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Bronisław Piłsudski

Bronisław Piłsudski (1866-1918) - exile and ethnographer, also called the King of the Ainu people, brother of Marshal Józef Piłsudski. He was born in Zulovo, Lithuania. In 1886, he started law studies at Saint Petersburg University, yet he failed to graduate as he was involved in a plot to assassinate Tsar Alexander III. Then, a twist of fate brought him to quite a different reality, distant from his youthful plans. In St Petersburg, he was sentenced to death penalty, which was later commuted to fifteen years' heavy labour on Sakhalin Island. He arrived on Sakhalin in August 1887. His exile experience encompassed working as a woodcutter, prison clerk, meteorologist, builder of meteorological stations, as well as teacher and ethnographer, activities that preoccupied him most. In one of his articles, Piłsudski wrote that he enjoyed contacts with the locals, as 'this was the only group on the island to remain morally uncorrupted.' He gave the following description of his commitment: 'I became close to those people who suffer unjust treatment and face extinction... I treated them, vaccinated them against pox, taught them to read and write; I was their interpreter and advocate before the authorities. I won their full confidence and was accepted as a member of one of the families.'

Bronisław Piłsudski is considered a distinguished ethnographer specialising in the research into the culture of Sakhalin indigenous people - the Ainu, Oroks, and Nivkhs. His research achievements have been widely acknowledged by contemporary cultural anthropologists and ethnologists all over the world. Moreover, he helped to preserve the cultural identity and integrity of the local peoples by sending memoranda to the tsarist authorities. He also established schools for the Ainu. Piłsudski gathered ethnographic collections for the museums in St Petersburg and Vladivostok. In that, he was supported by Russian scientific societies, thanks to which the conditions of his exile were relaxed and in 1899 he took up work of a custodian at the museum in Vladivostok. He also participated in the expedition led by Wacław Sieroszewski to the island of Hokkaido aimed at conducting research into the culture of the Hokkaido Ainu (1903). Afterwards, he settled back in Sakhalin. Preoccupied with studying the indigenous culture, he remained on friendly terms with the natives of the island. The Nivkhs dubbed him 'Akan' - the big brother; his wife - with whom he had a son and a daughter - was Ainu. Their descendants still live in Japan.

Friendly and family relations with the natives allowed Piłsudski to describe their customs and traditions. He came to know the secrets of shamanism and the cult of the bear. He collected texts of prayers, legends and songs, as well as materials to compile dictionaries using the innovative method of phonographic recording; he also documented the culture in photographs. Piłsudski's life in exile was influenced by different circumstances, yet it was marked by an abundance of emotions and involvement in the life of the natives. He left his Ainu family and Sakhalin in 1905, when he illegally went to Japan. He spent 8 months there studying the Ainu culture. He then left for the United States and in the fall of 1906, he returned to Poland to settle in Galicia - first in Cracow, later in Zakopane and Lviv. His ethnographic research conducted in the Podhale region in the years 1906-1914 is also worth noting. At the outbreak of World War I, he left for Vienna and subsequently for Switzerland and France, where he worked in the office of the Polish National Committee. He committed suicide on 17 May 1918 in Paris and was buried in the Montmorency cemetery. In 2000, a symbolic tombstone was erected in honour of Piłsudski in the 'Pęksowy Brzyzek' Cemetery in Zakopane.

Bronisław Piłsudski left a vast collection of scientific work, which was only partially published during his life in French, Japanese, German, Polish and Russian languages. There were attempts to combine the materials during the interwar period, but that was only possible at the end of the 20th century with the establishment of the International Committee for the Preservation and Assessment of the Scientific Legacy of Bronisław Piłsudski and the publishing of his collected works (The Collected Works of Bronisław Piłsudski). A monument in honour of Bronisław Piłsudski was erected in Sakhalin, a mountain in Sakhalin was named after him and there is also the Bronisław Piłsudski scientific institute which publishes a yearbook entitled 'Izwiestija Instituta Nasledija Bronisława Piłsudskogo.' A periodical entitled 'Piłsudskiana de Sapporo' is published in Sapporo; a team composed of Japanese, Polish and Russian authors is preparing his biography, project financed by the Japanese Government grant. Three international conferences devoted to Piłsudski were held: in Sapporo (1985), Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk (1991), and Cracow and Zakopane (1999); a number of Japanese and Polish biographical films devoted to him have been produced; the Polish Post issued a stamp featuring his likeness; there are commemorative medals and plaques in honour of this exile and ethnographer of international renown who remained forgotten until very recently. The coins issued by the NBP are also intended to pay homage to the researcher who should remain vivid in our memory.

Prof. dr hab. Antoni Kuczyński.
University of Wrocław
Chair of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology