OBITUARY

Robert James Douglas Bird

September 16, 1969September 7, 2020
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Dr. Robert James Douglas Bird, scholar of Russian literature and cinema and a professor at the University of Chicago, died Monday September 7th after a nine-month battle with colon cancer. He was born September 16th 1969 in Slough, England to James and Margaret (née Brammah) Bird, and moved to Golden Valley, Minnesota in 1979 at age nine. He is survived by his beloved wife Dr. Christina Kiaer and stepdaughter Zora Kresak-Kiaer, his parents, sister Catherine Bird, brother Simon Bird, brother-in-law Jonathan Delgado, sister-in-law Celia Bird, nieces Athena Delgado and Calder and Pippa Bird, and his former wife Dr. Farida Tcherkassova.

Robert showed his intellectual brilliance from an early age, starting first grade in Windsor, England at age four, and graduating at the top of his class from Benilde-St.Margaret’s High School in suburban Minneapolis at sixteen. (Christina and Zora liked to call him the “boy genius.”) He earned two BA degrees with honors from the University of Washington in 1991, writing his senior thesis on contemporary Russian rock music. He completed his Ph.D. in Slavic Languages and Literatures at Yale University in 1998, with a dissertation on Viacheslav Ivanov. After teaching for three years at Dickinson College, in 2001 he was hired by the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Chicago and would also become a member of the Department of Cinema and Media Studies. He served as chair of both departments, and of the Fundamentals program in the College.

Robert was highly respected for his erudition, but he was also joyful in his intellect, endlessly curious and open, ready to be engaged by new ways of thinking. He published an astonishing amount of work across an extraordinary range of topics and approaches. His first book, The Russian Prospero: The Creative Universe of Viacheslav Ivanov, was followed by two books on Tarkovsky, including Andrei Tarkovsky: Elements of Cinema, which has been translated into Chinese, Farsi, and Portuguese, and was published in Russian in Moscow in 2021 in Robert’s own translation (Тарковский: Стихии кино). He also wrote a critical biography of Dostoevsky and edited numerous volumes and journal issues in both Russian and English. He wrote fluently in Russian and became a trusted authority in matters of translation. Just days before his death he completed work toward a volume of his collected essays in Russian, Символизм после символизма, which will be published in late 2021. His work in recent years had turned more decisively toward problems of aesthetics, socialism and revolution: he was completing the book Soul Machine: How Soviet Film Modeled Socialism, a labor of many years. It will be published posthumously.

He had a passion for thinking with other people, which was reflected in his seemingly boundless energy in organizing landmark conferences and collaborating with scholars and practitioners across fields, including poets, filmmakers and visual artists. He had recently been working more in the intersection of art, exhibition and politics, in his commitment to knowledge and collaboration as instruments of change. In the fall of 2017, to mark the centennial of the Russian Revolution, he co-curated, with his wife Christina and Zachary Cahill, the exhibition Revolution Every Day at the Smart Museum in Chicago and co-wrote with them the catalogue Revolution Every Day: A Calendar. He continued his collaboration with artist and filmmaker Cauleen Smith, whose work had been included in that exhibition, developing a project with her on Paul Robeson and Blackness in the USSR. He began to publish essays and reviews in art journals such as e-flux and Art Agenda, memoir essays in The Point (“1989”) and Portable Gray (“Moscow Diary”), and, in the last months, two beautiful and more personal essays on his illness, “Illness in a plague year” (The Point, April 15), and “The Omens: Tarkovsky, Sacrifice, Cancer,” which appeared two days after his death, September 9, in Apparatus.

Robert was a strong physical presence. He was an athlete, like his father, Jim. He played rugby and football (soccer) as a boy, and continued to play football as an adult, adding tennis and, with the greatest passion, squash. He was also an ardent biker—he commuted from Edgewater to the University of Chicago on the Lakeshore bike path and continued to ride until the last month of his life. Robert’s love and knowledge of football and especially the Manchester United Football club was unmatched. Man U was a consistent source of joy and disappointment for him. He loved the music of The Fall and Can, as well as the jazz of Bobo Stenson and Brazilian guitar music. He was, by profession and inclination, an intense spectator of film, as well as of art, with a particular love of El Greco and Il Baciccio. His interest in Russian language and culture led him to live for a year in the Soviet Union in 1989, and to return regularly, including a trip during the fall of communism, much to the consternation of his parents. Robert was much appreciated for his brilliant, understated humor. His punning was a source of delight that could border on exasperation. In recent years he developed a fondness for gardening, bragging about his berry bushes and tomato harvests.

Robert had a deep fidelity to his family. He was close to his parents, and endeavored to be with them and his siblings as often as possible. His enchantment with becoming a stepfather to nine-year old Zora at the age of forty-three was palpable to everyone; he was infinitely patient, steadfast, and tenderly devoted—and available for all duties, including driving to endless skating practices, often at 6 am. He was a prince among men to his wife Christina. When illness so bewilderingly descended on him at the age of fifty, he faced physical vulnerability for the first time in his life. He was characteristically stoic and courageous, but he also accepted it as an opportunity for self-knowledge, cruel as it was. As he wrote, he found himself “vulnerable and unmoored, yet resolute.”

The qualities that come up again and again from everyone who knew him are generosity, kindness, strength and humor, always accompanied by tact and unassuming grace. He was the kind of interlocutor who buoyed and increased the capacities of those around him. Thoughtful is perhaps the best word for him, in both senses: he was caring and solicitous for others, and he was cerebral in the most genuine, committed way. He was a comrade to everyone who worked with him, and to those he was closest to, he was a constant source of joy and peace. His passing leaves a hole in so many universes. All who loved him had the feeling that we were just getting started, and that there was so much more to come. His memory will burn brightly in all of us.

PHOTOS: Please click on "From the Family" under "Memories" below for a complete set of photos; keep clicking on "Load More" (the Tribute Movie includes only a limited selection of photos)

FILM: See the film about Robert's loss by Jacques Manjarrez, "An Omen of Nothing," 2021: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1B8j1pqQDZdeTvPd-s7FvPl1wYhrgF-Pr/view?usp=sharing

LINKS TO MEMORIALS:

Recording of the Memorial to Robert Bird held at the University of Chicago on October 18, 2020. (For a phototribute set to some of Robert's most beloved punk songs, watch from the 2:09:47 mark.) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tsR3XNDDcFo

"Robert Bird (1969-1920)" in Artforum: https://www.artforum.com/news/robert-bird-1969-2020-83917

Zachary Cahill, "Robert Bird (1969–2020): A Remembrance" in Critical Inquiry: https://critinq.wordpress.com/2020/09/22/robert-bird-1969-2020-a-remembrance/

William Nickell, "In Memoriam: Robert Bird," in East from Chicago: https://ceeres.uchicago.edu/blog/memoriam-robert-bird

Jennifer Wild, "A Tribute to Professor Robert Bird" https://lucian.uchicago.edu/blogs/cmsnews/2020/10/15/a-tribute-to-professor-robert-bird/ https://cms.uchicago.edu/

Sara Patterson, "Robert Bird, prolific scholar of Russian literature and film, 1969–2020," UChicago News: https://news.uchicago.edu/story/robert-bird-prolific-scholar-russian-literature-and-film-1969-2020

Vladimir Marchenkov and Igor Vishnevetsky, "In Memoriam," Studies in East European Thought vol. 72, pp. 423–425 (2020): https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11212-020-09406-x

Losev House, "Роберт Бёрд. Светлая память" with the poem "Elegy" by Igor Vishnevetsky: http://domloseva.ru/events/news/filosofiya/roberd-bjord-svetlaya-pamyat-2

Katherine M. H. Reischl and Michael Wachtel, "Robert Bird: In Memoriam," Slavic and East European Journal, vol. 64, no. 3 (Fall 2020), pp. 345–346: https://seej.org/issues/64.3.html

SÉRGIO ASSAD: Elegy for a friend (a piece of music composed for Robert's memorial), played by Edson Lopes: https://youtu.be/OGNRW4bgA0c

"Dr. Robert James Douglas Bird," obituary, Star Tribune (Minnesota): https://www.startribune.com/obituaries/detail/0000369236/?fullname=dr-robert-james-douglas-bird

LINKS TO OTHER MATERIALS:

Robert's essay on Eisenstein appeared posthumously in a wonderful volume edited by Ian Christie and Julia Vassilieva: "The Politics of Nonindifference in Eisenstein's Dialectics of Nature," in The Eisenstein Universe (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2021), pp. 41-57.

Robert's own translation into Russian of his book on Tarkovsky, which he completed before his death: Роберт Бёрд «Андрей Тарковский: стихии кино», Издательская программа Музея современного искусства «Гараж» 2021 (https://garagemca.org/ru/publishing/robert-bird-andrei-tarkovsky-elements-of-cinema)

Robert's last completed article, reflecting on his illness: "The Omens: Tarkovsky, Sacrifice, Cancer," in Apparatus no. 10 (2020): http://www.apparatusjournal.net/index.php/apparatus/article/view/225/488

Robert's essay reflecting on his illness during the Coronavirus pandemic, "Illness in a Plague Year," in the The Point magazine: https://thepointmag.com/quarantine-journal/ [scroll to April 15, 2020]

"1989," The Point magazine, no. 20, September 5, 2019: https://thepointmag.com/politics/1989/

Video of Gray Center Collaborative Fellows: Robert Bird and artist Cauleen Smith: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7jwgCWGVmvo&t=3s

Robert reading Mayakovsky's Наш марш / "Our March" and talking about Mayakovsky and revolution, from 2017 (he starts at 35:27): https://www.semcoop.com/blog/post/china-mieville-norma-field-heather-bowen-struyk-specters-revolution?fbclid=IwAR3BlbpiKAOTJHpSJYmdzXy_mZ6Kw1nH3sa33WQIAw7BjY52cPiiKYwf8ec

Services

  • Memorial Gathering

    Friday, September 11, 2020

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  • Celebration of Life

    Friday, September 11, 2020

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Memories

Robert James Douglas Bird

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Miguel Caballero

July 8, 2021

I feel very fortunate that I worked with Robert extensively between 2018 and 2020. He supported my proposal to do an exhibition in Moscow and helped me in everything he could, from collecting funds, to helping me with Russian bureaucracies, to doing research in archives, to discussing the conceptual dimension of my work. He instantly became a mentor to me, and one does not get a mentor often in life. To me, he is a model of altruism, of professional integrity, or care. We were organizing a webinar when he passed and I couldn't believe it. I wasn't ready to say goodbye because I had many other projects in mind to propose to him. I miss him deeply, but I also I'm so thankful of having the chance to work with him, and he will always be present in the kind of professor I am becoming.

Tom Ross

November 6, 2020

Professor Bird wouldn’t have remembered me, but I was in his first class on his first day teaching at the U of C in 2001. I will never forget him telling the class that he’d come from Dickinson college, only for one of my classmates to blurt out, “Charles Dickinson?” That was embarrassing, although Professor Bird was characteristically kind about it.

Professor Bird taught me how to write. After I wrote my first essay as a college student, he sat with me for hours to improve it. His lesson—don’t say something in ten words if you can say it in 5– stuck with me. I don’t claim to be a “writer,” but I went on to improve my writing, then to enjoy writing, then to love it, and eventually to choose a profession (law) partly because it allows me to write. Professor Bird’s thoughtfulness made an enormous difference in my life. It’s a testament to the profound impact an educator can have on a student. I wish I’d had the courage to thank him.

Ed Wooden

October 24, 2020

Robert was my classmate from 1980-1986 (Good Shepherd thru Benilde). In 7th grade I remember the kid with the English accent cranking on the sax...we all needed practice. Played a lot of soccer together. Kind, courteous, always a smile, never a bad word about anyone, good kid. Job well done mom&dad and by reading his obituary, job well done Robert.
Prayers.

Ed Wooden

Emma Widdis

September 30, 2020

Those photographs of Robert, and of those he loved, are beautiful. They capture what seems to me to be the spirit of Robert: there's an integrity, a joy, and a seriousness, all there at the same time. That's what struck me when I first met Robert. He was a remarkable mix of levity and humour, alongside his evident brilliance and intellectual intensity. It was a real privilege to talk to him, and to benefit from his insights, his capacious knowledge and forensic sharpness. It was also great fun. It seems to me, also, that the fun amplified in Robert when he fell in love with Christina. I'm in awe of the relationship that they had, and the unique way that it combined sheer romance with the privilege of a meeting of minds and intellects. Sharing cocktails with them has been a highlight of my visits to the US. There will be a huge hole in Slavic Studies, and Slavic Film Studies, without Robert. We'll all continue to benefit from his work, and from our memories of him as all the things that a scholar should be.

Richard Anderson

September 28, 2020

The notice was just recently posted in our local paper in Minneapolis. Robert was my friend back on the street where we grew up in Minnesota. We played on several soccer teams together and his father coached us one year. Several of us hung out together all the time, playing soccer, football, and tennis. Back then he really liked The Who, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, some Pink Floyd among other rock bands. We would all bike down the road and check out the local record store to see what new albums were out. As I was also into soccer, Robert would share his British football magazines with me. I can see how he became such an intellectual. He was an avid reader and had many interests. I am sorry for your loss.

Rachel Haidu

September 20, 2020

Christina was my beloved teacher in graduate school, and when I heard through the grapevine that she had met a man she was deeply in love with, I was very excited. Even more so when I heard they were getting married, and promptly invited myself (and my daughter!) to the ceremony and party. To witness two people brought together in midlife is a rare chance, and it felt particularly meaningful in this instance.

I am slowly learning, second-hand, what it was like to be Robert's student or colleague. I've started reading, backwards--from "Illness in a Plague Year"--and will keep going, even if there's no catching up. After all, one can read his words but only imagine the conversations that either took place or never will, and it's those conversations that we never had that I regret with particular sharpness.

But I do have a few memories: mostly, the way that Christina was transformed by happiness at her wedding, and the brief memories I have of them together more privately: sharing a bottle of wine at a dinner party and whispering to each other, totally enraptured.

It is devastating to think of Robert gone. My condolences go to his family, friends, and students, and most of all to Christina and Zora.

Rachel


Tamara Djermanovic

September 16, 2020

To Robert Bird, in memoriam

Robert, where are you?
Did Dostoevsky and Tarkovsky
Open for you the doors of eternal abode?
Each of them one wing of a wide gate,
gray, metallic,
washed today by the rainwater
running down the door,
And you walk away in comfortable shoes across the mud
the same that Boriska had dug up
when he shouted "I found it" (Nashol!) in "Andrey Rublev"
And you look back one more time
"Please wait for me a little longer,"
you tell them
And you look at us again,
at Christina, Zora, at all your family,
then at your garden where the roses are ready to bloom again,
at your home town, and at Moscow.
"I have wanted nothing more than to visit Europe, almost anywhere, at least one more time",
you wrote in an email.
"Our garden is beginning to bring us berries, tomatoes and vegetables, in addition to dozens or even hundreds of roses, which have decorated our transition from late spring into early summer", in another.
But also:
"Unfortunately my treatment isn't going perfectly well, so I can't fully share your optimism".
All yours words live behind a dead computer screen
And you're smiling
Illuminated, beautiful, ready for eternity.

Tamara Djermanovic
(Barcelona, 8/9/2020)

Christina Kiaer

September 14, 2020

A beautiful photo that I'd never seen of a pensive Robert turned up today from a friend in Russia. Not sure where or when it's from, but definitely 2012 or after, and not long after.

Also, a nice obituary was published today in Artforum, with links to some of his recent writing:
https://www.artforum.com/news/robert-bird-1969-2020-83917

Robert Shaw

September 14, 2020

Dear Christina & Zora,

Having heard of Robert’s passing I wanted to send my love and heartfelt condolences. It was such a pleasure to meet him when you visited my home with my sister, Jennifer. It is apparent that his life and presence have been and will remain such a bright light to all of those who were privileged to know him. I am grateful to have met him. Thinking of you often.

With Love,

Robert Shaw

Katerina Korola

September 14, 2020

I'll always remember Robert for the sincere interest he took in all the graduate students in the department. Though I never took a class or worked closely with him, whenever I ran into Robert--in the hall, at the campus Dollop, at the Smart Museum, or at a department event or party--he always took the time to say hello, to ask me how my work was going, to suggest a reading, prod me with a question, or make an introduction. These moments were generally brief, but I'm very grateful for them. Robert had a talent for making you feel like you were part of a community, and this meant a lot to a grad student like myself, who arrived at UChicago in an almost debilitating awe.

Thank you, Robert, for always taking the time to make me feel like a welcome and valued member of the department over the years. Thank you also to Robert's family for creating this beautiful memorial. I learned so much reading through it and looking through the photos--so many things I wish I'd asked him about while there was a chance--so thank you for sharing these memories. My deepest condolences, please do know how much he will be missed.

FROM THE FAMILY

University of Chicago, 2018

FROM THE FAMILY
FROM THE FAMILY

Robert's high school yearbook.

FROM THE FAMILY
FROM THE FAMILY
FROM THE FAMILY

Robert's Ph.D. hooding, Yale, 1998

FROM THE FAMILY

Robert's Ph.D. hooding, Yale, 1998

FROM THE FAMILY
FROM THE FAMILY
FROM THE FAMILY

Biography

Dr. Robert James Douglas Bird, scholar of Russian literature and cinema and a professor at the University of Chicago, died Monday September 7th after a nine-month battle with colon cancer. He was born September 16th 1969 in Slough, England to James and Margaret (née Brammah) Bird, and moved to Golden Valley, Minnesota in 1979 at age nine. He is survived by his beloved wife Dr. Christina Kiaer and stepdaughter Zora Kresak-Kiaer, his parents, sister Catherine Bird, brother Simon Bird, brother-in-law Jonathon Delgado, sister-in-law Celia Bird, nieces Athena Delgado and Calder and Pippa Bird, and his former wife Dr. Farida Tcherkassova.

Robert showed his intellectual brilliance from an early age, starting first grade in Windsor, England at age four, and graduating at the top of his class from Benilde-St.Margaret’s High School in suburban Minneapolis at sixteen. (Christina and Zora liked to call him the “boy genius.”) He earned two BA degrees with honors from the University of Washington in 1991, writing his senior thesis on contemporary Russian rock music. He completed his Ph.D. in Slavic Languages and Literatures at Yale University in 1998, with a dissertation on Viacheslav Ivanov. After teaching for three years at Dickinson College, in 2001 he was hired by the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Chicago and would also become a member of the Department of Cinema and Media Studies. He served as chair of both departments, and of the Fundamentals program in the College.

Robert was highly respected for his erudition, but he was also joyful in his intellect, endlessly curious and open, ready to be engaged by new ways of thinking. He published an astonishing amount of work across an extraordinary range of topics and approaches. His first book, The Russian Prospero: The Creative Universe of Viacheslav Ivanov, was followed by two books on Tarkovsky, including Andrei Tarkovsky: Elements of Cinema, which has been translated into Chinese, Farsi, and Portuguese, and will be published in Russian this year in Moscow in Robert’s own translation (Тарковский: Стихии кино). He also wrote a critical biography of Dostoevsky and edited numerous volumes and journal issues in both Russian and English. He wrote fluently in Russian and became a trusted authority in matters of translation. Just days before his death he completed work toward a volume of his collected essays in Russian, which will be published next year. His work in recent years had turned more decisively toward problems of aesthetics, socialism and revolution: he was completing the book Soul Machine: How Soviet Film Modeled Socialism, a labor of many years. It will be published posthumously.

He had a passion for thinking with other people, which was reflected in his seemingly boundless energy in organizing landmark conferences and collaborating with scholars and practitioners across fields, including poets, filmmakers and visual artists. He had recently been working more in the intersection of art, exhibition and politics, in his commitment to knowledge and collaboration as instruments of change. In the fall of 2017, to mark the centennial of the Russian Revolution, he co-curated, with his wife Christina and Zachary Cahill, the exhibition Revolution Every Day at the Smart Museum in Chicago and co-wrote with them the catalogue Revolution Every Day: A Calendar. He continued his collaboration with artist and filmmaker Cauleen Smith, whose work had been included in that exhibition, developing a project with her on Paul Robeson and Blackness in the USSR. He began to publish essays and reviews in art journals such as e-flux and Art Agenda, memoir essays in The Point (“1989”) and Portable Gray (“Moscow Diary”), and, in the last months, two beautiful and more personal essays on his illness, “Illness in a plague year” (The Point, April 15), and “The Omens: Tarkovsky, Sacrifice, Cancer,” which appeared two days after his death, September 9, in Apparatus.

Robert was a strong physical presence. He was an athlete, like his father, Jim. He played rugby and football (soccer) as a boy, and continued to play football as an adult, adding tennis and, with the greatest passion, squash. He was also an ardent biker—he commuted from Edgewater to the University of Chicago on the Lakeshore bike path and continued to ride until the last month of his life. Robert’s love and knowledge of football and especially the Manchester United Football club was unmatched. Man U was a consistent source of joy and disappointment for him. He loved the music of The Fall and Can, as well as the jazz of Bobo Stenson and Brazilian guitar music. He was, by profession and inclination, an intense spectator of film, as well as of art, with a particular love of El Greco and Il Baciccio. His interest in Russian language and culture led him to live for a year in the Soviet Union in 1989, and to return regularly, including a trip during the fall of communism, much to the consternation of his parents. Robert was much appreciated for his brilliant, understated humor. His punning was a source of delight that could border on exasperation. In recent years he developed a fondness for gardening, bragging about his berry bushes and tomato harvests.

Robert had a deep fidelity to his family. He was close to his parents, and endeavored to be with them and his siblings as often as possible. His enchantment with becoming a stepfather to nine-year old Zora at the age of forty-three was palpable to everyone; he was infinitely patient, steadfast, and tenderly devoted—and available for all duties, including driving to endless skating practices, often at 6 am. He was a prince among men to his wife Christina. When illness so bewilderingly descended on him at the age of fifty, he faced physical vulnerability for the first time in his life. He was characteristically stoic and courageous, but he also accepted it as an opportunity for self-knowledge, cruel as it was. As he wrote, he found himself “vulnerable and unmoored, yet resolute.”

The qualities that come up again and again from everyone who knew him are generosity, kindness, strength and humor, always accompanied by tact and unassuming grace. He was the kind of interlocutor who buoyed and increased the capacities of those around him. Thoughtful is perhaps the best word for him, in both senses: he was caring and solicitous for others, and he was cerebral in the most genuine, committed way. He was a comrade to everyone who worked with him, and to those he was closest to, he was a constant source of joy and peace. His passing leaves a hole in so many universes. All who loved him had the feeling that we were just getting started, and that there was so much more to come. His memory will burn brightly in all of us.