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

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
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
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
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).

Foto: Rene Jakobson

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.
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.