THE LOST PIANOS OF SIBERIA

By Sophy Roberts

“An extraordinary, cadenced journey into music, exile and landscape.”
— Edmund de Waal, 'The Hare with Amber Eyes'



The Lost Pianos of Siberia is a non-fiction book charting my two-year search for an instrument in Siberia worthy of a brilliant Mongolian pianist.

The hardback was published on 6 February 2020 by Doubleday in the UK. It was published in the US by Grove Atlantic on 4 August, and in Germany by Zsolnay Verlag on 21 September.

Foreign language editions are forthcoming in Dutch (September 2020), French, Spanish, Italian, Polish and Chinese Simplified.

“A sparkling debut by an outstanding and gifted author. A brilliant guide to Russia of the past and the present, set around an extraordinary search for the heart, soul and lost keyboards of centuries gone by.”
— Peter Frankopan, 'The Silk Roads: A New History of the World'





For a significant part of my journey, I was joined by the American photographer Michael Turek.

Michael
shot a short film documenting the search.

His photographic monograph, Siberia — featured in The Paris Review, Pellicola, The Guardian, Le Monde and Creative Review — was published by Damiani in spring 2020.

“What worlds this book traverses!  From gilded recital halls to the haunts of Siberian tigers; from remote penal colonies to volcanic islands in the Bering Sea: I felt as if I had traveled through places I had only dreamed of, following these magical instruments through landscapes and histories so full of tragedy and hope.”
— Daniel Mason, 'The Piano Tuner'

SIBERIA, THE PLACE

Covering an eleventh of the world’s landmass, Siberia is a land of extremes. Its biggest lake holds a fifth of the world’s fresh water. Its taiga is the largest forest on earth. Siberia is crossed by the world’s longest railroad, and is home to the coldest inhabited city on Earth.

Siberia's borders — reaching from the Arctic to Mongolia, from the Ural Mountains to the Pacific — are indistinct. There is no dramatic curtain-raiser to the edge of Siberia, just thick weather hanging over an abstract idea.


Some of the worst examples of the Soviet Gulag were located in Siberia's remote reaches. Before that, Siberia was a place of exile and banishment — a 'prison without a roof', as it was known under the Tsars.

But in spite of its dark history, there is also much to like about Siberia: the feeling of billowing winter snows evoked in Russian music, and the stories of people for whom Siberia is the opposite of a heartless, frigid myth.

“A quixotic quest, a picaresque travel adventure and a strange forgotten story all wrapped into this one fascinating book.” 
— Simon Sebag Montefiore, 'Catherine the Great'
“An elegant and nuanced journey through literature, through history, through music, murder and incarceration and revolution, through snow and ice and remoteness, to discover the human face of Siberia. I loved this book.”
— Paul Theroux, 'The Great Railway Bazaar'

WHY PIANOS?

WHY PIANOS?

Siberia may be a vast, hostile landscape with a bloody past. But scattered through this expanse are extraordinary pianos. They were brought by governors, exiles and adventurers before the roads and railways opened up Siberia at the turn of the twentieth century.

After the 1917 Revolution, pianos were again distributed all over Siberia, benefitting Russians who had never before had access to a musical education. Piano culture continued to thrive after the Second World War.

Then with the breakdown of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, numerous instruments were left to rot when funding ran out.

Often all that is left of a piano's backstory can be gleaned from the serial number hidden inside an instrument — stories that reach back through more than two hundred years of Russian history.

Yet there are also pianos that have managed to withstand the furtive cold forever trying to creep into their strings. Belief in music's comfort survives in muffled notes from broken hammers, in beautiful harmonies describing unspeakable things that words can't touch. It survives in the pianos that everyday people have done everything to protect.

Siberia may be a vast, hostile landscape with a bloody past. But scattered through this expanse are extraordinary pianos. They were brought by governors, exiles and adventurers before the roads and railways opened up Siberia at the turn of the twentieth century.

After the 1917 Revolution, pianos were again distributed all over Siberia, benefitting Russians who had never before had access to a musical education. Piano culture continued to thrive after the Second World War.

Then with the breakdown of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, numerous instruments were left to rot when funding ran out.

Often all that is left of a piano's backstory can be gleaned from the serial number hidden inside an instrument — stories that reach back through more than two hundred years of Russian history.

Yet there are also pianos that have managed to withstand the furtive cold forever trying to creep into their strings. Belief in music's comfort survives in muffled notes from broken hammers, in beautiful harmonies describing unspeakable things that words can't touch. It survives in the pianos that everyday people have done everything to protect.

WHAT PEOPLE ARE SAYING...

The Lost Pianos of Siberia, Sophy Roberts's melodious first book, reveals a story inextricably linked to the drama of Russia itself... These pages sing like a symphony.” — Wall Street Journal

“Roberts's descriptions of landscapes are as lovely as fine embroidery.” — New York Times

“Richly asborbing ... The Lost Pianos of Siberia is as much elegy as detective story.” — The Guardian

“Best Books of 2020 (so far)” — Sunday Times

“An absorbing history illuminates a bleak landscape.”  Kirkus Reviews

“Hugely compelling … Roberts is a wonderfully lyrical writer.” The Observer

“What shines through in this book is Roberts's genuine, humane affection for and fascination with the people she meets in Siberia.” — Literary Review

“Roberts has a splendid eye for detail, whether in the history and flavor of the cities and regions she visits or in the living, breathing people she encounters on this almost otherworldy journey.” Booklist

“Stunningly written ... This is a wonderful book.” — Sunday Times

“An exploration of tragic echoes, harmonious transience and persistent mysteries at the edges of the world.” — The Times Literary Supplement

“The book's richness is in its tangents… [a] wonderful book.”  The Financial Times

“A masterpiece of modern travel literature with words that sing from its pages.” — Levison Wood, author and explorer

Critics' Choice, Summer Books 2020 The Financial Times, Sunday Times, The Telegraph

“An amazing tour-de-force... it touches your soul.”  Radio New Zealand

“A thrilling expedition.” — New Statesman

“If you only read one book this year, it needs to be this masterpiece.” — Vivien Godfrey, CEO of Stanfords bookshop

“A sense of the extraordinary marks every page.” — History Today

“An engrossing narrative... A truly uplifting book.” Charles Owen, British Classical Pianist

“Roberts’s mix of colorful history, rich reportage, and lyrical prose makes for a beguiling narrative.”  Publisher's Weekly

“Sophy Roberts writes so beautifully, even her author’s note — describing her train journey from Moscow to the Urals — hooks you in from the start.” — The Times, London 

“Roberts reveals herself slowly and is terrific company, our acute, busy, sympathetic and scattered guide... Her travels are bold and sociable, and our vicarious pleasure.” — Star Tribune, Minneapolis

“A cannot-put-it-down tale of music and humanity.”  Goop.com

“A masterful example of modern historical travel writing.”  The Independent

“Beautifully constructed, clear-eyed and generous-spirited.” — William Atkins, author of The Immeasurable World

“An extraordinary book which will overturn the common perception of Siberia as a place only of exile.” — The Bookseller

“Unique... unusual ... a cultural history explored like few others.” — FT How To Spend It

“A noble quest to understand the dazzling respect for music embedded in Russian culture.” — Country Life

“Meticulously researched.”  Travel + Leisure

“Absolutely intoxicating. Such vivid detail, rich atmosphere, heartbreak, and elegance.” — Jonathan C. Slaght, author of Owls of the Eastern Ice

“From Pushkin to 'Pianopolis', this history hits the right notes... With a lover’s passion for a subject and territory that she has made hers.” The Telegraph

“Roberts's writing is beguiling... The resulting book is as wide-ranging as Siberia is vast.” i (newspaper)

“Utterly fascinating and revealing to anyone who only knows Siberia through its Great Myth as a forgotten, frozen Nowhere." — Christopher Somerville, author of Ships of Heaven

“The poetic idea of finding exquisite old pianos in an otherwise elemental wilderness is only one of many fascinating strands.” Sydney Morning Herald

“An intoxicating journey.” Stella (Sunday Telegraph)

“An adventurous, moving and revealing exploration of landscape and often dark history — but above all, of humanity, music and memories.” — Geographical

“This book is a triumph, every chapter an adventure and a revelation.” — The Saturday Paper (Australia)

“The pianos are more than mere objects – through Roberts’ beautifully nuanced prose, they come to stand for the heart and soul of the country and landscape.” — The Irish Times

“One of those magical books that captures the imagination and draws you into the beauty and majesty of Siberia. A book to savour and remember.” — Helen Rappaport, author of The Last Days of the Romanovs 

“Courage, patience, erudition and a sympathetic imagination … A travel book of rare quality.” — Dervla Murphy, author of Full Tilt

“Utterly absorbing. Roberts displays an empathy and understanding worthy of this deeply haunted, strangely fascinating land.” — Benedict Allen, author and explorer

“Roberts's research, storytelling and descriptions of the landscape will leave you spellbound. And the quiet but beautiful fortitude of Siberia lingers long after the final page.” — The Irish News

“A modern-day Freya Stark” — Tatler

“Much like Siberia, the narrative is endlessly absorbing—and in a rare win, even the author’s note is dreamy.” Outlook Traveller, India

“A thrilling adventure to the ends of the earth ... Pack your suitcase for Siberia. Sophy Roberts' gorgeous prose will summon you there like a spell.” — Cal Flynn, author of Thicker Than Water

“An original new voice in travel writing... Her closing pages are as moving an expression of the power of emotional absorption into Russian stories as I remember in a long time.” — The Arts Desk

“Roberts provides a swift-moving narrative... with skilled writing that lends suspense not unlike the screenplay of an adventure/ action/ mystery movie” — San Francisco Classical Voice

“You don’t need to love Siberia or pianos to enjoy this book. Brilliance illuminates each page.” The Press Association

“To make a journey (and write a book) because you would like to locate an old piano in Siberia on behalf of a Mongolian pianist friend may sound, frankly, bonkers ... Yes, it’s all a bit peculiar, but that is part of the book’s charm.” — The Daily Mail

UPCOMING EVENTS

Please note the literary festivals and events listed below are currently confirmed, with many of them moved online due to Covid-19.


4 Aug, 2020: US book launch

27 Aug: Commonwealth Club, San Francisco

16 Sept: Pushkin House, London

21 Sept: German-language book launch, Bruno Kreisky Forum for International Dialogue, Vienna

25 Sept: Wigtown Book Festival, Scotland

17 Oct: Wells Festival, Somerset

5 Nov: Bridport Literary Festival, Dorset

14 Jan, 2021: UK paperback launch




You can listen to author interviews here:

BBC 3 Radio
(UK)
RNZ National (New Zealand)
ABC Radio (Australia)
RNZ Sunday Morning (New Zealand)
BBC History Magazine (UK)
The Big Travel Podcast (UK)
The Travel Diaries (UK)
Shute Literary Festival (UK)
Chalke Valley Festival (UK)
How To Academy (UK)

Exclusive recordings of pieces performed for 'The Lost Pianos of Siberia' by the Mongolian pianist, Odgerel Sampilnorov, can be listened to here:

We hope to add recital dates soon.

CONTACTS

You can get in touch with me on sophy@sophyroberts.com.

Agent: Sophie Lambert
UK press: Sally Wray
US press: Scott Manning

Michael Turek is represented by Martha North.














Video and images copyright Michael Turek.
Music copyright Odgerel Sampilnorov.