Robert Bird, 1969-2020

Tributes paid to ‘a man of many worlds’ who was also ‘a uniquely versatile intellectual’

October 15, 2020
Robert Bird, 1969-2020

A leading authority on Russian literature and cinema has died.

Robert Bird was born in Slough, England in 1969 but moved with his family to Golden Valley in Minnesota at the age of nine. He studied at the University of Minnesota (1986-88) and then the University of Washington (1986-91), where his senior thesis explored “swearwords and prayers” in contemporary Russian rock music. He followed this up with a PhD on the poet Viacheslav Ivanov at Yale University (1998), where he also worked as a teaching fellow from 1996 to 1998.

After serving as an assistant professor in Dickinson College’s department of Russian (1998-2001), Dr Bird moved to the University of Chicago as an assistant professor and, from 2006, an associate professor, chairing both the department of cinema and media studies and the department of Slavic languages and literatures. He published a monograph about Ivanov, The Russian Prospero (2006), and a translation of his Selected Essays (2001) as well as a biographical study of Fyodor Dostoevsky (2012). He was also an authority on the director Andrei Tarkovsky, publishing both a study of his film Andrei Rublev (2004) and a comprehensive analysis of his whole career, Andrei Tarkovsky: Elements of Cinema (2008). He returned to Tarkovsky towards the end of his life in an essay reflecting on how their shared experiences of cancer had led to “the loss of systems within which my life has been constructed”.

For the centenary of the Russian Revolution in 2017, Dr Bird collaborated with his wife Christina Kiaer – an art historian at Northwestern University – and a colleague on the immersive Revolution Every Day exhibition. He co-curated another exhibition on “radical print culture from St Petersburg to Chicago”, titled Red PressAs a result of these exhibitions, he also became friends with the filmmaker Cauleen Smith. They went on to teach a course together and to work on a project about the American singer and activist Paul Robeson and the revolutionary potential of film.

“Robert was a man of many worlds, a uniquely versatile intellectual and a tower of strength for Slavic studies at UChicago,” said Boris Maslov, an assistant professor in the department of comparative literature. “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.”

Dr Bird died of colon cancer on 7 September and is survived by his wife and a stepdaughter.

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