Review of The Lost Pianos of Siberia – Sophy Roberts

Posted: February 4, 2020 in history, nature, Review, travel

Fusing history, nature writing and travelogue, The Lost Pianos of Siberia is a captivating exploration of an extraordinary and largely unknown part of the world and its unexpected musical legacy.

Siberia’s story is traditionally one of exiles, penal colonies and unmarked graves. Yet there is another tale to tell.

Dotted throughout this remote land are pianos – grand instruments created during the boom years of the Nineteenth Century, and humble, Soviet-made uprights that found their way into equally modest homes. They tell the story of how, ever since entering Russian culture under the influence of Catherine the Great, piano music has run through the country like blood.

How these pianos travelled into this snow-bound wilderness in the first place is testament to noble acts of fortitude by governors, adventurers and exiles. That stately instruments might still exist in such a hostile landscape is remarkable. That they are still capable of making music in far-flung villages is nothing less than a miracle.

But this is Siberia, where people can endure the worst of the world — and where music reveals a deep humanity in the last place on earth you would expect to find it.

The Lost Pianos of Siberia

Sophy Roberts


Supplied by Penguin Random House New Zealand

Reviewed by Stephen Litten

Cultural history can follow some odd paths, and on the surface of it, The Lost Pianos of Siberia is certainly setting off on an odd path. Ask most people about Siberia, and they will mention cold, vastness, cold, isolation, cold, and exiles. Did I mention the cold? The genesis of the book is given toward the end of chapter one. The author sets herself the task of finding a piano for a Mongolian prodigy. A truly British piece of eccentricity. Thus, begins a chase covered in the following 12 chapters and epilogue.

Roberts tells the story of pianos in Siberia in 3 acts: Tsarist, Soviet, and post-communism. But why pianos? Russia in whatever guise was as afflicted by piano mania as every European (and pretender) country. Pianos usually bear serial numbers, making proving provenance possible. Pianos were a powerful cultural icon, denoting civilisation. Many countries, including Russia, had thriving piano-manufacturing industries. Russia, off many people’s cultural radar since the Bolshevik Revolution, was a stop of importance during the time of the tsars.

Roberts follows the advance of Russian influence and the march of events. Each chapter has a small map showing locations mentioned at its beginning, thus reducing the immensity of Siberia to a more human scale. But more than a story of pianos, this is a story of people; those who chose Siberia, or more frequently had Siberia chosen for them. The pianos came by sled, by boat, by train, by plane. They were the property of governors, exiles, free settlers, merchants, the military, the state, and evacuees. And like the people, the climate and conditions in Siberia killed more than a few.

Naturally, there is a New Zealand connection. The skipper of the boat taking Sophy and a group of birders around the Commander and Kuril Islands is a Kiwi.

Roberts has told an excellent story here. It encompasses the nature of Russia and Siberia, along with the quintessential cast of characters that are Russians in their full idiosyncratic glory. This is a book that both satisfies and encourages wanderlust. Read it.

Thanks to Penguin Random House for the review copy.


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