I am currently reading Colin Thubron’s book In Siberia and am about half way through. In 2008 Thubron was listed by The Times among the 50 greatest postwar writers. He is a Companion of the Royal Society of Literature.
In Siberia does what it says on the tin. I love his descriptive prose as the writer hikes around this forbidding and extreme land in the 1990s. Thubron speaks Russian, but so what? No guarantees here. It is ideal autumnal reading as the weather turns and we look for a fireside curl up book. What better than to toast your toes and read about someone else taking all the frozen cold risks!
Here he is, alighting from a train at a deserted village in the middle of nowhere.
“It never fails. You arrive in a small town towards sunset. You know nobody, nothing. The main street is empty, the shops closed, the few offices almost deserted. But you tell yourself within an hour I’ll be under shelter… a chill wind is blowing off the mountains. Then you wander past an open door and fall into conversation with a. man who peers after you. He suggests a workers dormitory he knows… .”
During the twentieth century this (once) pristine land became a metaphor for exile. Those who came did so involuntarily and to die. That Siberia existed a million years before the gulag has been forgotten as its history has become overwhelmed by twentieth century purges and the Ipatiev house site of the slaughter of Tsar Nicholas and his children, Doctor and servants. This house no longer stands. Boris Yeltsin apparently ordered to be razed lest it become a shrine. Too late, perhaps.
From ‘snowbound purity and the repository of an imagined innocence’ Siberia became ‘a storehouse to be plundered by officials and hunted bare by Cossacks; and above all, long before the Gulag, as a limbo that could receive all the viral waste of the Empire, criminal, vagabond, dissident. Through Siberia Russia would purge itself. Its vastness could quarantine evil.
Oh courageous Mr. Thubron!
And oh courageous Sophy Roberts! Author of my second book, The Lost Pianos of Siberia
“Artists and intellectuals perished in Siberia without so much as a state record of their arrival or their death, whether it was suicide that took them, the typhus addled way-stations, or the caged barges which carried the exiles upriver into Siberian towns like Tomsk. Their stories were silenced by a penal system which killed off far more people than Siberia ever remembered.”
A journalist by training, Roberts’ debut work was chosen as Sunday Times Book of 2020. It catalogues the author’s search for the history of music and musical instruments – particularly pianos – across Russia and Siberia from 18th century to present times. For its lost musicians and artists.
Sophy Roberts has teased out a history of a people and their music, pockets of perseverance against terrible odds. I imagine she went to not inconsiderable amounts of trouble to do so, since the journey from Moscow to Vladivostock on the Trans-Siberian Railway is a trip of some five and a half thousand miles!
Covering an eleventh of the world’s landmass, Siberia is a land of extremes. Its biggest lake holds a fifth of the world’s fresh water. Its taiga is the largest forest on earth. Siberia is crossed by the world’s longest railroad, and is home to the coldest inhabited city on Earth.
Siberia does not seem first choice for those looking for a home for their Steinway & Sons instruments. Yet Roberts takes us deep into the home of the gulag archipelago, the Vorkhuta mines, Sakhalin Island and Kolyma. Siberia’s history is also the history of some of the most grim and vicious cruelties of the twentieth century. Yet there were still pianos, largely from Russia.
In Russia, Empress Catherine was largely responsible for the popularisation of European Music. With Potemkin by her side, she became a great patron of the arts. You can still see her piano
“behind red rope in Pavlovsk , an 18th century Tsarist pleasure palace outside St. Petersburg”
Catherine’s efforts were greatly assisted by a performance given by Liszt in 1842 in St. Petersburg which heightened the prestige of ownership of a piano. Before long Russia started to beat the western world at its own game and by the turn of the twentieth century Russia gave us Tchaikovsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Rachmaninoff. To accommodate their great composers and pianists, the Russians became expert piano makers.
This changed, as did everything else, After the revolution in 1917. The Tsarist regime fell, many great houses were destroyed, their occupants murdered or fled.
“In 1919 one of St Petersburg’s music critics sold his grand piano for a few loaves of bread.”
If the Revolution were not enough, twenty years later came the Nazi advance and the siege of Leningrad.
It was around this time that Russia’s remaining pianos were shipped to Siberia for safe keeping.
Unlike Thubron, Roberts doesn’t speak Russian but uses translators and a host of local guides: Aleksei in Tobolsk, ‘tall and handsome dressed in a black suit… .’ In Kiakhta, A Mongolian opera singer called Tsogt (a buddhist whose family had fled the Lake Baikal in the thirties). puts Roberts on the trail of a rare Bechstein grand.
“…steppe country imbued with Buddhist history, where there are as many churches as there are Buryat invocations to the spirits evident in the blue and yellow ribbons tied to trees. The Bechstein was an instrument invested with so much desire, I was ready to believe almost any version of events as Siberia’s past and enigmatic present pulled me in.”
Recreating what happened to the remaining instruments and finding – if not the actual pianos then at least their stories – is a feat of detective work and one that I greatly enjoyed following.