Yuri Tsivian studied film history in Riga (Latvia) and Moscow (Russia) combining it with studying semiotics under the guidance of Yuri Lotman (1922 – 1993), a prominent cultural scholar of the Tartu University (Estonia) in collaboration with whom Yuri has written a book on film language Dialogues with the Screen (Tallinn,1994). The author of over one hundred publications in sixteen languages, Yuri Tsivian is also credited with launching two new fields in the studies of film and culture: carpalistics and cinemetrics. The former studies and compares different uses of gesture in theater, visual arts, literature and film; the latter uses digital tools to explore the art of film editing.
He is also involved in the restoration and video mastering of silent films; contributing an audio essay for the DVD version of Dziga Vertov's Man with the Movie Camera (Image Entertainment, 1995), an audio-visual essay on Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible, recorded on Eisenstein: the Sound Years (DVD by Criterion Collection, 2001), and, both in English and Russian, on his CD-ROM Immaterial Bodies: Cultural Anatomy of Early Russian Films (USC 2000) for which he received the 2001 award for the best interactive learning project from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. 
- Silent Witnesses: Russian Films, 1908‑1919, London: British Film Institute, 1989
- Early Cinema in Russia and its Cultural Reception, with a foreword by Tom Gunning (Routledge: London, New York, 1994; paperback version: University of Chicago Press), 1998
- Ivan the Terrible, London: British Film Institute Publishing, 2002
- Lines of Resistance: Dziga Vertov and the Twenties (Pordenone: Le Giornate del Cinema Muto), 2004
- "What Can We Do in Films that They Cannot on Stage? Film Style and Medium Specificity in the Cinema of the 1910s". (In Japanese and English). Theater and Film Studies, vol 1. March 2009, pp. 3-50.
- "Cinemetrics, Part of the Humanities’ Cyberinfrastructure", in: Michael Ross, Manfred Grauer, Bernd Freisleben (eds.), Digital Tools in Media Studies 9 (Bielfeld: Transcript Verlag, 2009), pp. 93-100.
- "What is cinema? An Agnostic Answer", Critical Inquiry, no. 34 (Summer 2008), pp. 754-776.
- "Robespierre Has Been Lost: Griffith’s Movies and the Soviet Twenties". The Griffith Project, Vol. 12 (London: BFI 2008), pp. 111-121.
- "Turning Objects, Toppled Pictures: Give and Take between Vertov’s Films and Constructivist Art", October, no. 121, Summer 2007, pp. 92-110.
- "Orphans of the Storm", The Griffith Project: vol. 10 (London: BFI Publishing, 2006), pp.116-137.