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Robert Bird.
Robert Bird.

Robert Bird (1969–2020)

Robert Bird, a renowned English-born scholar of Russian and Soviet modernism and leading authority on the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, has died of cancer at the age of fifty. Since 2001, Bird taught at the University of Chicago in the department of Slavic languages and literatures and the department of cinema and media studies. Recognized for his wide range of interests and critical models, Bird wrote with incisive and lucid language on modern art and nineteenth- and twentieth-century Russian and Soviet poetry, literature, and cinema—especially that of Tarkovsky, the Soviet director known for dreamlike, enigmatic epics concerned with memory and time. Bird’s monograph Andrei Tarkovsky: Elements of Cinema (2008) became a seminal point of reference in the field of film studies, and will be published in Russian this year in Bird’s own translation. An essay collection of his Russian-language writings, completed days before his death, will be released in 2021.

In recent years, Bird focused on the interplay of aesthetics, socialism, and revolution, and in 2017 at the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art, he cocurated the exhibition “Revolution Every Day” with his wife, art historian Christina Kiaer, and Zachary Cahill. The show, which marked the centennial of the Russian Revolution, presented Soviet posters from the 1920s and ’30s alongside old and new moving image works in an effort to challenge preconceptions about the Russian Revolution and female subjectivity under communism. Its catalogue, published by Mousse and coedited by Bird, was inspired by Soviet-era tear-off calendars. 

Bird was also a contributor to numerous journals, including e-flux and Portable Gray, the latter of which published Moscow Diaries (2019), a collaboration with artist Cauleen Smith that explores Blackness in the USSR through the life of singer and activist Paul Robeson. With Jonathan Flatley, he coedited South Atlantic Quarterly’s July 2020 issue, titled “1968 Decentered” and themed around the radical politics that coalesced during the late ’60s. This spring, he wrote “Illness in a Plague Year” for The Point, and in his final months, pushed to complete the manuscript for Soul Machine: How Soviet Film Modeled Socialism. His most recent essay was published by Apparatus one day after his death and is titled “The Omens: Tarkovsky, Sacrifice, Cancer”—a reflection on Tarkovsky’s response to illness during his final year.

“Tarkovsky’s cancer was a tragedy felt worldwide, coming just as Perestroika was gearing up, and the USSR was becoming newly hospitable to, and needful of, him and his films,” Bird wrote. “His funeral, orchestrated by Mstislav Rostropovich, recorded by Chris Marker, was an omen of the end of an entire epoch in the history of the cinema, of Soviet culture, of culture. In my case it’s just mundane, private cancer. An anonymizing force. An omen of nothing,” He added: “The contingency of these omens is something I hold onto. It drives home the fragile wonder of the world we share, as taut and fluid as the ocean.”