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On December 18, 1976, jailed Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky was traded for Luis Corvalan, the Chilean communist leader, who had been imprisoned since the 1973 military coup in that country. The secret operation went down in history as first political exchange between the USSR and the West.…

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Prominent Russians: Nikolay Miklukho-Maklay

July 17, 1846 – April 14, 1888
Nikolay Miklukho-Maklay Nikolay Miklukho-Maklay

Nikolay Miklukho-Maklay was a Russian ethnographer who studied the populations of South-East Asia, Australia and Oceania, including the indigenous tribes of North-Eastern Papua New Guinea.

Origins

Nikolay Miklukho-Maklay was born on July 17 1846 in the village of Rozhdestvenskoye in the Novgorod region of Russia’s north-west. The village was a temporary one, built for those who were working on the construction of the railway line from Moscow to St. Petersburg. His father was a civil engineer that supervised operations on the project. As for Nikolay’s mother, Ekaterina, she had European roots – her ancestors were from the German family of Bekker.

After his Australian expeditions, Nikolay started using the second part of his family name, Maklay. The name can be traced all the way to the founder of the Miklukho-Maklay clan – the Scottish baron Michael McLay, who was captured by Bogdan Khmelnitsky in 1646. Nearly one hundred years later, McLay’s descendant, the Cossack Stepan Miklukha, was granted nobility by Catherine the Great for his bravery during the Russo-Turkish war in 1788. 

Nikolay Miklukho-Maklay was the grandson of Stepan. He inherited the bravery and quick wit of his grandfather – qualities that helped him win the respect and love of the indigenous tribes he studied. 

Education

Nikolay was 11 when his father died, leaving the family in poverty. In 1858 Nikolay’s family moved to St. Petersburg, where he went to study at the Second St. Petersburg Gymnasium. At the age of 17 he entered the faculty of Physics and Mathematics at St. Petersburg State University.

В 15 лет Mikhail Mikluho-Maklay aged 15

However, Miklukho-Maklay was also involved in a number of student political meetings and uprisings. The directors of the University did not approve, and expelled him with no chance to be enrolled in any other educational institution in Russia.

With the help of his friends and parents he managed to get enough money together to study at Heidelberg University in Germany. He landed in Europe, which had been shaken by Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. The idea that man evolved from apes had split society, which up until then believed that humans were a creation of God.

For the first couple of years in the University, Miklukho-Maklay studied philosophy. Then he switched to medical studies in Leipzig. There he became fascinated with the teachings of Ernst Haeckel, a strong advocate of Charles Darwin’s ideas about the origin of species. He had come up with an idea that there was the intermediate link between man and apes, from which all human races later evolved. Haeckel’s student from Russia became obsessed with the idea of finding the missing link. He thought it could still be found on earth, specifically in the Philippines, on the islands of Melanesia and Malacca, places never previously visited by ethnographers. 

In 1868 Miklukho-Maklay got an offer to take part in an expedition around the Canary Islands to examine sponges and shark brains. This journey was followed by studies of marine biology in the Red Sea area, both experiences being highly educational and instrumental to his future expeditions.

Nikolay enjoyed reading about various lands that few people had the chance to study. At one point he obtained a copy of New Guinea, a book by Otto Finsch. Immediately his attention focused on the big island in the Pacific Ocean. Miklukho-Maklay was sure that it was a promising field for anthropological and ethnological studies and that his findings would enrich the world with an extraordinary scientific discovery.

First New Guinea expedition

After talks with European scientists and visits to museums of natural science, Miklukho-Maklay went to St. Petersburg to organize his voyage. His daring ideas were supported by Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolayevich, who was also the chairman of the Russian Geographic Society. He wanted to use Miklukho-Maklay for his own purposes – to establish good relations with the Papuans and find suitable harbors for Russian ships.

Ernst Haeckel and his assistant Nicholas Miklouho-Maclay, photographed in the Canary Islands in 186 Ernst Haeckel and his assistant Nicholas Miklouho-Maclay, photographed in the Canary Islands in 1866

In October 1870, Miklukho-Maklay boarded the ship “Vityaz” and reached the Pacific Islands in September 1871. The captain of the ship was given orders to equip Miklukho-Maklay with his own room on board and set him up with everything he needed for living among the tribes.

The sailors helped Nikolay make a hut, and left the island. Miklukho-Maklay did not take any objects made of steel with him. He was sure that such objects would irritate the indigenous people in the Northeastern part of New Guinea, constantly fighting with each other and killing every stranger they met on their territory.

Armed with spears they surrounded Miklukho-Maklay when he came off the boat. He was unarmed and had to find a way to counter their aggression with something other than more aggression. Miklukho-Maklay took off his shoes, put them under his head like a pillow and went to sleep. The Papuans were shocked at this sort of reaction and lack of fear. When Miklukho-Maklay woke up he was greeted like a deity. 

The Papuans grew to love Miklukho-Maklay as he treated them for illnesses, taught them to grow new produce, and improved their hunting techniques. They nicknamed him the Man of the Moon after he produced fire from magic sticks (known to the rest of the world as matches).

His main goal, however, was to study the tribes he came to live with. Miklukho-Maklay was able to carry out his research and take anatomical measurements of the indigenous peoples. He found their physical features did not match the descriptions detailed in many studies of that time. He also studied their traditions and the structure of their language.

Miklukho-Maklay’s first trip ended when the Russian vessel Izumrud arrived to take him home in December 1872. To this day, the area is still called The Maklay Coast.

Further exploration

On his way back to Russia, Nikolay visited the Philippines where he discovered primitive tribes similar to those he had seen in New Guinea. Here he made a new discovery – the tribes living there were from the same family as the Papuans. Upon his return to St. Petersburg in 1873, Miklukho-Maklay published his anthropological observations, and sent specimens and comments to his European teachers.

In 1876-1877 he also visited Micronesia and Melanesia, regions off the eastern coast of Australia. There he also found that they were populated by the same Papua tribes as on the Maclay coast and Papua-Koviay.

His second trip to New Guinea was more dangerous.  After the exploration of Papua-Koviay in the west of New Guinea, Miklukho-Maklay found that raiders had smashed his hut, stolen his equipment and killed some of his supporters. He was once found in grave condition by British Captain John Moresby. But in spite of all these risks, nothing could stop Maklay from carrying on his research.

During his consequent trips to Malaysia and Singapore, Miklukho-Maklay found more primitive tribes whose ethnological characteristics were similar to those in the Philippines and New Guinea. He eventually published four papers suggesting a relation between the natives of the regions that he thoroughly investigated. 

By the end of 1870’s, Australia had become his “scientific base”, where he also carried out studies on the comparative anatomies of brains of Aboriginal, Malaysian, Chinese, and Polynesian origin. He examined the Aborigines on the Darling Downs and in the paleontology excavations of extinct mammals in Australia. He always cared about the people he studied. Each time he parted with a tribe, he always warned them that not all Europeans would be as peaceful to Papuans the way he was. 

Defending the Papuans

Bust of Nikolay Miklukho-Malkay in front of the Macleay Museum, Science Road on campus of the University of Sydney. Bust of Nikolay Miklukho-Malkay in front of the Macleay Museum, Science Road on campus of the University of Sydney. (Photo by Vmenkov)

Miklukho-Maklay sought recognition from the Colonial Office for land rights for the Papuans in eastern New Guinea and for their freedom from forced labor. He also developed a project to create an independent state on the territory of New Guinea, the Papua Union, ahead of the upcoming colonial division of the island between Britain and Germany. In another attempt to help the Papuans, he tried to receive permission from Tsar Alexander III to organize a free Russian colony in New Guinea which met with no success. 

After 12 years of travels, Miklukho-Maklay returned to Russia in September 1882, and immediately became a hero. His biography and discoveries were published in newspapers and magazines. He began to give regular lectures at the Russian Geographic Society. Miklukho-Maklay was also awarded a gold medal by the Geographic Society and a certificate of honor by Russian Tsar Alexander III. But this was merely a pause in Miklukho-Maklay’s studies. In 1883 he decided to continue traveling. His luggage went to Sydney while he sailed to Batavia. A Russian corvette took him there in March of that year.

When he arrived in Sydney in 1883, he was shocked: many of his records and collections had been destroyed during a fire. It took him a couple of years to restore the damage.  While in Australia he also met his love: on February 27, 1884 he married Margaret Emma Clark, with whom he had 2 sons.

Final return home and latter years

In 1886, Miklukho-Maklay returned to Russia with his family and twenty-two boxes of specimens. He arranged some publications, and lectured in St Petersburg. He wanted to return to Sydney but his health began to deteriorate. Miklukho-Maklay died on April 2, 1888 in his wife’s arms. He was buried in the Volkov cemetery in St. Petersburg – the burial place for many prominent writers.  Miklukho-Maklay’s widow returned to Australia with their children. Until 1917, the scientist's family received a Russian pension on the direct orders of the Russian Emperors.

Legacy and commemoration of Miklukho-Maklay

Miklukho-Maklay was a humanist scholar. With the help of his comparative anatomical research, he was the first in Russian anthropology to refute the prevailing view that different races belonged to different species. 

Nikolay Miklukho-Maklay

Miklukho-Maklay was one of the few people who treated the Papuans as his equals, and became a strong advocate of the indigenous peoples of the Pacific. So great was his popularity that simply mentioning his name among them was enough to open all doors for any European traveler visiting the tribes. However, the downside of this was that it could be used against them as well – in October 1884, German ethnographer Otto Finsch gained the trust of the Papuans under the pretense of being Miklukho-Maklay’s brother. However, his mission ended up making part of New Guinea a German colony.

Miklukho-Maklay wrote a letter to German Chancellor Bismarck calling on him to protect the Pacific islanders from “white exploitation”. He also protested against the German annexation of the pacific lands. All his hopes of an independent Papuans’ union were shattered, as well as his efforts to establish Russian colonies there.

The name of Miklukho-Maklay is widely commemorated in Russia. In 1948, Joseph Stalin commissioned a feature film about him. Many viewed it as a reminder that there shouldn’t be any racial hatred – the message was especially important after the end of World War II.

Miklukho-Maklay Street in Moscow is the location of the People’s Friendship University of Russia – an institution that provides education to people from more than 150 countries all over the world.

Written by Oleg Dmitriev, RT

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