Michael Kinnucan reviews Yuri Lotman's Non-Memoirs

Translated from the Russian by Caroline Lemak Brickman (Dalkey Archive Press, 2014)


The great Soviet semiotician, scholar, and literary critic Yuri Lotman dictated his Non-Memoirs in the spring of 1993, the year he died, at a time when he was so sick he could no longer write; he did so, the editors of the English translation tell us, to fulfill a promise he had made to his wife before her death in 1990. This, then, is testimony given at the last possible moment, and under a certain kind of duress. Which is surprising on its face, because Lotman is a wonderful storyteller, and the decades-old stories he recounts here—of his time as an artilleryman on the Eastern Front in World War II and his formation as a scholar during Stalin's anti-cosmopolitan campaign of the late 1940s—are fascinating in themselves and wonderfully told, with the warm, rounded feel of stories perfected in many retellings. And yet halfway through, Lotman appears for a moment to despair of the whole enterprise:

It is hardly worth describing the events of the war in detail [ . . . ] They interest me because they concern me. They have no historical value—not because historical value is produced by "great people" participating in events, but because historical value is produced by the literary talent of the one doing the describing. Tolstoy wrote that, when a destitute musician in the Swiss city of Lucerne played for half an hour for the rich Englishmen listening to him and did not receive a penny from a single one of them, that was an incident worth including on the list of the events of world history [ . . . ] Since I do not possess the necessary ability to demonstrate the way a given event participates in history, further stories about the war can cease here.

How do the events of an individual's life "participate in history"? One might think that a man who had served in the Soviet army through the disastrous retreats and eventual victory of the 1940s and then returned home to face the trials of a Jewish academic under Stalin would be better able to answer than a destitute musician. But Lotman isn't; his attitude toward the great events that shaped his life is one of bemusement. Lotman called this a book of "non-memoirs" because he considered it an unfinished work; perhaps he felt himself unable to finish it, to bridge the gap between history and memory. Ironically it is just this that makes Non-Memoirs such a pleasure to read: when History impinges on an individual's life, it does so in the form not of history but of anecdote. The Soviet army fought an epic battle against the Nazis for the soul of Europe, but its constituent parts—Soviet soldiers—simply slogged back and forth across Eastern Europe, while young men they did not know tried to kill them. Lotman has wonderful stories to tell about what happened during that slogging.

Yuri Lotman was born in 1922; he was of the same generation as Foucault and Solzhenitsyn, and a generation younger than Propp, Bakhtin, and Jakobson. In 1964, he founded the Tartu-Moscow Semiotic School; though his work is still too little known in the Anglophone academy, his effort to fuse the legacies of Propp's formalism, Saussure's structuralism, and Peirce's semiotics into a general science of culture makes him a key figure in one of the central intellectual trajectories of post-war Europe.

This slim volume, beautifully translated by Caroline Lemak Brickman, with notes and a perceptive essay by Brickman and Evgenii Bershtein, contains little direct information on Lotman's semiotic work: he has surprisingly little to say about his intellectual influences, and the memoir ends very early in his scholarly career. Yet Lotman's account of his war years sheds significant indirect light both on his own development and on the broader place of the study of signs and structures in twentieth century intellectual history. It allows us to recognize how this concern emerged throughout Europe in the post-war period as a response to the crisis of historical meaning brought on by the events of 1914–45, and how its Soviet semiotic version responded creatively to the repressive ideological context of the USSR.


The war came for Lotman at the beginning of his second year at university; he was conscripted a few months before the Nazis invaded the USSR in 1941. For those of Lotman's age and milieu, the war was neither unexpected nor unwelcome; growing up in the turbulent 1930s, following the news of the Spanish Civil War from week to week, they never doubted that they would get their turn. He scoffs at the "talk of Hitler's sudden and 'treacherous' attack," as though the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact could have lasted indefinitely: "Perhaps only Stalin himself was intoxicated by what he considered a very cunning maneuver, and forced himself to believe that the alliance with Hitler had eliminated the threat of war, but none of us believed it." And, like many young people in many eras, Lotman and his friends expected great things from war, investing it with the sense of almost unbearable expectation so characteristic of adolescence: as a teenager, Yuri tried to run away to join the Spanish partisans, and his friends expected the Second World War to bring world revolution. Thus when news of the Nazi invasion finally arrived, it came as a relief; he quotes Pushkin to describe his comrades' feelings:

As if I had accomplished a great duty,
As if a healing knife had severed from me
The suffering limb!

But if the coming of war felt epochal, the going to war was banal. When he was conscripted, his family did not come to see him off; an "old Petersburg proletarian," called in to give a speech to the newly minted soldiers, told them: "Boys! I look at you and I'm sorry for you. But when I think about you, oh, I don't give a fuck!"

Lotman served in an artillery regiment on the Eastern Front throughout the war, but he has almost nothing to say of battle. Judging from Non-Memoirs, his major contribution to the Soviet war effort was as a cable repairman: it was his job to run the telephone wires connecting the big guns behind the lines to artillery spotters at the front, to repair those wires when they were damaged by enemy fire, and to spool them back up again when it came time to retreat (1941–43) or advance (1944–45).

His wartime experience, then, involved little direct contact with the enemy; he simply performed a messy, muddy technical job every day for years while in constant mortal danger from unseen foes. His attitude toward this (his sense of its absurdity) is beautifully captured in an anecdote about a time when, repairing phone lines in an exposed position under direct enemy fire, he met a hare desperately trying to find some refuge from the shells falling all around them:

I remember being struck by the thought that the hare was obviously thinking the same thing that I was: "What a mountain of iron, and all sent here with the sole purpose of killing me dead!" This same thought flashed through my mind with a tinge of pride—though whether the hare experienced pride, I cannot say.
But such direct accounts of battle interest Lotman less than the daily life of soldiers on the front in all its detail. "Writing about war is hard, because only those who have never been to war know what it is. It's like describing an enormous space with no precise boundaries and no internal unity. There's one war in the winter, and another in spring. One during retreat, and another during defense and offense; one in the day, and another at night." He brings a professional semiotician's eye and an anecdotist's sense of humor to this space of war: he explains military slang and the ways the creative use of expletives can carry men through difficult circumstances, and describes in fascinating detail the Soviet soldiers' techniques for ridding themselves of that bane of soldiers everywhere: the louse.

Lice are important to Lotman: "No one who has written relatively truthfully about war, from Barbusse to Hašek, has avoided this topic." His fascination has deep roots: before becoming interested in literature, he had hoped to study entomology. "The mysterious world of insects, which I find intimidating and captivating, arouses a strange feeling in me even now—I think it is precisely insects, with their exceptionally slow evolution and startling power to survive, who will be the final population of our planet. There is no doubt that they are endowed with their own intellectual world, but that world will always be closed to us." The parallel is rich: soldiers, like lice, are to be found on every side of every war, involved in history and yet closed off from it, in a semiotic space at once beneath and beyond the space of history.


Perhaps because of this disconnect, the end of war entailed a tremendous disorientation. Lotman describes the months between victory and demobilization as the hardest months of the war for him: the rhythm of combat had been broken, and yet nothing happened, nothing had changed. When he finally returned to St. Petersburg after years away—unannounced, in the middle of the night—the disorientation redoubled: "We were all longing to get home, and we were realizing at the same time that we were estranged from the life that was waiting for us." For a Jewish scholar in the late 1940s, that life was strange indeed, and fraught with dangers: far from being welcomed home with open arms, Lotman encountered a literary and academic establishment in the midst of the upheaval brought about by Stalin's anti-Semitic campaign against "rootless cosmopolitanism" in intellectual life. Prominent professors were denounced, imprisoned and killed; as a Jew, Lotman himself became almost unemployable.

Lotman's attitude toward political repression is strikingly lacking in bitterness: he is sardonic to the point of being apolitical. Early in the book, he comments on the advantages of the 1930s purges of the military:

I daresay the Stalinist terror that swept through the army had a positive side [ . . . ] this terror purged the army of incompetent and uncultured commanders left over from the first post-revolutionary years. It is true that among the "repressed" there were courageous and talented people—their turn to die came first. But the terror was so vast that fools fell victim to it as well.
His own experience of political repression is told as a comic anecdote about his own naiveté: he pounds the pavement of St. Petersburg applying for jobs, the interviews go well, and then the offers are suddenly withdrawn. He simply can't understand why: the connection between the broader political situation and his own job hunt escapes him, perhaps because of the "unconscionable foolishness which has accompanied me all my life." At last a friend takes pity on him and undertakes to clarify matters:

When I dropped in at the office of the deputy director, a fat older Jew, I told him that Zapadov had sent me. The guy looked at me with undisguised indignation. "What'd he send you here for? I've explained to him that we've already got two Jews working here. I can't take any more."
This moment marks, in a certain way, Lotman's second coming of age: his trial by fire on the front did nothing to prepare him for the trials of civilian life, indeed it preserved in him a certain sort of innocence—the notion that his share in the collective sacrifice of war would somehow be acknowledged in peacetime. Instead, civilian life simply takes up where it left off as if the war hadn't happened; his four years on the front have marked him deeply, but back home, nothing has changed. The disconnect leaves him disoriented and bewildered.

Lotman ultimately found a job in Tartu, Estonia, a location sufficiently provincial that his Jewishness was no obstacle. He landed on his feet: already in the early 1950s he was doing widely respected scholarship, and a school of like-minded structuralist/semiotic critics quickly coalesced around him. Perhaps the bewilderment of his postwar years—the incapacity to connect the experience of war to existing narratives of historical development, and the concomitant need to step back from them and investigate their structure—provided an impetus for the path-breaking scholarship he was to undertake in the coming decades.

Reading his description of the Soviet scholarly establishment's resistance to Tartu School semiotics—"first, we were accused of depoliticizing the sciences, and second, of dehumanizing them"—it's hard not to be reminded of the French intellectual establishment's attacks on structuralist and post-structuralist scholars around the same time—Sartre, for instance, calling Foucault's theories "the last rampart the bourgeoisie can still erect against Marx."

Of course, such charges carried a very different weight on the other side of the Iron Curtain: while Sartre was simply playing the game of left-intellectual one-upmanship against Foucault, Lotman faced the reality of government repression: at one point the KGB searched his house for dissident literature. (In Lotman's telling, this, too, becomes a farce: the man who accused him regretted it immediately, and "the situation became typically Russian when [he] came by later and apologized until I got bored, and he finally suggested we have a drink.") But if the political context was different, the intellectual parallels were quite real: in the USSR as in France, after the Second World War, scholars began to find historical-materialist analyses of human culture insufficient, and sought new models and new modes of thought. In Western and Eastern Europe alike, the immanent rules of linguistic systems replaced the causal logic of historical development as the dominant mode of interpreting human culture.

The fate of the structuralist project is still an open question. Its moment of high faddishness in the Western academy has long passed, of course, but this by no means indicates that it has been abandoned; on the contrary, structuralist assumptions are so deeply inscribed in many fields of scholarship that they are no longer recognized as such. This ambiguous status makes renewed study of structuralist theories and methods essential, and the translation of Non-Memoirs is a valuable contribution to that effort: it allows us to perceive not only the historical origin of the structuralist movement, but also its international scope.