About the Author

A Journey to Tartu and Back: A Belated Chronicle
Also, the Heavenly Kingdom resembles a bag with holes.
The Gospel of Thomas

There was an announcement of what, generally speaking, had been expected for a long time: Yury Mikhailovich Lotman1 had died. Lotman himself didn’t deny the fact that after the death of his wife Zara Grigorievna (Mints),2 he saw the years left in his life as an epilogue – and not a very lengthy one at that.

An epilogue! In the language of classical drama human life during the period of late socialism consisted of two parts: a rather extended exposition and a finale that immediately followed it, a multiphased and multiyear finale lasting an entire adult life. Neither the culmination nor the denouement was intended: for these compositional knots a hero and action were necessary. What can be said about an epilogue? Things very rarely reached the opening of the plot. "All my life is before me!"3 – a person of those years sang in his or her eternal exposition, but inwardly knew: alas! everything is irreversible and long, long ago behind him or her. By the way, what was there behind? Was there anything there at all as a classic of our literature once noted?4

The news of Yury Mikhailovich's death made a clear visual and auditory impression: the light had been turned off, the music of voices became scattered and silent, guests departed. The assembly was over. And then in the external darkness where, as always, there is nothing but bad weather and bad roads, we, looking back at the deserted windows, do not believe that just a moment ago everything was so good.

Light – or brilliance? – someone will question me: the light of a mind or the brilliance of an intellect? Let it be brilliance – I will answer, but just try to be radiant in our surroundings – we will see what will come of your efforts. During the godforsaken days of our youth, during dull and muddled times, in the midst of a general deficiency of speech, clumsiness, and intense non-communicativeness, a distant work lamp – no, it did not glitter – but shone in that almost foreign Tartu. It was the brilliance of Lotman's School, a late light of Enlightenment, the grace of free thought, and the charm of addressing your own people.

Oh, harsh everyday life of the seventies! At the front line of the struggle for peace, at the ideological front ("Workers of the ideological front! Keep strong…" – that is how a person was greeted at the entrance to the Institute of Information to where I used to take my abstracts, secret reviews of American studies on Dostoevsky: "Workers of the ideological front! Keep strong…" – I do not remember exactly what we were supposed to keep strong). You have not yet forgotten these artifacts of the domestic industry? Every soap holder looked like a tank demobilized for its moral obsolescence. As a rule all these things were not very good at opening and closing, they dirtied your hands, pinched your fingers, but they fulfilled their battle mission and to their last breath they looked into your soul with the direct eyes of your Fatherland: Hands up! Do not move!

And there, in the midst of those unforgettable soap holders, in the midst of compatriots venturing out hunting for soap and other objects of primary necessity and hitting each other with all the parts of their bodies and their carrying bags and who counter every question addressed to them with, "can't you see for yourself?" – in the midst of all this, in an office with a portrait of the Secretary General of the Communist Party, lavish funeral repast banquet tables and field chairs – in a word,

Suddenly – in the middle of a Soviet waiting room
Where "everyone can be incinerated," 5

as Blok writes in one of his last poems.

"Madam, what can I do for you? Should I bring some cookies?" Professor Lotman, that very Lotman stands before me with a gentle smile inviting me to tea after class.

Those who remember how everything was then (I am afraid that there are very few who do remember and will not fail to point out, as they did then, that I defame and exaggerate and, as they did then, will become offended: "And who are you? Didn't you grow up here as well?"), but it is unlikely that those who do remember will be able to object to me that the simple light of good manners was a thing more than self-sufficient. Something was lacking in it. Warmth, for example. But does Pushkin have a great amount of warmth? It is slight coldness, light indifference:

A carriage bell beyond compare
Rings in my ears 6

How wonderful that it rings, unconcerned whether it is useful for us.

Ah, please do not burn my heart with any words,7 I need neither the searing truth nor a sheep's warmth,8 and since very long ago I have had no need for the mysterious curvatures of the ineffable depth. All I need is to feel cool fingers washed clean on my forehead, the light touch of an orderly. That means: a nurse is here, a doctor – nearby, the hospital whiteness of the cool heavenly vestments sings with starch.

At the crimson……………dawn
Snowy dust shines silvery. 9

That is what, in the end, I will call freedom: the opportunity to prefer purity over everything else. Not to put down any modifier if the only one that could be right here does not come to your mind.

At the frosty crimson dawn –

That is how the composer Sviridov10 finished this line. He enveloped Pushkin’s words with the magic of sound that everyone immediately recognizes as magic. Without a doubt, magic is always like that. It is indisputable as the fact that the winter dawn is frosty. Yet for some reason, Pushkin did not say that! And you cannot recognize his magic, if it is magic, immediately: this magic is unprecedented. It does not sound or acts, but is silent and waits.

The coldness of the structuralist dictionary and uncompromising rationalism shone like glass laboratory vessels in water, like the word "scalpel", like that very legendary name, cold and dazzling to the ear – Lotman.

Yury Mikhailovich died. The murky beginning of new times was spreading wider and wider. The city of Tartu, once known as Derpt, and as Yuriev at one point, has been located abroad for some time now.11


The complete article is published in: Olga Sedakova. Freedom to believe: philosophical and cultural essays. Bucknell University Press, 2010. We are grateful to the Publishing house Bucknell University Press for the permission to use the fragment of the book on this site.

1 Lotman – Yu. M. Lotman (1922-93) a world renowned scholar and a literary and cultural theorist. Lotman taught at Tartu University where he became the founder of the Russian school of semiotics and structuralism, in which cultural phenomena were seen as a "secondary sign system" (the first one being language itself). Lotman was the central figure in the independent intellectual circles of the 1970s-1980s, and Tartu University in Estonia became the center of the free humanist thought in the Soviet Union. The "Tartu School" had a great influence on the development of structuralism in Italy, France and other countries. For the first time Olga Sedakova meet Lotman in 1973 at a student conference at Tartu and since that time has belonged to that milieu. After Lotman's death that circle ceased to exist.

2 Zara Grigorievna Mints (1927-90) was Yury Lotman's wife and a briliant scholar. Her area of specialization was Russian poetry of the Silver Age and that of Aleksandr Blok in particular.

3 "All my life is before me!" – a quote from a popular song to the words of one of the "young" poets of the late 1950s-early 1960s, Robert Rozhdestvensky: "Don't be sad, / All life is before you. / All life is before you./ Keep your hopes and wait!"

4 Was there anything there at all as a classic of our literature once noted? – a reference to the "founder of Soviet literature" Maxim Gorky and his novel "Life of Klim Samgin" in which the title character tries to escape the sense of personal responsibility. Once he did not save a boy drowning before his eyes. Later in the novel, Klim constantly asks, to shirk his responsibility for the boy's death, "But was there a boy at all?"

5 Where everyone can be incinerated – a quote from A.Blok's unpublished poem. Blok means here the propaganda of cremation during the first years of Soviet Russia which was supposed to replace the traditional ritual of burying.

6 Rings in my ears – a quote from Puskin's poem "A white-sided chirruper..." ("Strekotun'ia beloboka...") (1829).

7 do not burn my heart with any words – a reference to A.Puskin's poem "The Prophet" (Prorok) in which the Seraphim puts a burning coal in the poet's chest and says to him: "Go and see, / Burn people's hearts with your word!"

8 nor a sheep's warmth – a reference to O. Mandelstam's poem "And of the silly sheep's warmth..." where we read:

A bit of warm chicken droppings
And of the silly warmth of sheep
I'll give up everything for life. I'm in the need of care so much
That even a single sulfur match can warm me up.

9 Snowy dust shines silvery – a quote from Puskin's poem "A white-sided chirruper..." ("Strekotun'ia beloboka...") (1829).

10 Georgy Sviridov (1915-98) was a Russian and Soviet neo-romantic composer. He had several pieces based on Puskin's poetry starting with his very first composition in 1935. The reference here is to a cycle of vocal compositions based on Pushkin's poems, including "A white-sided chirruper".

11 The city of Tartu, once known as Derpt, and as Yuriev at one point, has been located abroad for some time now – Tartu was called Yuriev in the eleventh century during the reigh of the Kievan prince Yaroslav the Wise and as Derpt (which was a distortion of Dorpat) during the German occupation of the region in the thirteenth century. The Estonian name has been used since 1917.
 A Journey to Tartu and Back: A Belated Chronicle
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