Robert James Douglas Bird

September 16, 1969September 7, 2020
Obituary of Robert James Douglas Bird
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: 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.) "Robert Bird (1969-1920)" in Artforum: Zachary Cahill, "Robert Bird (1969–2020): A Remembrance" in Critical Inquiry: William Nickell, "In Memoriam: Robert Bird," in East from Chicago: Jennifer Wild, "A Tribute to Professor Robert Bird" Sara Patterson, "Robert Bird, prolific scholar of Russian literature and film, 1969–2020," UChicago News: Vladimir Marchenkov and Igor Vishnevetsky, "In Memoriam," Studies in East European Thought vol. 72, pp. 423–425 (2020): Losev House, "Роберт Бёрд. Светлая память" with the poem "Elegy" by Igor Vishnevetsky: 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: SÉRGIO ASSAD: Elegy for a friend (a piece of music composed for Robert's memorial), played by Edson Lopes: "Dr. Robert James Douglas Bird," obituary, Star Tribune (Minnesota): 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 ( Robert's last completed article, reflecting on his illness: "The Omens: Tarkovsky, Sacrifice, Cancer," in Apparatus no. 10 (2020): Robert's essay reflecting on his illness during the Coronavirus pandemic, "Illness in a Plague Year," in the The Point magazine: [scroll to April 15, 2020] "1989," The Point magazine, no. 20, September 5, 2019: Video of Gray Center Collaborative Fellows: Robert Bird and artist Cauleen Smith: Robert reading Mayakovsky's Наш марш / "Our March" and talking about Mayakovsky and revolution, from 2017 (he starts at 35:27):

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