THE LOST PIANOS OF SIBERIA

By Sophy Roberts


“An extraordinary, cadenced journey into music, exile and landscape.”
— Edmund de Waal
“A beautiful work …  so evocative of that strange land, so wonderfully original.”
— Colin Thubron



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

The hardback was published in the UK in 2020 by Doubleday, in the US by Grove Atlantic, and the German language edition by Zsolnay Verlag.

Foreign language editions are forthcoming in Dutch (5 February 2021), French, Spanish, Italian, Polish and Chinese Simplified.

The UK paperback edition will be released by Black Swan on 28 January 2021.

“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

















For a significant part of my journey, I was joined by the American photographer Michael Turek. His photographic monograph was published by Damiani in spring 2020.

Michael shot a short film documenting the search, featured below. A longer documentary piece is currently in production for Vice.

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
“I loved this book - such a wonderful idea, and so beautifully written.”
— Steven Isserlis
“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

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

“A Best Book of 2020, 'Extraordinary' ” — Sunday Times

“This really is the best non-fiction book that I have the feeling I've ever read. ... a book that I fell in love with. Such an unusual travelogue, I've never read anything like it. ... Narrated brilliantly, in a language that has a lot of heart and soul... she finds a completely new sound in an over-travelled world” — NDR, Germany

“Probably the most beautiful book of survival stories of the year.” Welt, Germany

“A 'Book of the Year'” — Sara Wheeler, The Spectator

“A journey through the wild east along the lifelines of sound — brilliantly researched.” — Zeit, Germany

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

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

“No-one has ever told Russian history from such an unusual angle... the pages of the book breathe with sincere pain, as if the author herself experienced it.” — Deutschen Welle, Russian ed.

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

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

“A book full of miracles.” — Elke Heidenreich, Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger

“A gripping book.” — Renate Burtscher, Ö1 Pasticcio

“To say that Sophy Roberts’ The Lost Pianos of Siberia is among the unexpected works of history in recent memory is an understatement … one of the season’s most unlikely triumphs.” The Christian Science Monitor

“Refreshingly weird.” Erich Klein, Ö1 Kontext

“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

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

“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

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

“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

“A mixture of travel writing and a declaration of love.” — Michael Kuhlmann, MDR Kultur

“Beautifully constructed, clear-eyed and generous-spirited.” — William Atkins

“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

“Absolutely intoxicating. Such vivid detail, rich atmosphere, heartbreak, and elegance.” — Jonathan C. Slaght

“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)

“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

“[The author] forges a new path through Siberia and its thousand stories, without getting bogged down in the usual clichés.” — Style Magazine, Corriere della Sera, Italy

“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

“Beautiful writing off the beaten track” — Pianist Magazine

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

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

“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

“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

“You don’t need long in her book to grasp that the author has produced a distinctive original narrative, but also a cultural history exploring a very interesting topic … translated into beautiful, melodic German by Brigitte Hilzensauer.” — Wiener Zeitung, Austria

“A mixture of journalism and poetry.” — Kurier, Austria

“A soulful portrait of the country and its people.” Die Presse, Austria

“Roberts has made an unusual book. An exciting mixture of history and personal experience. A book that brings to life the fascination of the author in her never tiring search for clues, and a book that shows how closely politics and culture in Siberia are connected. ” — WDR3 Tonart, Germany

“More complex, entertaining and enlightening than one would think … the search for these instruments saying so much more about Russia, The Soviet Union and Siberia than the task [the author] sets herself.” — Aftenposten Innsikt, Norway

“Among the most beautiful passages of the excitingly written book, which Brigitte Hilzensauer has translated just as well, are the author's encounters with people whose pianos meant everything to them, [the instruments] rescued from damp cellars or dusty 'Houses of Culture.” Der Standard, Austria

“A captivating book whose intricate paths one is only too happy to follow … an extraordinary debut.” — Falter, Austria

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

“Undoubtedly a non-fiction classic from our recent literary history.” — Mathrubhumi Magazine, India

ABOUT THE AUTHOR


I am a British writer based in Dorset, England.

I am a graduate of The University of Oxford and The Columbia School of Journalism in New York.

I began my career assisting the writer Jessica Mitford. I have since worked as editor-at-large for Condé Nast Traveller (UK), special correspondent for Condé Nast Traveler (US), travel editor for The Economist 1843 Magazine, and as a columnist for The Financial Times weekend magazine, How To Spend It.

I am now freelance, and continue to contribute to FT Weekend, The Wall Street Journal and others, focusing on travel, literature, and conservation.

I occasionally contribute to radio, podcast and panels events, including the BBC, The Economist, Times Radio, Tortoise and The Royal Geographical Society.


AUTHOR EVENTS


28 Jan, 2021: UK paperback launch
Jan 2021: French book launch
May 2021: Italian book launch


The intention has always been to collaborate with the pianist Odgerel Sampilnorov on piano recitals, both in Mongolia, where I first heard her play, and elsewhere. Updates will be posted here as Covid restrictions change.






ARTICLES AND EXTRACTS

German ed. (trans. Brigitte Hilzensauer) - extract
The Financial Times - article
Wall Street Journal - article
Bloomberg - article
Air Mail - extract
Lit Hub - article

Photography-led stories:
The Paris Review - extract
Pellicola -
article
The Guardian
- article
Creative Review - article


MUSIC FROM THE BOOK


You can listen to recordings of pianos pieces performed by the Mongolian pianist, Odgerel Sampilnorov.

All are performed on pianos mentioned in the text.

Ulziibayar Shatar, 'Morin Khuur Concerto No. 1'
Jantsannorov Natsag, 'Your Tears'
John Field, 'Nocturne No. 4'

Below you can watch a short film made of Odgerel playing Ulziibayar Shatar's Morin Khuur Concerto No.1 in Mongolia, with Munkhbayar Erdenebaatar on the morin khuur. The film was recorded in the Orkhon Valley where the story began.

CONTACTS


Author: Sophy Roberts
Agent: Sophie Lambert

Photographer: Michael Turek
Agent: Martha North

UK press: Sally Wray
US press: Scott Manning
German press: Michael Winroither
Italian press: Cristiana Patriarca

Instagram: @sophy_roberts

Video and images copyright Michael Turek (unless otherwise stated).
Music copyright Odgerel Sampilnorov.