Notes from a cruel climate

Published by The Observer (23rd February, 2020)

The Lost Pianos of Siberia by Sophy Roberts (Doubleday)

Sophy Roberts’s first glimpse of the Sea of Okhotsk was from beside the foot of a metallic mammoth, sculpted from discarded cogs, chains and pipes. Nearby was an artificial beach of gravel, a ship’s carcass snagged in the shallows, strange sun umbrellas with overlong stalks and a nearby jetty that looked like it was slipping into steel-grey waters that were frozen for seven months of the year. There were no people. The foggy landscape was ‘bald, scarred, austere’. And her hotel lacked a second floor, with just a first and third.

Such was the bizarre scene greeting this inquisitive British travel writer when she entered Kolyma, the eastern flank of Siberia. She had arrived in the bay where a fleet of ships, some foreign-owned, had once landed the despairing human cargo carted off to the gulags under Joseph Stalin. These sad souls included Poles, Russians, Koreans, Japanese and thousands of Spaniards ‘rescued’ as children during that country’s civil war. Many perished on the journey from disease. Guards used hoses of freezing water to control their charges. One historian estimates that of 3 million prisoners exiled to Kolyma, just 500,000 survived.

The region’s harsh landscape and historical legacy form the backdrop to Roberts’s intriguing debut. She spent two years crisscrossing the snow-bound wilderness of Siberia, which stretches from the Arctic Circle to Mongolia and includes more than three-quarters of Russia’s terrain. It has a lake holding one-fifth of the planet’s fresh water along with the longest railway and coldest inhabited city on Earth. Yet we know it largely as a place of exile, first under the tsars and then under their communist successors – and it seems so inhospitable it has often been likened to the moon.

Siberia’s link to cruelty dates back centuries. One of the first exiles was a bell that was tolled to rally a failed 1591 revolt in Uglich in European Russia. This led to the execution of 200 townspeople. Then, ‘in a final sadistic twist’, others had tongues cut out and were forced to carry a bell ‘the weight of a horse’ 1,300 miles over the Ural mountains. The bell was also lashed and had its clapper removed to render it mute in ‘a terrifyingly symbolic act’, silencing the music to demonstrate the power of the regime. Yet for some, Siberia was a place of freedom from serfdom and religious schism.

Roberts reminds us in this fresh book that there are still some mysterious parts of our world. I was keen to learn more about this place having read horrific tales of tsarist prisoners chained to wheelbarrows and Soviet dissidents dispatched into icy hell as a student of Russian history many years ago. Roberts marshals the nation’s past with great verve as she rattles through the terrible end of the Romanovs and tells with skill the tale of the Decembrists, the aristocratic idealists whose doomed revolt ended with five hangings and more than 100 rebels exiled to Siberia. Some wives chose to follow their husbands, forced to abandon their children, but ‘revered as living saints’.

Roberts is a wonderfully lyrical writer. Kolyma, we are told, ‘felt like the saddest place on the planet’. On a former submarine base, she finds deserted housing blocks missing their windows with ‘glass blown out so they resembled skulls with empty eye sockets’. One woman, at a winter festival of immersion through ice holes in freezing water, ‘had the look of someone who no longer remembered if she’d ever laughed’. And she can be witty, as shown in her entertaining account of competitive bird watchers on a boat sailing to the Commander Islands. Roberts even finds a soulmate in Mary, a mischievous 80-year-old who shares her cabin.

There is much to enjoy in this original slice of travel writing. Yet there is one gaping flaw at its core: the central conceit involving the ‘lost pianos’ of the title. For this book revolves around a quixotic quest to find an instrument for a talented musician she meets in Mongolia, whose family fled Siberia in the 1930s. This leads to many musical meetings and musings. Some fuel her narrative, such as the tale of Vera Lotar-Shevchenko, a pianist of ‘rare brilliance’ thrown into a gulag, where fellow prisoners carved a keyboard into her wooden bunk so she could practise at night.

But too often this mission becomes a meandering distraction as she appeals for information on missing pianos – some dragged by sledge from Moscow in previous centuries – talks to tuners and tries to track down important old instruments. It feels artificial, almost self-conscious, like a comedian dragging a fridge around a country for a bet (and a book). Beneath the author’s search lie fascinating insights into Siberia. More about the people living there now and fewer pianos might have shone an even stronger light on this little-explored and desolate place.

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