In the summer of 2015, travel journalist Sophy Roberts found herself in a tent in Mongolia deep in conversation with a talented young local pianist who lamented the lack of a proper instrument on which to play her beloved Bach and Beethoven. The pianist’s family had roots in the region of Lake Baikal, in neighbouring Siberia. So began for Roberts a form of “selfish madness”, an obsession not only with sourcing a piano for her friend, but searching for pianos “washed up and abandoned” in Siberia, and for the stories of how they came to be there, and how they survived.
The result is a richly absorbing account of Siberia over the last 250 years, as Roberts zigzags her way from the Ural Mountains in the west to the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia’s far east. Along the way, she takes in how pianos entered Russian culture under Catherine the Great, the later rock star-like tours of the Hungarian Lizst, as well as the enduring influence of the Polish “subversive” Chopin and Russian musical giants Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and Shostakovich.
Her focus is on the instruments themselves, and the journeys many of them made due to political disruption. Some were taken out of drawing rooms in fashionable Moscow and transported east – often on horse-drawn sledge – or were evacuated along with other treasures from Saint Petersburg (then Leningrad) during its wartime siege. They ranged from the German-designed grand pianos, built in the Becker and Bechstein factories, that became status symbols for the aristocrats of the 19th century, to the Soviet-manufactured “Red October” uprights. Many of the pianos ended up, untuned and unplayed, in village community centres and modest homes.
Roberts’s research – she appeals for information in local newspapers, on radio stations and TV – gives rise to memorable encounters and interviews. On meeting former Aeroflot navigator turned book collector and piano seeker Leonid Kaloshin at his home in the Altai mountains, the southernmost point of Siberia, she is struck by the remoteness of the region – even the locals refer to it as “the End of Everything”. “The world is very remote. We are at the centre,” Kaloshin gently counters.
The word “Siberia” conjures up harsh winters, mosquito-infested summers, labour camps and internal exile. Bordered in the south by Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China, this vast, sparsely occupied terrain has been a part of Russia since the 17th century and comprises 77% of its landmass. Punitive expulsion has taken different forms during different periods, serving the cause of successive regimes. Among those banished to Siberia were the Decembrist army officers who led a revolt against the new tsar, Nicholas I, in 1825. The wives who chose to follow them and share their punishment were later idealised as martyrs and strong Russian women. Embracing their intellectual freedoms in exile, they cultivated culture and education. Princess Maria Volkonsky, who somehow managed to have a small piano conveyed into the frozen wilderness, set up a salon of sorts in the prison cell she shared with her husband.
Lenin’s Russian Provisional Government first imprisoned the imperial Romanov family in Tobolsk, in western Siberia, and then, with the White Army advancing, took them west to Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg, where they were later executed; Roberts searches for Nicholas II’s piano and relates the horrific details of how the family died.
From 1930, some of the most brutal gulags were in Kolyma, in the east, where an estimated 13,000 people died, and where the writer Varlam Shalamov was imprisoned, later detailing his experience in his Kolyma Tales. Roberts locates another lost piano in Kolyma’s principal town, Magadan, after spotting it in a 1940s photograph of the prisoner-constructed Magadan theatre, where persecuted musicians had no choice but to play. “For some, picking up an instrument in the camps was a travesty of what a creative life was meant to be,” she writes. They “resisted cultural programmes for the ‘re‑education’ of prisoners. For many musicians, it was performance by brute force.”
In 1890, Chekhov spent three months observing the penal colony on Sakhalin Island in the Sea of Okhotsk, north of Japan. The articles he subsequently published, which would now be termed investigative journalism, depicted it as a “place of unbearable sufferings”. Roberts, tracing part of Chekhov’s journey, finds a present-day Sakhalin, “pulsing with neon and gas”, which is keen to distance itself from that image. “I knew that however hard I wanted my piano hunt to celebrate all that is magnificent about Siberia, much of what I was looking for was tied up with a terrifying past,” Roberts writes. The Lost Pianos of Siberia is as much elegy as detective story.
• The Lost Pianos of Siberia is published by Doubleday (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p on all online orders over £15.