The Lost Pianos of Siberia by Sophy Roberts

Fittingly, if annoyingly, I have mislaid my copy of The Lost Pianos of Siberia, so this will have to be from memory, just like many of the stories that Sophy Roberts collects over the course of the book. The conceit of the story is that Roberts was spending most of a summer with a German friend in Mongolia — as one apparently does — and she heard a young Mongolian woman playing the piano with extraordinary grace and beauty. Roberts quickly realized that the skill and talent of Odgerel Sampilnorov outclassed the limited instruments available to her in rural Mongolia, or indeed all of the country. Roberts promises to find and bring to Sampilnorov an instrument worthy of her abilities.

Lost Pianos of Siberia by Sophy Roberts

That promise turned into a quest, that quest took Roberts back and forth across Siberia, and the journeys became a book (also documented in part on a web site). In the book, Roberts braids three strands: first, the history of pianos in Russia, and to a lesser extent the history of pianos in general; second, Russian history from Catherine the Great onward, with a particular emphasis on Siberia; and finally, Roberts’ own travels to far-flung parts of a far-reaching place. Similarly, she divides the book chronologically into three parts: “Pianomania,” 1762–1917; “Broken Chords,” 1917–1991; and “Goodness Knows Where,” 1992–present. The first date is the beginning of the reign of Catherine the Great, a time when piano technology was advancing and the instrument assuming its modern form even as Russia was importing European expertise, very much including instrument makers for its court and upper nobility.

Roberts describes how in Russia pianos became symbols of culture and refinement, how developments in the international market let to the establishment is a significant domestic piano manufacturing industry, as well as how teachers, composers and impresarios found a larger market in Russia for their services than practically anywhere else in Europe. During the Imperial period, these linked developments led to a great dispersal of fine pianos across the empire, not least in Siberia. The first great fortunes made in Siberia came from fur, and as trading posts grew to towns and cities, nobility and bourgeoisie alike showed their cultivation by bringing pianos across the great distances from Europe. Subsequent engines of prosperity such as the railroad or natural resources produced wealthy households whose members craved the culture that piano playing represented. Less happily, nobles forced into political exile in Siberia brought their households, including pianos, with them. Roberts notes particularly the many Decembrists – idealists who revolted against the Tsar in 1825 — who brought culture, science and learning with them to Siberia. European Russia’s loss was Siberia’s gain, and that very much included pianos. She also relates the history of Polish rebels, many of them educated, sent to Siberia, and the instruments they either brought or found in that distant land.

Her tales are often fascinating, and delivered on the basis of personal visits. She captures, for example, the rise and fall of a place called Kyakhta. It was the first site where trade between the Russian and Chinese Empires was officially sanctioned. From the late eighteenth century through the middle of the nineteenth century, vast quantities of goods — particularly tea — passed through the town and fortunes were made. Its wealth was such that Marx mentioned it in his writings. Fine buildings were erected, pianos brought from manufacturies in Europe. The railways, though, passed by Kyakhta, and the town never recovered. This is the kind of place where Roberts looks for pianos, places that once were something more.

The second great wave of piano dispersion across Siberia came after the consolidation of Soviet power. Determined that culture would not remain the preserve of the nobility and bourgeoisie (both of which they eradicated) the Soviets saw to it that musical education reached into every corner of the USSR. Often enough, that education included pianos, sturdy, reliable models produced in vast quantities in Soviet factories that were the successors of the pre-revolution piano makers. Less happily, Siberia was also the site of many parts of the Gulag, the system of prison camps and forced labor colonies that amounted to a second economy within the Soviet Union. Camp commanders and other high officials often had pianos brought from Russia’s western regions, following in the traditions of imperial-era governors. Roberts describes visits that she made to Kolyma, in Russia’s far northeast on the Sea of Okhtosk, a region to some of the Gulag’s worst camps. It’s difficult to convey the brutality of the Kolyma camps without it overwhelming any other narrative aspect. Roberts touches on it more lightly than I would have expected; I don’t think she found any working pianos in the area, and eventually she abandons her plan to drive across the full length of the region.

Roberts is perhaps unusual in preferring the Siberian winter to the summer. She mentions briefly the plague of mosquitoes that summer brings and notes that she had a bad allergic reaction to their bites. Travel in more remote parts of Siberia is in any event easier in winter. Frozen rivers can serve as roads — even Lake Baikal can be traversed by vehicle — and there is no mud sucking away at wheels and impeding progress. She captures the great beauty of Siberia in winter and the fierce love that many of its inhabitants have for its most characteristic season.

She’s also particularly good with research that involves individual pianos. The great manufacturers have histories reaching back for centuries, and the business is such that records tell stories of travel and ownership. She is often able to find where and when a piano was made, who bought it for transport to Siberia, and who worked to keep the instrument in good condition. At other times, geopolitics intervenes and she finds that the records were destroyed during a war, usually World War II as part of the Nazi siege of Leningrad or by Allied bombing in Germany. Still, her research helps to confirm stories that were remembered in Siberia more as family legend by the people who now possess the pianos.

Similarly, she sketches terrific portraits of Siberian families to whom pianos are important: a teacher in a small town who was the beneficiary of pooled efforts to buy a great instrument, generations of one family of piano tuners who have kept the craft alive, other tales of persistence and love of music through hard times. These were the best parts of the book, and made reading it well worthwhile.

I was left, though, with a lingering uneasiness about the whole project. Who spends a summer in Mongolia without further explanation? Especially as it turns out that her friend is a supplier of high-end cashmere to Hermès. She first visited his camp in Mongolia “in 2001, when the camp was raw and wild and fueled by moonshine vodka, buckets of caviar, and a rotating set of glamourous adventurers—from the art patron Francesca von Habsburg to Hamid Sarkar-Afkhami, a formidable Sanskrit and Tibetan studies scholar of Iranian descent.” Late in the book, Roberts describes a sea trip with dedicated birders to the Commander Islands, Russian territories in the Bering Sea off the east coast of Kamchatka. For several of the birders, it’s clearly the trip of a lifetime. For Roberts, it’s just one of several visits to Kamchatka.

While writing this review, I checked and flights from London to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatka are not as extravagantly priced as I first thought. Still, the amount of travel implied in The Lost Pianos of Siberia calls for significant resources, especially because Roberts does not speak Russian and had to rely on translators and guides throughout her search. (She had never heard of Novosibirsk before starting her piano search. It’s only the largest city in Siberia and Russia’s third most populous overall.) These people are graciously acknowledged in the book’s ancillary matter and sometimes mentioned in the main text, so I can’t exactly fault her adherence to custom. Maybe, as a friend suggested, Roberts built the book from her more general work as a travel writer. The link above, for example, is to Condé Nast Traveler. She often writes for the Financial Times’ How to Spend It, a partly tongue in cheek supplement for people with entirely too much money. That’s entirely possible, but Roberts never says.

Readers are supposed to take her quixotic quest entirely at face value. Instead, I found that it left a hole in the book. The stories she gets are terrific, often valuable, and probably would have been lost entirely to any larger audience without Roberts. I’m glad she got them; I’m glad they’re recorded for history; I’m glad that I read them. But I also wonder about the cultural power and privilege of someone who started the whole project on a high-powered whim, who can not only pursue that whim to the ends of the earth but can also get on radio and television in nearly a different countries to talk about it. Is her work so much better than, say, a Jonathan Campion (who speaks Russian and worked in the region for years) or a Sher Khashimov (who’s Tajik), or does she just know the right people to spend a summer with in Mongolia, as one does.

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