Jurij Lotman turns 100: A tribute to the intellectual who lived between two worlds

Foto: Rene Jakobson

Remo Gramigna

University of Turin, Italy

Department of Philosophy and Education Science

Born on 28 February 1922 in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) to a noble and cultured Jewish family, whose father, Michail, was a well-known lawyer, and whose mother, Alexandra, a dentist, Jurij Mihailovic Lotman (1922-1994) is one of the leading exponents of the Soviet semiotic school –  know as the Tartu-Moscow semiotic school ­– and one of the greatest thinkers and scholars of the 20th century. Jurij Mihailovic did not consider himself as a pure semiotician, considering himself, more properly, as a cultural historian and, in particular, a scholar of Russian literature and culture. But Lotman was much more than that.

A specialist in modern Russian literature and the Russian culture of the eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth century, a comparative scholar and philologist, an impeccable archival researcher, a multifaceted intellectual, a brilliant speaker and a prolific writer, Lotman also appeared frequently on Russian and Estonian television screens with the series Conversations on Russian Culture, which aired from 1986 to 1991. In the last years of his academic career, he became interested in semiotics, inaugurating the strand of research focused on the typological study of cultures, the semiotics of culture. Founder of the so-called Tartu-Moscow school, named after the two cities from which most of the members of the group came, Lotman became the leader and its driving force. What was then a small, sleepy provincial town, Tartu (once called Dorpat), has now become the intellectual centre of Estonia and The Mecca for many lovers of semiotics and the humanities.

As a young man, Lotman revealed a strong predisposition for studies. Nevertheless, he did not have an easy university career. After embarking on philology studies in 1939 at the Leningrad State University, he regrettably interrupted his university studies due to the imminent Second World War. In 1940, at the age of 18, he was recruited into the Red Army and was only able to resume his university studies six years later, in 1946. The best years of his youth, from 18 to 24, were thus lost as he had to participate in debilitating and senseless military actions, the futility of which he would only reflect on in later years. This does not mean to say, however, that the results achieved were less than expected.

Although Lotman is considered a master in his field, as he is for most, the question of who his own teachers were is rarely, if ever, asked. As will be recalled, the University of Leningrad had, in the same years in which Lotman was a university student, an impressive group of intellectuals who made the University of Leningrad the spearhead of European philology. It was in this stimulating intellectual environment that Lotman had the good fortune to be trained. Among the illustrious names of the professors of the Faculty of Philology at the University of Leningrad in the 1940s were G. Gukovskij, V. Propp, V. Zirmunskij, B. Ejchembaum, B. Tomasevskij, O. Freidenberg, A Riftin, N. Mordovcenko, to name but a few, all great teachers and renowned scolars at whose school Lotman was trained.

Jurij Mihailovic graduated in 1950 with a thesis on Radishchev. His Jewish origins, however, did not help him find suitable employment in the former Soviet Russia and in 1954 he moved to Estonia, where he first became the holder of the chair of Russian literature at the University of Tartu and then, in 1960, became the director of the Department of Russian Literature. Alongside his intellectual gifts, his organisational skills soon led him to create a network of Moscow scholars around him. Thanks to Lotman, in fact, ties between Tartu and Moscow intensified and in 1964, in the quiet and silence of the coniferous forests of Kääriku, the sports centre of Tartu University, start the legendary “Summer Schools on Secondary Modelling Systems” began, held each two years until 1972.

The well-known historical and political events of the period did not make it easy for the scholar to travel to other countries that would have welcomed him, and the possibility of international meetings and collaborations was limited. When the situation changed, Lotman was able to visit Italy, among other places. One memorable event was his participation in 1988 at the Turin Book Fair, on the occasion of the re-edition of his book Tipologia della cultura (Typology of Culture) (Bompiani), where he debated with the semiologist Umberto Eco on the theme “The reciprocal gaze”. Acclaimed by an oceanic crowd, he was mistaken for the scientist Albert Einstein, perhaps because of his long moustache. In Italy too, Lotman remains the greatest point of reference for anyone wishing to study the semiotics of culture. His texts, widely translated, continue to be published, discussed, read and appreciated.

Every year, the University of Tartu celebrates the anniversary of the Russian scholar’s birth by organising a conference at the end of which a prize is awarded to two students who have distinguished themselves in the study of Russian semiotics and philology (‘The Juri Lotman Scholarship’).

Lotman would have turned 100 years old on 28 February 2022. This year, the Estonian universities of Tartu and Tallinn velebrate the centenary of Juri Lotman, one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century.

The centenary celebration, sponsored by UNESCO, includes several important initiatives, including the congress Juri Lotman 100 / “Juri Lotman’s semiosphere”, held on 25 and 26 February at Tallinn University and on 27 and 28 February at Tartu University. The congress was attended (both in-person and online) by over two hundred speakers divided into more than fifty subject areas and the participation of leading experts in the field (https://jurilotman.ee/en/). The keynote speakers included Aleida Assmann (University of Konstanz, Germany), Mieke Bal (Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis, Netherlands), Boris Gasparov (Columbia University, USA), Yuri Tsivian (The University of Chicago, USA), Boris Uspenskij (National Research University Higher School of Economics, Russia). The conference ended with a public statement on the war in Ukraine demanding the the immediate cessation of the war against Ukraine.

In addition to the congress, a number of cultural initiatives are planned, including the publication of The Companion of Juri Lotman (https://www.bloomsbury.com/…/companion-to-juri-lotman…/), published in January 2022 by Bloomsbury Publishing House and edited by Professors Marek Tamm and Peeter Torop, and a series of lectures and seminars held at Tallinn University.

Moreover, from 4 February to 20 April 2022, the Estonian National Museum in Tartu is organising an exhibition “Juri Lotman 100” dedicated to the scholar’s personal and academic life.

There are also numerous publications dedicated to the Russian scholar in the Italian context. These include the publication of Il Girotondo delle muse. Semiotica delle arti (edited by S. Burini, Bompiani, 2022), the reprint of the works La semiosfera. L’asimmetria e il dialogo nelle strutture pensanti (edited by S. Salvestroni and F. Sedda, La Nave di Teseo, 2022) and La cultura e l’esplosione (Mimesis, 2022). We would also like to point out the imminent publication of the special issue of Lexia, Re-thinking Juri Lotman in the XXI century (edited by L. Gherlone, R. Gramigna, M. Leone).


Remo Gramigna is a post-doc researcher at the University of Turin, Italy, where he teaches semiotics. His academic research to date has mainly focused on semiotics and culture studies, cognitive theory, communication studies, semiotics of culture, and the history of semiotics. He obtained his Ph.D. in Semiotics and Culture Studies in Estonia, at the University of Tartu. His areas of research include lying and deception in human interactions, fakes, and manipulation. His current work focuses on the representation of the face across cultures and media and the semiotics of masks. His recent publications include Augustine and the Study of Signs, Signification, and Lying (2020, De Gruyter), Imagining others: deception, prediction, and disguised intentions in strategic interactions (2020). He has published in such journals as Versus, Frontiers of Narrative Studies, Lexia, Sign Systems Studies, DeSignis, and Journal for Communication Studies. In the past years, he has worked in the editorial team of Sign Systems Studies, the oldest international semiotic journal.

Recent publications

Gramigna, Remo (2022) “Oblique semiotics: Of texts and cultural value of truthfulness in J. Lotman”. Lexia. Rethinking Juri Lotman in the XXI Century, (eds.) L. Gherlone, R. Gramigna, M. Leone.

Gramigna, Remo (2022). Juri Lotman in English: A bibliography, in M. Tamm and P. Torop (eds.), The Companion of Juri Lotman. A Semiotic Theory of Culture, Bloomsbury, 489-516.

Gramigna, Remo (2021). Facets of signs. Roman Jakobson’s semiotic thought, in E. Sütiste, R. Gramigna, S. Salupere, J. Griffith (eds.) (Re)considering Jakobson, Tartu University Press, 33-59.

Gramigna, Remo; Voto, Cristina (2021) “Notes on the semiotics of face recognition”. 338-360 Sign Systems Studies 49 (3-4). OPEN ACCESS.

Gramigna, Remo (2021) “The Semiotics of Likeness. Identity, Verisimilitude, and Falsity in Augustine”, in J. Van Boom; T.A. Põder (a cura di) Sign. Method, and the Sacred:  New Directions in Semiotic Methodologies for the Study of Religion, Berlin/Boston: Walter der Gruyter, 107–124. (DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/9783110694925-008)

Gramigna, Remo (2021) “Note sulle teorie del complotto. Semiotica ed epistemologia”, in Leone, M. (a cura di) I volti del complotto. Turin: FACETS Digital Press; ISBN 978-88-9075-6290, pp. 62–83. OPEN ACCESS

Gramigna, Remo; Voto, Cristina. 2020. “Semiotica, prossemica e contagio: il senso delle distanze ai tempi del Covid-19“, 131-150. In Leone, Massimo, ed. Volti virali. Torino: FACETS Digital Press. OPEN ACCESS

Gramigna, Remo (2020) “Proxemics and ‘neo-proxemics’: The new meaning of space in the time of COVID-19 pandemic” Post-filosofie. Ontologie del presente pandemico, 13: 100–118. OPEN ACCESS (DOI: https://doi.org/10.15162/1827-5133/1266)

Gramigna, Remo (2020) “La falsa scienza. Inganno e ipocrisia nel discorso scientifico”, Lessico di Etica Pubblica. Ipocrisia. Simulazione e dissimulazione nella sfera pubblica, 2, (a cura di L. Mazzone): 4–19. OPEN ACCESS

Gramigna, Remo (2020). “Le forme della maschera. Aspetti semiotici della manipolazione del volto e della plasticità dell’apparenza”, 121–140. Lexia, 37-38 (Leone, Massimo, ed. Volti artificiali/Artificial faces). OPEN ACCESS

Gramigna, Remo. 2020. “Imagining Others: Deception, Prediction, and Disguised Intentions in Strategic Interactions”, 121–138. Versus. Quaderni di Studi Semiotici, 130 (1) (Pozzo, Alessandra, ed. Semiotica della Dissimulazione / Semiotics of Concealment). PREVIEW

Gramigna, Remo. 2020. Augustine’s Theory of Signs, Signification, and Lying. DeGruyter.

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