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 search for an instrument in Siberia worthy of a brilliant Mongolian pianist.

For more than two years, I travelled deep into the Siberian hinterland, the Far North and the Russian Far East. I not only found grand pianos dating from the boom years of Russia's nineteenth-century 'pianomania', but strange and uplifting tales of brave, cultured people who survived extraordinary hardship in pursuit of music's profound beauty.

The hardback will be published on 6 February 2020 by Doubleday in the UK and in the US by Grove Atlantic on 16 June. Foreign language editions are forthcoming in German, French, Spanish, Italian and Polish.

“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 photographer Michael Turek, who shot a short film documenting the search.

Michael is also producing a limited edition photographic monograph of his own independent work: Siberia, 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 in the north, Mongolia to the south, the Ural Mountains to the west, and the Pacific to the east — are indistinct. There is no dramatic curtain-raiser to the edge of Siberia, no meaningful brink to a specific place, just thick weather hanging over an abstract idea.


Siberia is also remembered as the location of a horrifying system of murder and repression during the period of the Soviet Gulags — with some of the worst examples 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 everything dark about its history, there is also much to like about Siberia. There is the feeling of the billowing winter snows evoked in Russian music, and the stories of people for whom Siberia is the opposite of a heartless, frigid myth.

“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 has long held meaning for intrepid travellers. A hostile landscape, it is a juncture between east and west, a land inhabited by tigers, bears and rare birds, an epic wilderness where nature still prevails. And yet, scattered throughout this much-maligned expanse, surviving in the vast landscape, are pianos.

How such instruments travelled into this snow-bound wilderness in the first place were defiant acts of fortitude by governors, exiles and adventurers. This was a time before the roads and railways opened up Siberia at the turn of the twentieth century. Then came Revolution when numerous pianos were looted and destroyed.

With the new socialist system of government, there was an upside, too: pianos were 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 in Siberia, ignored in the basements of music schools long after the funding had run 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, which illustrate how people can endure astonishing calamities. That 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 has long held meaning for intrepid travellers. A hostile landscape, it is a juncture between east and west, a land inhabited by tigers, bears and rare birds, an epic wilderness where nature still prevails. And yet, scattered throughout this much-maligned expanse, surviving in the vast landscape, are pianos.

How such instruments travelled into this snow-bound wilderness in the first place were defiant acts of fortitude by governors, exiles and adventurers. This was a time before the roads and railways opened up Siberia at the turn of the twentieth century. Then came Revolution when numerous pianos were looted and destroyed.

With the new socialist system of government, there was an upside, too: inexpensive Soviet pianos were 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 in Siberia, ignored in the basements of music schools long after the funding had run 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.

These instruments not only tell the story of Siberia's colonisation by the Russians, but also illustrate how people can endure astonishing calamities. That 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.

THE MUSIC





The following video was shot in Mongolia in summer 2019 —the first in a series of works being developed by Odgerel Sampilnorov and one of Mongolia's finest morin khuur (horsehead fiddle) players, Munkhbayar Erdenebaatar.


PRESS & EVENTS


For all press and event enquiries about The Lost Pianos of Siberia, including advance copies for review, please contact Sally Wray, SWray@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk

WHAT PEOPLE ARE SAYING ...

"An exuberant, eccentric journey through Russian vastness, European history and Russian culture, The Lost Pianos of Siberia is 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

"A masterpiece of modern travel literature with words that sing from its pages. A definitive exploration of Russia's wild east." — Levison Wood, TV presenter, writer and explorer

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

“Absolutely intoxicating. Such vivid detail, rich atmosphere, heartbreak, and elegance. Some cherished and some neglected, these pianos tell of the musical colonization of a continent, and their stories sing.” — Jonathan C. Slaght, Owls of the Eastern Ice

“Roberts captures all the wonder and heartbreak of an entire Empire in one feast of a book.” — Ben Rawlence, Radio Congo

“One of those magical books that captures the imagination and draws you into the beauty and majesty of Siberia. Idiosyncratic in style – part travelogue, part history, part detective trail – it is full of wonderful stories about human endurance through adversity and the transformative power of music in the most remote and forgotten outposts of this vast territory. A book to savour and remember.” — Helen Rappaport, The Last Days of the Romanovs 

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

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

“A modern-day Freya Stark” — Tatler

“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, Thicker Than Water

CONTACTS


I am a British writer, and The Lost Pianos of Siberia is my first book. I contribute to The Financial Times and Conde Nast Traveler, among others.

You can direct message me on Instagram: Sophy Roberts. I am represented by Sophie Lambert at C&W Agency.


Michael Turek is an award-winning freelance photographer based in New York, and a Kodak Professional ambassador. He is represented by Martha North at Ray Brown.










Images and video copyright Michael Turek.
Music performed by Odgerel Sampilnorov .

Video recording of Odgerel Sampilnorov and Munkhbayar Erdenebaatar directed by Itgelt Dashdendev.