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 the Siberian hinterland, the Far North and Russian Far East. I not only found historic pianos but also tales of people who survived extraordinary hardship in pursuit of music's profound beauty.

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


Order Here.

“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.

Michael
shot a short film documenting the search. In addition, his photographic monograph, Siberia, is 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.

“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.

THE MUSIC


Collaborating with Mongolian pianist Odgerel Sampilnorov has been an important part of this project. 

We have made some exclusive recordings for ‘The Lost Pianos of Siberia’, including a piano and morin khuur concerto performed by Odgerel and Munkhbayar Erdenebaatar.

Listen to the music here.



EVENTS

24 Feb: 7pm, Daunt Books Marylebone, London. TICKETS.

27 Feb: 7pm, Grosvenor Arms, Shaftesbury. TICKETS.

24 Mar: 6.30pm, John Sandoe Books, London. TICKETS.

7 April: 7pm, Stanfords, Bristol. TICKETS.

22 May: 7.30pm, Shute Festival, Devon. TICKETS.

11-13 Sept: Vicarious Festival, Somerset. TICKETS.

5 Nov: 11.30am, Bridport Literary Festival, Dorset. TICKETS.


WHAT PEOPLE ARE SAYING ...

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

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

“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

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

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

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

“A thrilling expedition … a richly observed cultural history.” New Statesman

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

“A sense of the extraordinary marks every page… Geographically and historically, the scope of The Lost Pianos of Siberia is dizzying, but so too is its ambition to fathom the resilience of humanity.” History Today

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

“A wonderfully intimate journey… 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 

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

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

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

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

“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

“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... It becomes much more than a musical quest, humanising a landscape often stereotyped as bleak and devoid of life.” 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 adventurous, moving and revealing exploration of landscape and often dark history — but above all, of humanity, music and memories.” — Geographical

“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, The Last Days of the Romanovs 

“An excellent debut book.” — New Zealand Listener

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

“The book recounts several wild goose chases and dead ends … But no matter: 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

“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

“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

“Impeccable research, masterful anecdotal storytelling and evocative descriptions of the landscape… You don’t need to love Siberia or pianos to enjoy this book. Brilliance illuminates each page.” — The Press Association

CONTACTS


Sophy is represented by Sophie Lambert at C&W Agency. For press and event enquiries, please contact Sally Wray, SWray@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk


Michael is represented by Martha North at Ray Brown.


Follow Sophy Roberts on Instagram at @sophy_roberts and Michael on @michaelturek










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