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.”