Extreme weather conditions can damage a piano. Swings in humidity and heat shrink the wood and crack the soundboard, and misshapen felt, swollen by damp, mutes the keys. For pianists and tuners, a continental subarctic climate such as Siberia’s, with an annual average temperature of -5°C, makes for trying conditions.
The travel writer Sophy Roberts begins her quest across Siberia’s 13 million square kilometres with a straightforward aim: to find a superior piano for Odgerel Sampilnorov, a young musician she meets while staying in Orkhon Valley, Mongolia, who longs for a better instrument than the Yamaha baby grand on which she gives recitals.
The Lost Pianos of Siberia, Roberts’ first book, is a richly observed cultural history. It maps the author’s journeys through the region, past “caves hollowed out like honeycombs”, through snow drifts that “creak” around her thighs, north to where “the sun seems to nudge the surface of the Earth”, and into towns with stories “as thick as a forest”. She understands the piano first as a symbol of European influence on Catherine the Great’s Russia and then, as the instrument travelled into Siberia, carried both by exiled prisoners and migrants escaping the reach of the Tsar, as a way to trace the extent of Russification and the loss of indigenous cultures. She hopes that by tracking down the stories behind Siberia’s most socially significant pianos she might “find a counterpoint in music not only to Siberia’s brutal history but to the modern images of this country reported by the anti-Putin media”.
Most moving are the tales about those for whom music was, in the most vicious of environments during the 19th and 20th centuries, a life-saving force. There is Vera Lotar-Shevchenko, a French-born musician imprisoned in a gulag close to Ekaterinburg. Her fellow prisoners, having watched her pine for her piano, carved a keyboard into her bunk, on which she practised silently at night. There is also Nina Alexandrovna, a child sent in 1932 to live with her aunt in Tobolsk, whose cries for her faraway parents were halted only by feeling piano keys underneath her “baby fingers”.
Despite Roberts’ wishes, it is impossible for these stories to be removed from their context – extreme poverty, imprisonment or loneliness. Even the language of music feels “darkly ironic” when used in Siberia, she writes, noting that in the 19th century, the “jingles” of the exiles’ chains led to shackles being referred to as “music”, while in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago (1973), “to ‘play the piano’ meant having your fingerprints taken when you first arrived in camp”.
Inevitably, the quest to find her friend a new piano is quickly put on the back- burner, and she instead pursues a whole host of pianos once played by intriguing figures and now lost to history. Each of these “hunts” is “sometimes more about the looking than the finding” and more often than not she does not find what she’s after. But her musings more than make up for the lack of actual discovery. “Where was the lost ship’s piano now?” she asks of an instrument brought aboard the Blencathra, a British ship that delivered rails for the new Trans-Siberian Railway in 1893 and made further voyages to the River Yenisei before disappearing without trace in 1912:
I pictured the instrument drifting in a polar sea, its ivories washed up among a colony of seals, the notes entwined with the clicks and trills of a beluga whale. I wondered if the instrument might one day reappear beside the stove in a fisherman’s cabin, or as a piece of soundless furniture stripped of its wires to make snares for Arctic hare.
Occasionally, Roberts gets carried away chasing new leads and forgets to concentrate on the case in hand. She travels to Harbin, established in 1898 as a Russian settlement in Chinese territory when the Tsar “struck a deal” to build a railway through Manchuria to the Pacific, and today the second most populous city in north-east China. Fascinated by the city’s jazz club culture of the 1920s, she seeks out “a living Russian connection to Siberian pianos… evidence of the wonderful old Russian artists who did so much to turn the Chinese ear to piano music in the first place”.
The trip proves unsuccessful. “In all my days of looking,” she writes, “the only antique piano I uncovered (but wasn’t allowed to touch) stood in a restaurant serving borscht to tourists.” She is there just four days, a meagre amount of time in which to find a story that fits her objective amid a city of over ten million people.
There are other forces besides time at work against her reporting, not least the widespread agreement among Siberia’s residents that they would rather forget their families’ difficult, often violent, pasts. She seeks out official documentation but finds chapters missing; sources agree to meet her, and then back out. Others, such as the geologist Aleksandr Avdonin – whom Roberts visits to enquire about the piano kept in the Ipatiev House in Ekaterinburg, where the imperial Romanov family was kept and then assassinated by the Bolsheviks in 1918 – simply avoid direct questions.
“Every historic instrument should carry a passport,” says Stanislav Dobrovolskiy, a professor at the Novosibirsk Conservatory. But that would have made Roberts’ thrilling expedition all too easy.
The Lost Pianos of Siberia
Doubleday, 448pp, £16.99
This article appears in the 12 Feb 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Power without purpose