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Yuri Lotman - biography

Yuri Mikhailovich Lotman (Russian: Ю́рий Миха́йлович Ло́тман, Estonian: Juri Lotman) (28 February 1922 in Petrograd, Russia – 28 October 1993 in Tartu, Estonia) – a prominent Estonian formalist critic, semiotician, and culturologist. Member of the Estonian Academy of Sciences. He was the founder of structural semiotics in culturology and is considered as the first Soviet structuralist by writing his book On the Delimitation of Linguistic and Philological Concepts of Structure (1963). The number of his printed works exceeds 800 titles and the archive of his letters, now kept in the scientific library of the University of Tartu, and which includes his correspondence with a number of Russian intellectuals, is immense.


Yuri Lotman was born into the Jewish intellectual family of lawyer Mikhail Lotman and Sorbonne-educated dentist Aleksandra Lotman. His older sister Ina Abraztcova 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 is a PhD specialist in Russian literature of the second half of 19th century and was a scientific collaborator at the Institute for Russian Literature of the Russian Academy of Science (Pushkinsky Dom) (currently she lives in Saint-Petersburg).

He 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 lectures in philology whilst he was still at secondary school). His professors at university were the renowned lecturers and academicians – Gaukovsky, Azadovsky, Orlov, Tolstoy, and in his first work Lotman wrote about Vladimir Propp. He was enlisted 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 in 1950 with excellent remarks. Yuri Lotman published his first research papers on Russian literary and social thought of the 18th and 19th century.

Unable to find an academic position in Russia 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, 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 academic. 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 and since 2006 he has also been a politician and a member of parliament for the Estonian Greens party.


  • 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.
  • 1976. Analysis of the Poetic Text. (Translated by D. Barton Johnson.) Ann Arbor (Mich.): Ardis
  • 1976. Semiotics of Cinema. (Transl. by Mark Suino.) (Michigan Slavic Contributions.) Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, Семиотика кино и проблемы киноэстетики (Russian)
  • 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
  • 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.
  • 2005. On the semiosphere. (Translated by Wilma Clark) Sign Systems Studies, 33(1): 205–229.
  • 2009. Culture and Explosion. (Semiotics, Communication and Cognition 1.) De Gruyter Mouton.

Article author: Zipora Galitski
Article tags: biography
The article is about these people:   Yuri Lotman

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