Bronisław Piłsudski – Recording the Ainu
portrait, Bronisław Piłsudski, photo: Wikipedia, center, bronislaw_pilsudski_wikipedia.jpg
Bronisław Piłsudski is a self-taught genius and world-famous ethnographer who conducts research on the indigenous peoples of North-East Asia. He is exiled to Sakhalin as punishment for his involvement in a plot to assassinate Tsar Alexander III of Russia. While on the island, he creates a transcript of the language of its indigenous inhabitants, the Ainu people. Piłsudski is much better known there, as in Poland he is greatly overshadowed by his brother Józef, one of Polish history’s most important figures.
Young Bronisław creates a self-education club in the middle school he attends in Vilnius. He is supported by his younger brother Józef. The members of the club meet to read and discuss Polish literature forbidden by the Russian authorities. Bronisław is punished for this secretive activity and expelled from the school. To pass his final exams he is forced to move to Saint Petersburg, where he also starts a law degree at the university there.
At university Malinowski meets Aleksandr Ulyanov, Vladimir Lenin’s brother. Aleksandr Ulyanov and Bronisław were both arrested in March 1887 for plotting to assassinate Tsar Alexander III. Some of the conspirators are sentenced to death: Bronisław included.
Ulyanov is hanged. Bronisław Piłsudski, thanks to his father’s efforts, is ‘pardoned’, which in fact means being sentenced to 15 years of forced labour in one of tsarist Russia’s roughest penal colonies, dubbed ‘exile island’ and ‘a prison without bars’.
Józef, the younger brother, receives a more favourable sentence: ‘only’ five years of exile in eastern Siberia. Meanwhile, Bronisław is forced to work in Sakhalin as a carpenter. Because of his knowledge and abilities, the prison management obliges him to administer the department of police administration and do meteorological research.
He also educates the local children, teaching them mathematics, Russian and reading. This helps him acquire the knowledge of local dialects.
The Sakhalin journal
Thanks to his position, Piłsudski enjoys slightly more freedom than the other exiles: he lives in a cottage and runs botanical research. After two years of his stay at the island he meets a Russian exile, the anthropologist Lev Sternberg, who persuades him to write a ‘Sakhalin journal’. From that moment on, Bronisław writes down fables, legends and rituals of the local peoples.
In the southern part of the island he meets the Ainu people. Because of their appearance, they are scathingly called the ‘shaggy people’ by the Japanese and the Russians. Bronisław, however, treats them with respect: he learns the Ainu language, builds schools, and supports the community.
On behalf of the Ainu he negotiates with local authorities. When the Russian forbid fishing, Piłsudski advises the Ainu how to survive. He convinces them to plant potatoes, cultivate fields and amass salted food supplies.
After ten years of exile, Piłsudski decides not to take advantage of his right to amnesty, instead deciding on staying among the Ainu and Nivkh peoples. To him it is ‘the only community on the entire island which is not morally degenerate’.
In 1899 Piłsudski is transferred to Vladivostok. He becomes a curator in a museum and the secretary of a branch of the Russian Geographical Society. He prepares the Far East part of the Russian exhibition for the world exposition in 1900. The Imperial Saint Petersburg Academy of Sciences appreciates his research on the Sakhalin peoples and instructs him to do more work in the field.
Piłsudski creates a dictionary containing 10,000 words of the Ainu language, as well as two more lexicons containing 6,000 words of Nivkh and 2,000 of Orok respectively. He also makes film and photographic documentation. Around 1903, Piłsudski marries an Ainu woman, a relative of a chief.
Continuing his enquiries, Piłsudski and another exile, Wacław Sieroszewski, go on an expedition to Hokkaido, where the Japanese forcefully resettled the majority of the Ainu. The researchers register their conversations, rituals, singing and music on 100 Edison wax cylinder phonographs. However, the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese war in 1905 forces Piłsudski and Sieroszewski to return from the island: otherwise they might have been arrested as Russian spies.
Having returned, Bronisław plans to illegally leave the Far East with his pregnant wife and their son. The wife refuses, as for an Ainu woman leaving her village is tantamount to disgrace. Bronisław never sees his daughter, who is born after he leaves.
Bronisław returns to Poland through Hokkaido and the USA. He continues to undertake ethnographic research in the Tatra Mountains. He is among the initiators of the creation of the Tatra Museum. Together with Stanisław Witkiewicz, a famous Polish painter, he co-creates the so-called ‘Zakopane style’, drawing from the folklore of the Tatras. After the outbreak of World War I he goes to Switzerland, where he advocates for Polish independence.
Bronisław Piłsudski dies unexpectedly in 1918 in Paris, drowning in the Seine. It remains unclear whether it was suicide or an accident. He is buried at the Montmorency cemetery in Paris. He also has a symbolic grave in the Pęksowy Brzyzek cemetery in Zakopane.
Today, Alfred F. Majewicz of the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań continues Piłsudski’s research. It is Majewicz who is able to decipher the miraculously found audio recordings that Piłsudski made. Japanese laser technology allows to recreate the language of the Ainu, whose language is almost extinct.
Translated by Natalia Sajewicz