Friday, 20 October 2017

Semiotic Smugglers

Most of people when they hear the word “smuggler” will probably think of someone selling cheap cigarettes across the border. Maybe some Al Capone type importing alcohol in Prohibition-time USA. Some others might think of fictional characters the like of Han Solo, smuggling Jedi across the Empire, or the Onion Knight, the fingerless hand of a couple of Kings in Game of Thrones. Few, if any, would think of middle aged professors of semiotics.


It is true that cultural smuggling is a thing, especially when confronted with authoritarian states. In Kaunas, Lithuania, there is a statue dedicated to the book-smugglers that were crossing the border of Soviet Union in order to provide books in Lithuanian – a language that was prohibited by the Soviet State in favour of Russian.

It might be unsurprising, then, if our story of semiotic smuggling happened in another Baltic state under Soviet rule: Estonia. By the 1970s, Tartu had become one pf the Owrd's most important hubs of semiotic studies (a singular Mecca-like field for us 'pilgrims' laboring in the domain of semiotics” as Sebeok will later write). The discipline was deemed by Soviet authorities as bourgeois, based on the (questionable) claim that it was in contrast with Marxism materialism. Several semioticians, then, abandoned Moscow for a more low-profile location: Tartu, in Estonia.

The newly born Tartu-Moskow school of semiotics still had a few problems with censorship. Using the word “semiotics” was absolutely out of question, so they started to use “sign systems studies” instead. Still today Tartu semiotic journal has that name even if it conserves, in the cover, a massive trolling of soviet censorship. Tartu scholars, aware that censors weren't very cultivated people, had the brilliant idea for writing the forbidden word on their journal anyway: they simply wrote in in ancient Greek. The censors wouldn't recognise the alphabet and so they would avoid any sanction.

Authorities still kept Tartu scholars under surveillance and Juri Lotman, the most well-known semiotician of the time, had is house searched several times.
This was making it hard also communicating with the exterior: every publication that they wished to translate and to publish in the West had to be checked and approved by the censors, which was making it very hard to disseminate Tartu-Moskow school theories. The permission for participating in conferences abroad was also rather difficult to get.

Thomas A. Sebeok
You can imagine, then, how many suspicions were raised when an American professor, Thomas A. Sebeok, who was in Estonia to attend a congress on Finno-Ugric studies, was informally invited to attend Tartu's Semiotic Summer School (called Summer School on Secondary Modelling Systems, always for censorship reasons). This was a great opportunity for Tartu-Moskow scholars to get out some of their works, as well as for the West to learn what research was going on down there. Sothe 18th August 1970 Sebeok and his wife were driven from Tallin to Tartu by a KGB agent. As he later remembered:

While in Tartu, a number of colleagues handed me manuscripts to convey to the West. Most of these were intended for publication in Semiotica; some were meant for delivery to other editors. Such scholarly papers (the only kind I ever accepted) were entrusted to me to sidestep nightmarish Soviet bureaucratic restrictions. I was aware of the illicit nature of such dodges and the risks if I were caught, but bowed to abet them because of my refusal to condone censorship of intellectual property of any kind. Too, many of the pieces by authors, such as the ones I list in fn. 7 below, that would soon come out in Semiotica, would scarcely have appeared in English otherwise and, very likely, would have remained unknown to all but a very limited readership.

Sebeok, then, find himself entrusted with a series of papers to illegally smuggle to the other side of the Iron Curtain. He knew for sure that his luggage, as all outgoing baggage, would have been searched in the Tallinn harbour. He therefore decided to ask advice to Paul Ariste, the organiser of the Finno-Ugric Studies conference and, most importantly, the friend that had managed to get the permission for Sebeok to come to the Baltic States and even to leave Tallin one day and reach Tartu. Sebeok imagined that Ariste would have advised him against an action that was potentially harmful for the authors of the manuscripts as well as for Sebeok and his wife themselves. At the contrary, Ariste serenely told him not to worry, that he would have taken care of everything.

We can only imagine how Sebeok must have felt, waiting in line while the passengers ahead of them were having their baggages thoroughly searched. His bag full of illicit manuscripts was about to be searched too: what would have happened to them? When finally a Russian officer summoned him, he was ready for trouble. He slowly placed his baggage on the counter, but before the official could do anything the door busted open: it was Ariste. The professor was carrying and enormous bouquet of flowers that he promptly offered to the astonished Mrs Sebeok.

Paul Ariste

At the top of his voice, he proclaimed what an honor it was for his country to have had two such distinguished and gracious American visitors in attendance at the Congress. While holding up the line behind us, the noisy hurly-burly fomented such befuddlement and delay that the impatient officer hurriedly waved us, with our untouched luggage, through to board the ship. I thanked Ariste warmly, saying goodbye. I never saw him again.”

Finally, thanks to Sebeok's courage and Ariste's distraction skills, the manuscripts were safely smuggled outside Estonia and published on the West. Who would have imagine that being a semiotic professor could be so adventurous?

I come to know this history of semiotic smuggling thanks to my friend Taras Boyko, to which I'm grateful. He's conducing an extensive and fascinating research on the history of the Tartu-Moskow School. I highly recommend his work, you can find some of his papers here and here.

Sebeok's recollection of his adventures in Estonia can be found in a very interesting and funny paper entitled “The Estonian Connection” and published on Sign Systems Studies 26.