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by Sophy Roberts

Pub Date: Aug. 4th, 2020
ISBN: 978-0-8021-4928-2
Publisher: Grove

Across the vast expanse of Siberia, pianos brought culture and consolation.

British journalist Roberts makes an engaging book debut with a chronicle of her travels through Siberia searching for pianos. Guided by a history of 19th-century Russian piano makers, the author was aware of the proliferation and distribution of pianos, some manufactured by Western companies, far from Russia’s major cities. By the end of the 19th century, one workshop in St. Petersburg alone had built more than 11,000 pianos, many of which were hauled by sledge to outposts in Siberia. “East of the Urals,” Roberts writes, “music teachers were paid two to three times the amount they earned in Western Russia. In these new towns of the expanding Empire, the piano played an even more important social role than it did in a Moscow drawing room.” In the town of Tomsk, for example, a place Chekhov found boring, a chapter of the Imperial Russian Music Society incited a flourishing musical culture. Its grand piano was chosen by the brother of famed pianist Anton Rubinstein. Besides forming the center of cultural life for residents who settled in Siberia hoping for fortune, freedom, or a new beginning, pianos were crucial to the region’s many penal colonies, where classical music elicited “a keen sense of European identity and pride.” In Kolyma, near the Sea of Okhotsk, Roberts recalls the “political dissidents, hardened criminals, recidivist killers, invalids half dead with dystrophy, poets, pianists, and starving women” brought by Stalin’s gulag ships. Even in that harsh colony, there was a grand piano, housed in a building constructed by prisoners. Roberts describes vividly the “bald, scarred, austere” landscapes that make up much of Siberia as well as the often eccentric individuals—many of them piano tuners—who assisted in her quest. Aiming “to celebrate all that is magnificent about Siberia,” Roberts realized that often the pianos she found were “tied up with a terrifying past.”

An absorbing history illuminates a bleak landscape.

(b/w illustrations; maps)