in 1962 for scholars from various disciplines brought together by a common interest in the traditions of Russian formalism and the Prague Linguistic Circle as well as in cybernetics and structural methods.

In 1964, the first summer school in semiotics took place in Kääriku; this program became the foundation of the Tartu–Moscow School of Semiotics. Sign Systems Studies became the platform for this school. Summer schools were then held at Kääriku in 1966, 1968, and 1970, after which the political situation deteriorated. A winter school was held in 1974, and then only smaller seminars. The school’s interdisciplinary approach to the semiotic study of literature and culture was manifested in Theses on the Semiotic Study of Cultures (1973), edited by Lotman, that marked the birth of the semiotics of culture.

Lotman became internationally famous along with the Moscow–Tartu School. Since most of the school’s works were issued in Tartu in very small numbers, publication abroad both in Russian and in translation were important. The first of several Russian-language anthologies appeared in Germany in 1971 and in the United States in 1977; Lotman’s Lectures on Structural Poetics appeared in America in 1968. The majority of Lotman’s books have been translated into many languages. An important place is held by collections of translations that compiled the works of Lotman and Boris Uspenskii (The Semiotics of Russian Culture; 1984) and Lotman, Uspenskii, and Lidiia Ginsburg (The Semiotics of Russian Cultural History; 1985). Lotman’s monograph The Universe of the Mind: A Semiotic Theory of Culture appeared with a preface by Umberto Eco in 1990.

Suggested Reading

Edna Andrews, Conversations with Lotman: Cultural Semiotics in Language, Literature, and Cognition (Toronto, 2003); Pampa Olga Arán de Meriles and Silvia Barei, Texto/Memoria/Cultura: El pensamiento de Iuri Lotman (Córdoba, Argentina, 2002); M. Cáceres and L. Kiseliova, “Bibliografia, 1949–1998,” in Iuri M. Lotman, La semiosfera III. Semiótica de las artes y de la cultura, ed. D. Navarro (Madrid, 2000), pp. 215–300; Boris Fedorovich Egorov, Zhizn’ i tvorchestvo Iu. M. Lotmana (Moscow 1999).