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Memories of Russia on the Maclay Coast

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Memories of Russia on the Maclay Coast


Boris Serov

In September and October of 2017, a Russian expedition organized by the Miklouho-Maclay Foundation visited the Maclay Coast in Papua New Guinea, which was discovered by the famous explorer who gave the Foundation its name. To learn about this corner of the Earth (practically unknown to Russians) and his encounter with the descendants of the Papuans who received Nicholas Miklouho-Maclay 150 years ago, we spoke with the explorer’s descendant Nikolai Miklouho-Maclay, Jr.

Mr. Miklouho-Maclay, the Miklouho-Maclay Foundation for Preserving Ethnocultural Heritage had a plan for a large driving expedition through all of Eurasia and Eastern Asia with numerous stops, meetings, and stories about your ancestor N.N. Miklouho-Maclay. What were the tasks set for the expedition and how much of the plan did you manage to carry out?

– These plans truly were grandiose, especially considering that we hadn’t made an expedition to Papua New Guinea before this and we couldn’t imagine how it all would look. At first, we expected to head out that way in cars, but then after I had studied the details I understood that this would be very difficult to realize in practice, so instead of a large travel-expedition, we made a more local one, but one with a greater research component.

Consequently, we set ourselves the goal of not only conducting scientific research, but also arranging to work with the local population, universities, and local authorities—what they call public diplomacy. Now, unfortunately we don’t have such relationships, although this is a unique region for anthropologists, ethnographers, and linguists (there are 867 languages on Papua New Guinea). We also wanted to connect Russia and Papua New Guinea with the help of a satellite link-up, which was quite difficult to organize. In addition to all this, we were planning to shoot a documentary film and take photographs in order to organize an exhibit later. We succeeded in doing everything I’ve just listed.

What Russian research organizations have you worked with?

– With the D.N. Anuchin Museum of Anthropology at Moscow State University. If I’m not mistaken, it was Anuchin who, in 1923, began restoring Miklouho-Maclay’s notes, and it was thanks to Anuchin that he became famous in the Soviet Union. The expedition team included the researchers Arina Lebedeva from the Saint Petersburg Peter the Great Museum of Ethnology and Anthropology (Kunstkamera) and Igor Chininov from the N.N. Miklouho-Maclay Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology. We were met on the shore by Stepan Tsergel’, who was our translator from Russian into Tok Pisin, the local language used by most residents of Papua New Guinea. We also had the photographer Dmitrii Sharomov with us.

One of the research aims for this expedition consisted in bringing items from the Miklouho-Maclay collection at the Kunstkamera to Papua New Guinea and showing them to locals so they could explain and demonstrate how they are used.

– We did do that, and it turned out that 70% of these items are still used in celebrations and everyday activities today.

What specifically are you talking about?

– For example, plates, a handheld drum, pots, ornaments. In general, this location, the Maclay Coast, is unique. It is practically a preserve of traditional Papuan culture, which has incidentally been thoroughly studied by scientists. Maclay described their life in detail and collected a great number of ethnographic items. One hundred years later, other scientists went there (two Soviet expeditions of the 1970s—Ed.), and now it’s happening once again—almost 150 years after the first expedition. And now direct descendants of the people Maclay met are living there, so these scientists had a unique opportunity to observe the dynamics of their life and culture.

You were also planning to facilitate the opening of a museum devoted to Russia on the island…

– This museum may be founded at our school—the school of Miklouho-Maclay.

Tell us about this school.

– The Maclay School opened its doors on the Maclay Coast back in the 1970s. It serves children from the villages located along this coast, where a total of 3 to 5 thousand people live. This is a primary and secondary school, where the children learn various subjects, but unfortunately, they don’t learn anything about Russia there. Only in 2014 the Russian explorer Valerii Surin brought some number of textbooks there from Russia, and now we’ve brought some more textbooks.

Was this your first trip to Papua New Guinea?

– Yes, although I had, of course, read and heard a lot about this country… Just imagine: since childhood you have been reading Maclay’s diaries, where he writes about the Papuan Tuy (the first Papuan with whom Nikolai Miklouho-Maclay managed to come into contact; he then became his main intermediary in dealings with the residents of neighboring cities. —Ed.), and now you’re meeting with his descendants, who still live in the same village; you wash up in the same stream where Miklouho-Maclay washed himself and live near his hut—there are no words for such feelings!

How did your meeting with them go?

– We arrived on the Day of Papua New Guinea’s Independence—an event that Maclay dreamed about in his own time. 3000 people met us on the shore. Such a large group of people wouldn’t normally gather together there. They were told that a Russian expedition was coming, and they raised Russian flags, sang their national anthem, and organized a theatricalized encounter involving Tuy’s descendant, who met me just a Tuy met Maclay. Then they danced in traditional garb, and we practically immediately plunged into the atmosphere of 150 years ago. They surrounded us with great attention and told us about Miklouho-Maclay; then our delegation made speeches. Also in attendance were representatives of local universities and the Catholic mission, who watched over the whole thing to make sure that it was, of course, very nice and gratifying.

We celebrated one other event, on 20 September—this is the day when Miklouho-Maclay landed. We initiated this holiday ourselves, proposing to celebrate this historical event in order to mark the historical moment when Papua New Guinea and Russia became connected, and when Miklouho-Maclay discovered the local Papuans for the rest of the world. Of course, you can’t say that Maclay discovered New Guinea as an island, but the Papuans themselves say: “he revealed us to Europeans as their equals.”

Is it true that the locals still use some Russian words today that they learned from Maclay?

– Yes. For instance, the words kukuruza (corn) and topor (ax)—they use these words all the time. In fact, Maclay brought these things to them and taught them how to use them.

It’s well known that the locals had a very unusual relationship to Miklouho-Maclay, whom they regarded as something like a cultural hero, a forefather, and this relationship lasted for a long time after. Did they show such deference to you as his descendant?

– Veneration is always passed along from one descendant to another. To them, I was first and foremost a descendant of Maclay, whom they call “kaaran tamo”—“great man” or “moon man” (due to the color of his skin). Of course, that was also reflected onto the members of our party. They treated me like a relative, a brother, and they regarded all the people they saw along with me as also their brothers, friends. Incidentally, this wasn’t noticeable only during our expedition. The members of the Soviet expeditions of 1971 and 1977 also took note that they knew quite a bit about Russia.


– They have passed stories down orally since the time of Miklouho-Maclay. They told me things that one could only know from his diary; they couldn’t have read about them. For instance, the locals recount that when Maclay wanted to eat he would walk to the village and whistle. And in his diary he writes: “When I walked to the village, I always whistled to warn of my coming and avoid scaring anyone.” And there are quite a few such details.

And so, still talking about Russia: they conceive of it as something like a large village, since their own country is made up entirely of villages. When we showed them postcards with views of Russia to show them our country, they started to show it great respect and dream about coming here.

These days one can run into tourists just about anywhere, and Papua New Guinea is no exception. So what can you say specifically about this region, the Maclay Coast? To what extent has a traditional way of life been preserved there?

– People there are living more or less the same way as before. Of course, they have schools and they know very well that cities and the rest of this great world exist; they have telephones and a mobile connection, though not a very good one. Their technology is entirely fueled by solar batteries—they don’t have electricity, hot water, and lot of other things that we are used to. They continue living in the same huts that they had hundreds of years ago—they are very comfortable, by the way. They wear European clothes because a Catholic mission opened there. All the same they preserve their culture, and they have another exceptional quality: they are very kind, open people—this is immediately evident. I think they even wear this clothing out of inner kindness: they were asked to wear it and they did. But it’s noticeable that they haven’t got used to it yet. For instance, they often wear it inside out, with the seams showing. When asked why, they say that it chafes. That is, this isn’t an organic part of their culture, and in their private life they prefer their traditional attire.

There aren’t any tourists there, much less Russian tourists—you can count on your fingers the number of visitors from Russia (who were tourists, not explorers). Indeed, one of the goals of our expedition was to create a bridge of cooperation: to ensure that Russians have an opportunity to go there if they want to get in touch with their history. We decided on this, and so we met with a renowned figure in the local society, the first prime minister of Papua New Guinea, Sir Michael Somare. This is a major figure—they call him “father of the nation,” and as a sign of respect for the Russian expedition he specially came out to the Maclay Coast, where he had never been before. He promised to assist the initiatives of the Miklouho-Maclay Foundation, including the promotion of ethno-tourism in Papua New Guinea.

What else were you able to agree on?

– We agreed that we would be able to take part in building a new house for the school on the Maclay Coast. I hope that people living in Russia will remember that this far-off country exists—“Chernorossiia” as Miklouho-Maclay called it—that this is a part of our history, and will decide they want to help them build this school. The design for the building is ready. The construction will cost 80,000 dollars, and we are starting to collect money. I think this school will become the main monument to Miklouho-Maclay and a “window to Russia,” which they will get to know through the books we brought there.

What language are these books in? Will they be able to read them?

– They are written in Russian and English parallel text. English is one of the official languages in Papua New Guinea.

Does this mean it will be an ordinary village school, but with a “Russian” slant?

– That’s exactly right. Of course, it’s not so easy to teach Russian there at the moment because there aren’t any teachers. But we are holding discussions about having Russian taught at the University of Papua New Guinea in the capital, Port Moresby, where people have already expressed interest in the initiative. 7000 people study at this university, which is a lot for Papua New Guinea. We are also planning to bring to the University an exhibit of our ethnographic collections, to publish an album dedicated to the expedition in Russian and English, and to organize courses there for those who want to learn Russian or have an interested in Russia. We also want to bring several people from Papua New Guinea to Russia on an educational exchange and to show them Moscow and Petersburg.

Will scientists continue to study Papua New Guinea?

– Of course. We have an expedition planned for April 2018, along with anthropologist from Moscow State University. We also want to attract some eco-tourists to the expedition, though they need to be prepared so they can study the journey along the Maclay Coast and then share their impressions here, in Russia. What’s more, working with the Kunstkamera, we are preparing a unique event: an exhibition of the scientific collections brought from Papua New Guinea by Maclay and our expedition. We want to show these collections in both Russia and Papua New Guinea. This has to be done because the new generation of urban Papuans doesn’t know their history well.

All photographs were provided by the Miklouho-Maclay Foundation.

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