When the Russian conquest of Siberia began in the late sixteenth century, the pianoforte had not yet been invented. The instrument arose in Italy around 1700, and became popular in Russia only in the 1840s, after Franz Liszt toured the country. By the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, pianos had found their way to the frozen northern regions of the empire. Those early instruments, which Sophy Roberts tracks down in The Lost Pianos of Siberia, now exist in a state of expatriate decrepitude with cracked soundboards and broken hammers. Some were simply gutted. Piano strings morphed into fishing lines, jewellery wire and garrottes.
Seeking to secure a piano “worthy of” her friend Odgerel Sampilnorov, a Buryat-Mongolian virtuoso, Roberts traversed eight time zones stretching from the Urals to the Pacific Ocean’s Ring of Fire. Her original interest in Siberia centred on the rare Amur tiger, but then the hunt for the piano took over. After Roberts saw a photograph of a spinet in the wild, “a common upright marooned in a lava field in one of the world’s most savage landscapes”, the project expanded, without explicit rationale, into a vast pianorama. The hunt could have ended her life, if she had boarded the chartered helicopter that then crashed in the permafrost. Her book captures Siberia’s wildness, but favours its enchantments.