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Sophy Roberts

The Lost Pianos of Siberia

Sophy Roberts is a travel writer who went to Siberia in March 2016 to track the elusive Siberian tiger. During the previous summer, however, she had been staying with a German friend, Franz-Christoph Giercke, and his family who spent their summers in nomads’ tents out in the remote Mongolian steppe, not far from the Siberian border. Also staying with them was Odgerel Sampilnorov, a Mongolian pianist who gave recitals on Giercke’s Yamaha baby grand, but Giercke was becoming irritated by the sound of his modern Yamaha. One evening, writes Sophy, he ‘leaned over and whispered in my ear his frustration, “We must find her one of the lost pianos of Siberia”.’

Roberts’ skill as a travel writer captures the reader’s imagination. We can feel the breathtaking cold, be struck by ‘a crab-apple tree, its fruit ruby-red like drops of blood against the snow’ and despair at the derelict settlements of ‘housing blocks missing their windows, the glass blown out so they resembled skulls with empty eye sockets.’ We criss-cross Siberia, covering remote areas from the Ural Mountains to the Yamal Peninsula in the Polar Circle, from Irkutsk near Lake Baikal to Kamchatka Peninsula on the Pacific Ocean, following the helpful maps at the start of each chapter.

The trail itself is not only an adventure story but a fascinating history of Siberia, incorporating the development of a passion for the piano from the time of Catherine the Great. We read of aristocratic political prisoners after the failed Decembrists’ Revolution of 1825, and the wife of Prince Sergei Volkonsky, for example, who insisted on accompanying her husband into exile, taking her clavichord from Moscow, four thousand miles across the Siberian taiga.

Sophy Roberts discovers harrowing stories of cruelty and hardship but also remarkable courage and resilience. She encounters dead ends, silences and suspicion as well as survivors with stories to tell. Lydiya, a frail old lady living on sinister Sakhalin Island, fondly recalled her father who had played home-made instruments and conducted an orchestra and a choir. On Lydiya’s table in her meagre living room was a single fresh narcissus, lit up by a shaft of sunlight. The author had not found the piano she had been searching for, ‘I had found love and humanity instead – in the last house at the end of the last street at the dead end of Russia.’

There is Stanislav Dobrovolskiy, a thin, elderly man who had survived the Siege of Leningrad as a child. He had tuned the Mülbach grand which had belonged to a famous pianist, Vera Shevchenko. Piano tuners proved to be a vital connection to the lost pianos, the three generations of the delightful Lomatchenko family being an important example.

There are poignant descriptions of the lives of political prisoners condemned to live in the gulags, forced to work in mines or construct railways in temperatures as low as minus 40, surviving on meagre rations of frozen bread, and yet still able to keep their music alive by singing or playing instruments.

One is drawn ineluctably into the quest, hoping that Roberts will succeed in her search. I leave you to read this disturbing, moving and fascinating book for yourself to find out the answer.

Frances Walker


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