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Piano hunting in Siberia

With ‘The Lost Pianos of Siberia’ the British journalist Sophy Roberts wrote both a breathtaking cultural history and a lyrical account of a journey in inhospitable territory.

It is the summer of 2015. British journalist Sophy Roberts is visiting a German friend who is spending the summer in a nomad tent on the Mongolian steppe. He introduces her to the brilliant pianist Odgerel Sampilnorov, who performs a sublime recital surrounded by the velvety slopes of the landscape. Then the friend complains about the inferior pianos on which Odgerel wastes her talent. He comes up with an idea as grandiose as it is outlandish: “We have to find one of Siberia’s lost pianos for her!”

It is the beginning of a quest that will take Roberts criss-cross Siberia for two years, overcome by “the elusive, illogical power of an obsession.” Scattered throughout the vast country are pianos of all kinds: Soviet-made upright pianos, but also impressive Steinways that got there in the most bizarre ways. They traveled by sleigh, horse-drawn carriage, boat, or tied to the roof of a railway carriage with exiles, settlers and adventurers.

The multitude of details, histories and illustrious figures makes this book breathtaking.

Siberia covers about three-quarters of Russia’s territory, stretching from the Urals to the Pacific Ocean and from the Arctic Ocean to the Mongolian steppe. It is an immense land mass that transcends our empathy. “You are dizzy at the boundless dimensions, until you no longer know what is true and what is real, whether Siberia is a nightmare or a myth full of impenetrable forests and endless plains.”

Beauty and horror

The name Siberia sounds like a bell and evokes images of forced labor, penal camps and inhuman horror. But there is also something magical lurking in it, the twinkling echo of a snow and star-dominated wilderness where wolves and bears hold sway over ancient, untouched forests.

“Siberia is much more than a place on the map: it’s a feeling that snags like a burdock, it’s a fever, the sound of fuzzy snowflakes on soft hills, and the crunch of careful footsteps behind your back. You hear Siberia in the big, soft chords of Russian music, evoking the silence of silver birch forests and fierce snow storms. ‘

Roberts watches over the balance of that duality. She writes about the beauty and the horror, the freedom and the suffering. Because her search for pianos is above all the guiding principle for a drawn-out cultural history.

The wasteland that you would spontaneously describe as empty, inhospitable and undeveloped, is home to a rich cultural life brimming with cross-pollination between people, cultures and religions. Forced laborers, exiled nobles, wandering scientists, artists on the run, and indigenous shamanic tribes have all left their mark on Siberian history and culture.

Roberts writes about the triumphal processions of the Hungarian ‘piano master’ Franz Liszt, who raised Russian love for the instrument to fever pitch. Liszt’s insanely popular tour – fought over for his handkerchiefs, coffee grounds and cigarette butts – sparked a piano cult and the instrument took on a starring role in the changing Russian music culture.

Roberts talks about Stalin’s immeasurable mass murders, but also about the extreme resilience of people who managed to survive the gulags. “As much as I wanted my piano hunt to celebrate all the beauty of Siberia, face to face with the memories and the oppression I had to recognize that much of what I was looking for was inseparable from a horrific past.”

Butterfly storms

Roberts sets out undauntedly “to the farthest corner of a remote corner,” visiting remote places like Irkutsk, Kolyma and the infamous Okhotsk Bay, where Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago was located. She moves further and further north, ‘where the land becomes more lonely and the sun stays closer to the earth, a landscape from the beginning of time’. And then it heads south again, where butterfly storms blow across the tundra and crashed space probes stand upright in the plain like chess pieces.

And she finds pianos everywhere. It is almost incomprehensible that these delicate constructions of wood and strings managed to survive the harsh weather conditions. But they are still there, and for a romantic soul they are the symbol of civilization and sophistication. Some instruments turn out to contain a treasure trove of stories: the last piano the Romanovs played before they were executed, the historical instrument of Catherine the Great, a sturdy grand piano that was turned on its side to darken the windows during the Siege of Leningrad. .

Roberts writes for Financial Times and a number of other newspapers. ‘The Lost Pianos of Siberia’ is her debut and she immediately puts herself on the map as a travel writer who is inconsequential.

Those who like their travel stories to be neat and orderly may find this book rather messy. But the charm lies precisely in the way Roberts reconciles with the unpredictability of her quest. One encounter leads to another, each new discovery opens up a range of stories and anecdotes. The multitude of details, histories and illustrious figures is what makes this book so breathtaking.

Roberts teaches you that Siberia is bigger, more enchanting and infinitely more complex than the clichés would have you believe. And she makes you realize how indispensable music is, ‘as a friend in need’, to endure deprivation and loneliness and to keep the human within yourself.

‘The Lost Pianos of Siberia’ is published by Ambo Anthos, has 416 pages and costs 26.99 euros.

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