An Estonian literary and semiotics scholar and cultural historian, he became associated with Soviet structuralism following the publication of his 1963 essay, On the Delimitation of Linguistic and Philological Concepts of Structure. His more than eight hundred works include Semiotics of Cinema, Culture and Explosion, and Analysis of the Poetic Text.
He studied philology at Leningrad State University and later served as an artillery radio operator in World War II.
He founded the Tartu-Moscow Semiotic School.
Born into a prominent Jewish family, he was the son of Mikhail and Aleksandra Lotman.
He was born in the same country as theologian Jakob Hurt.