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Juri Lotman

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Subject: Semiotics, Tartu, Sign Systems Studies, Semiosphere, Vyacheslav Vsevolodovich Ivanov, Elena Kostioukovitch
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Juri Lotman

Yuri Mikhailovich Lotman (Russian: Ю́рий Миха́йлович Ло́тман, Estonian: Juri Lotman) (28 February 1922 – 28 October 1993) was a prominent literary scholar, semiotician, and cultural historian, who worked at the University of Tartu. Member of the Estonian Academy of Sciences. He was the founder of the Tartu-Moscow Semiotic School and is considered to be the first Soviet structuralist because of his early essay On the Delimitation of Linguistic and Philological Concepts of Structure (1963) and works on structural poetics. The number of his printed works exceeds 800 titles; and his archive (which is now kept at the University of Tallinn and at the Tartu University Library) which includes his correspondence with a number of Russian intellectuals, is immense.


Yuri Lotman was born in the Jewish intellectual family of lawyer Mikhail Lotman and Sorbonne-educated dentist Aleksandra Lotman in Petrograd, Russia. His older sister Inna Obraztsova graduated Leningrad Conservatory and became a composer and lecturer of musical theory, his younger sister Victoria Lotman was a prominent cardiologist, and his third sister Lidia Lotman was a scholar of Russian literature of the second half of 19th century on staff at the Institute for Russian Literature of the Russian Academy of Science (Pushkin House) (she lived in Saint-Petersburg).

Lotman graduated from secondary school in 1939 with excellent marks and was admitted to Leningrad State University without having to pass any exams. There he studied philology, which was a choice he made due to Lidia Lotman's university friends (actually he attended university lectures in philology whilst he was still at secondary school). His professors at university were the renowned lecturers and academicians – Gukovsky, Azadovsky, Tomashevsky and Propp. He was drafted in 1940 and during World War II served as a radio operator in the artillery. Demobilized from the army in 1946, he returned to his studies in the university and received his diploma with distinction in 1950. His first published research papers focused on Russian literary and social thought of the 18th and 19th century.

Unable to find an academic position in Leningrad due to anti-Semitism (he was unable to apply for a PhD program), Lotman went to Estonia in 1950 and from 1954 began his work as a lecturer at the Department of Russian language and literature of Tartu University and later became head of the department. In Tartu he set up his own school known as the Tartu-Moscow Semiotic School. Among the other members of this school were such names as Boris Uspensky, Vyacheslav Vsevolodovich Ivanov, Vladimir Toporov, Mikhail Gasparov, Alexander Piatigorsky, Isaak I. Revzin, Georgii Lesskis, Igor Grigorievitch Savostin and others. As a result of their collective work, they established a theoretical framework around the semiotics of culture.

This school is widely known for its journal Sign Systems Studies, published by Tartu University Press (formerly in Russian as "Труды по знаковым системам") and currently the oldest semiotics journal in the world (established in 1964). Lotman studied the theory of culture, Russian literature, history, semiotics and semiology (general theories of signs and sign systems), semiotics of cinema, arts, literature, robotics, etc. In these fields, Lotman has been one of the most widely cited authors. His major study in Russian literature was dedicated to Pushkin; among his most influential works in semiotics and structuralism are «Semiotics of Cinema», «Analysis of the Poetic Text» and «The Structure of the Artistic Text». In 1984, Lotman coined the term semiosphere.

Yuri Lotman's wife Zara Mints was also a well-known scholar of Russian literature and Tartu professor. They have three sons:

  • Mihhail Lotman (born 1952) is professor of semiotics and literary theory at Tallinn University, is active in politics and has served as a member of the Estonian Parliament (conservative Res Publica party).
  • Grigori Lotman (born 1953) is an artist.
  • Aleksei Lotman (born 1960) is a biologist, since 2006 he has also been a politician and a member of parliament for the Estonian Greens party (2007-2011).


  • 1975. Lotman Jurij M.; Uspenskij B.A.; Ivanov, V.V.; Toporov, V.N. and Pjatigorskij, A.M. 1975. "Theses on the Semiotic Study of Cultures (as Applied to Slavic Texts)". In: Sebeok Thomas A. (ed.), The Tell-Tale Sign: A Survey of Semiotics. Lisse (Netherlands): Peter de Ridder, 57–84. ISBN 978-90-316-0030-4
  • 1976. Analysis of the Poetic Text. (Translated by D. Barton Johnson.) Ann Arbor (Mich.): Ardis. ISBN 978-0-88233-106-5
  • 1976. Semiotics of Cinema. (Transl. by Mark Suino.) (Michigan Slavic Contributions.) Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, ISBN 978-0-930042-13-4
  • 1977. The Structure of the Artistic Text. Translated from the Russian by Gail Lenhoff and Ronald Vroon. (Michigan Slavic Contributions 7.) Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures. ISBN 978-0-930042-15-8
  • 1979. "The origin of plot in the light of typology". Poetics Today 1(1–2), 161–184.
  • 1990. Universe of the Mind: A Semiotic Theory of Culture. (Translated by Ann Shukman, introduction by Umberto Eco.) London & New York: I. B. Tauris & Co Ltd. xiii+288 p. ISBN 978-1-85043-375-0
  • 2005. Sign Systems Studies, 33(1): 205–229.
  • 2009. Culture and Explosion. (Semiotics, Communication and Cognition 1.) De Gruyter Mouton. ISBN 978-3-11-021845-9

Writings about him

  • Andrews, Edna 2003. Conversations with Lotman: Cultural Semiotics in Language, Literature, and Cognition. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
  • Kull, Kalevi 1999. Towards biosemiotics with Yuri Lotman. Semiotica 127(1/4): 115–131.
  • Kull, Kalevi 2011. Juri Lotman in English: Bibliography. Sign Systems Studies 39(2/4): 343–356.
  • Lepik, Peet 2008. Universals in the Context of Juri Lotman’s Semiotics. (Tartu Semiotics Library 7.) Tartu: Tartu University Press.
  • Mandelker, Amy 1994. Semiotizing the sphere: Organicist theory in Lotman, Bakhtin, and Vernadsky. Publications of the Modern Language Association 109(3): 385–396.
  • Shukman, Ann 1977. Literature and Semiotics: A Study of the Writings of Ju. M. Lotman. Amsterdam: North Holland.
  • Waldstein, Maxim 2008. The Soviet Empire of Signs: A History of the Tartu School of Semiotics. Saarbrücken: VDM Verlag Dr. Müller.

See also

External links

  • ELKOST Intl. literary agency - translation rights in all Lotman's writings
  • Bibliography of English translated works
  • Lotmaniana Tartuensia – biography, bibliography of works in Russian and Estonian (Russian), (Estonian)
  • University of Bochum
  • Intellectual Biography of Yuri Lotman at the Gallery of Russian Thinkers (International Society for Philosophers)
  • Lotman foundation and scholarship

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