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



My name is Sophy Roberts. I am a British writer. I frequently contribute to the Financial Times and others. My profile is available here.

The Lost Pianos of Siberia is my first book: a non-fiction story 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.

In 2021, the French language edition was published by Calmann-Levy, a Dutch edition by Ambo Anthos and the Spanish by Seix Barral. Other foreign language editions are forthcoming in Italian, Polish and Chinese Simplified.

The UK paperback edition with colour images by Michael Turek was 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. Signed editions are available from Bildband Berlin and Pushkin House London.

Michael shot a short film documenting the search, featured below.

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

“A Sunday Times Book of 2020”— Sunday Times

“A Best Book of 2020” — Times, Independent, The Spectator, i and The New European

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

“The Ten Best Books About Travel of 2020.” — Smithsonian Magazine

“Shortlisted” — Stanford Dolman Travel Book of 2021

“One of the 10 Non-Fiction Books of the Year.” — Falter, Austria

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

“The joy of this book lies in the contrast that exists between an icy backdrop and what a grand piano implies in refinement.” — Le Figaro, France

“A fascinating lost story.” — El Cultural, Spain

“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

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

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

“An extraordinarily knowledgeable and very moving book — not just about pianos.” Süddeutsche Zeitung, 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

“Breathtaking.” — De Tijd, Belgium

“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.

“In searching for Siberia's forgotten pianos, Sophy Roberts finds impressive people in a damaged country.” — Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Germany

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

“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

“The critics only slowly became aware of this book, which was published [in Germany] in autumn, but they make up for the omission with hymnal reviews.” — Perlentaucher: Das Kulturmagazin, Germany

“A gloriously absurd quest detailed in [an] absorbing modernist masterpiece... Fluid and unflinching ... a book that deftly balances chiaroscuro, light and dark.” — Lonely Planet

“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

“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, Chairman and CEO, Stanfords

“While the fates of the exiled may be less than pretty, their stories endure in this compelling debut.” Wanderlust

“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, author of 'The Piano Tuner'

“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

“An original and sensitively written work of travel reportage.”  The New European

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

“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

“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'

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

“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 'Islands of Abandonment'

“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

“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 Race to Save the Romanovs'

“Beautiful writing off the beaten track”  Pianist Magazine

“Curious and elegant.” Trend, Austria

“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

“[A] quest for the perfect instrument deftly tinkles the ivories of history… Roberts’ writing is beguiling.”Scotland on Sunday

“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

“A travelogue that is deeply sensitive to the mystical pull of the Siberian landscape, precisely informed by investigative journalism, and rich in Russian history.” — Columbia Magazine

“The pianos are an excuse to travel to far-off places, indulge oneself in history, meet interesting people and tell stories, all of which Roberts does with abandon.” — Asian Review of Books

“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

“Wonderful.” — Kronen Zeitung, Austria

“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

“Poetic and finely researched.” Kleine Zeitung, Austria

“This book is so full of disturbing, astonishing, instructive and poetic passages that I was sad when the journey came to an end after 337 pages.” Tagebuch, 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

“Curious and magical.” Harper's Bazaar, Germany

“Totally thrilling!” ORF 2 TV, Austria

“ Terrific. FIVE STARS.”  Bücher, Germany

“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

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
La Razón - article

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


AUTHOR EVENTS


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.






INTERVIEWS, PODCASTS AND BROADCAST REVIEWS

Radio Times WHYY NPR (US)
Travel with Rick Steves (US)
BBC 3 Radio (UK)
NDR Kultur (Germany)
MDR Kultur (Austria)
Orf.at (Germany)
Ö1 Pasticcio (Germany)
RNZ National (New Zealand)
Canal Sur (Spain)
SRF (Switzerland)
Los Angeles Review of Books (US)
Forbes (US)
ABC Radio (Australia)
RNZ Sunday Morning (New Zealand)
BBC History (UK)
Lonely Planet (UK)
Shute Literary Festival (UK)
Chalke Valley Festival (UK)
How To Academy (UK)
Commonwealth Club, San Francisco (US)
SWR 2 Radio (Germany)
Bruno Kreisky Forum (Austria)
Ö1 Kontext (Austria)
Wigtown Book Festival (UK)
The Adventure Podcast (UK)
Kendal Mountain Festival (UK)
The Escape Artist Podcast (Australia)
BR2 Diwan Radio (Germany)
Pappagalli Podcast (Italy)
Babel TV (Sweden)



LIMITED EDITION PHOTOGRAPHIC PRINTS

By Michael Turek


Now available to purchase from Benrubi Gallery, New York

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

Press

UK: Sally Wray
US: Scott Manning
German: Michael Winroither
French: Valerie Taillefer
Dutch: Anne Broekman
Spanish: Anna Portabella
Italian: Cristiana Patriarca

Instagram: @sophy_roberts

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