Robert Bird, prolific scholar of Russian literature and film, 1969–2020

UChicago scholar made ‘a lasting impression’ both on campus and abroad

Prof. Robert James Douglas Bird—an expert on Russian literature, film and modernism—died Sept. 7 in Chicago after a nine-month battle with colon cancer. He was 50.

A prolific author and lecturer, Bird’s interest in Russia ranged from its literary giants and artists, to the country’s aesthetics, socialism and revolution. His scholarship encompassed the global and local; he was equally at home in Moscow and Chicago.

“Robert’s outstanding biographical and critical work made a lasting impression on the fields of Russian literature, cinema and intellectual history,” said Anne Walters Robertson, dean of the Division of the Humanities and the Claire Dux Swift Distinguished Service Professor of Music. “As a legendary teacher and mentor, he also will be sorely missed.”

Bird was a leading authority on the director Andrei Tarkovsky, about whom he wrote two books. Best known is his 2008 monograph Andrei Tarkovsky: Elements of Cinema, which has been translated into Chinese, Farsi and Portuguese, and will be published in Russian later in 2020 using Bird’s own translation.

In an essay published shortly after his death, Bird reflected on his struggle with cancer—a disease that also claimed Tarkovsky’s life in 1986, when the filmmaker was 54. “But reading Tarkovsky’s diary over his final year, I recognise much of what he experienced,” Bird wrote. “Not just the deleterious physical effects, but the emotional and spiritual ones, the loss of systems within which my life has been constructed, the ubiquity of fear.

“Suddenly the membrane separating Tarkovsky’s world from mine has become finer, as if I can touch more directly something he experienced so privately, so mutely.”

Bird completed a draft of his Russian translation of Andrei Tarkovsky in January, while receiving his first chemotherapy infusion. Just days before his death, he completed work toward a volume of his collected essays in Russian, which will be published in Russia in the series Sovremennaia Rusistika. Bird was also finishing a highly anticipated book, Soul Machine: How Soviet Film Modeled Socialism, which represents tremendous labor over many years.

His other works include his first full-length book The Russian Prospero, a 2006 study of the poetry and thought of Viacheslav Ivanov; a 2012 biography of Fyodor Dostoevsky; multiple translations of Russian religious thought; and many essays and articles in both English and Russian.

Bird’s scholarship frequently took him abroad, from teaching spring courses at the University of Chicago Center in Paris, to summer film festivals around the world, international conferences, and research trips to Russian film and literary archives.

“Robert was a man of many worlds, a uniquely versatile intellectual and a tower of strength for Slavic studies at UChicago,” said Boris Maslov, a former faculty member in UChicago’s Department of Comparative Literature who now teaches at the University of Oslo. “Reading the articles he published during these past months—on Soviet gardening metaphors, on sacrifice and omens—makes one admire his moral strength, open-mindedness and talent.”

At UChicago, Bird previously chaired both the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures—which recruited him in 2001 from Dickinson College—and the Department of Cinema and Media Studies, and also led the Fundamentals program in the College.

He collaborated with colleagues on numerous projects, including several in 2017 that commemorated the centennial of the Russian Revolution. Those efforts included the Smart Museum exhibit Revolution Every Day, which he curated with his wife Christina Kiaer—an art historian at Northwestern University—and Zachary Cahill, director of programs and fellowships at UChicago’s Gray Center. In addition, Bird curated the Red Press exhibit at the Special Collections Research Center, working with Assoc. Prof. William Nickell and several graduate students.

“So many of us wanted more time with him, but we can be grateful for the time we had with him, when he gave us so much,” said Nickell, who chairs the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures.

“The University community is going to feel Robert’s loss whenever a Russian film is shown at the Film Studies Center,” Nickell added. “Time and time again, he gave his audiences a compelling framework for interpreting and enjoying obscure and classic works of Russian and Soviet cinema. We will miss his sense of humor—always wry, sometimes slipping past unnoticed if you weren’t paying attention.”

Part of the Smart Museum’s Russian centennial exhibit included work by the filmmaker Cauleen Smith. Later, Bird and Smith co-taught a course at UChicago and developed a project on American singer and activist Paul Robeson and the revolutionary potential of film.

“I was never able to tell Robert that it was not the Russian film archives or our book project that got me, ever so improbably, to Moscow, but our friendship,” Smith said. “I am so grateful to have known this person and to have him in my heart.”

Born Sept. 16, 1969 in Slough, England, Bird and his family moved to Golden Valley, Minnesota when he was 9 years old. At age 16, he graduated at the top of his class from Benilde-St. Margaret’s School in the Twin Cities. He graduated with honors from the University of Washington in 1991—focusing his senior thesis on contemporary Russian rock music—and earned his Ph.D. from Yale University in 1998.

Bird is survived by his wife, Christina Kiaer; stepdaughter, Zora Kresak-Kiaer; parents, James and Margaret Bird; sister, Catherine Bird; and brother, Simon Bird. A memorial service was held Sept. 11 in Chicago.