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  • Bronislaw Pilsudski's Scholarly Legacy Rediscovered:Review Essay
  • Sergei Kan

In the past, very few anthropologists outside of a small group of specialists on the culture of the Nivkh (Gilyak) and the Ainu were familiar with the name Bronislaw Pilsudski. Much of his valuable ethnological work remained unpublished or appeared in Russian and Polish academic journals.1 Only in the last decade did this situation begin to change thanks to the work of a small but dedicated group of Russian, Polish, and Japanese scholars.

Pilsudski was born in 1866 in a prominent Polish-Lithuanian noble family. His younger brother Joseph (1867-1935) played a major role in the reestablishment of an independent Polish state and became its first president. At age twenty Bronislaw Pilsudski began studying law at the St. Petersburg University. A year later he was arrested for "an alleged and problematic involvement in an attempt on the life of the czar Alexander III" (Majewicz 1998:17). He was tried and sentenced to fifteen years of hard labor on Sakhalin Island, Russia's infamous penal colony. In 1891 he met another political exile, Lev Shternberg (1861-1927), who had been conducting ethnographic research among the island's Nivkh people (Kan 2000, 2001, 2003). Shternberg inspired the young Pole to pursue ethnographic work of his own and it became his life-long passion. Like Shternberg, Pilsudski recorded Nivkh folklore as well as ethnographic data on their religion and social organization. The two of them were also instrumental in establishing the first natural history museum on the island, to which Pilsudski donated a very large and valuable collection of ethnographic objects.

In 1896 his hard labor sentence was shortened to ten years and his status changed from hard labor convict to deportee or exile. While prohibited from ever returning to European Russia, Pilsudski was allowed to move to the mainland where he became a curator at the Museum of the Society for the Study of the Amur region located in Vladivostok. He also served as the Vladivostok branch secretary of the Imperial Russian Geographic Society. In 1902 the Russian Imperial Academy of Sciences sent him on an official expedition to Sakhalin to purchase artifacts related to the material culture of the island's indigenous inhabitants. During this expedition, Pilsudski spent a good deal of time collecting objects and ethnographic information among the Ainu.

Pleased with his collecting activities as well as the quality of his reports on the Sakhalin expedition, the Academy sent him in 1902-1903 to undertake a similar expedition among the Ainu of Hokkaido. This undertaking proved to be even more successful than the previous one. Pilsudski collected numerous objects of Ainu material culture as well as valuable ethnographic and linguistic data; he also recorded Ainu folklore on wax cylinders and took many pictures of them. Throughout 1904-1905 he continued ethnographic research among the Ainu of Hokkaido and Sakhalin. He became a fluent speaker of the Ainu language and [End Page 95] developed strong empathy towards them. In fact, he attempted to organize schools for Ainu children on southern Sakhalin and prepared a thoughtful proposal for the establishment of a more fair Russian administrative system for dealing with the Ainu.2

After a year in Japan, Pilsudski finally was able to return to his native Poland in late 1906. He settled in southern (Austrian-controlled) Poland where he became one of the founders of Polish ethnology and ethnological museology (Majewicz 1998:33). In 1912 he published his major work, a monograph on Ainu folklore (1912b) and two years later a long paper in Russian on the Ainu bear festival (1914). During World War I he lived in Switzerland and France and engaged in both ethnological writing and émigré Polish politics. His correspondence with various anthropologists (including Franz Boas) shows how frustrated he was because of his inability to find a permanent academic position and publish his large corpus of ethnographic and linguistic manuscripts. In May 1918 his body was found in the Seine. Some scholars believe that he committed suicide while others view his tragic death as an accident.

A revival of interest in Pilsudksi's scholarly legacy began in the 1980s when an International Committee for...


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