The incongruity of seeing pianos among the snow and starkness of Siberia must have been striking for author Sophy Roberts, who travelled through the region to find them and to uncover the stories they hold of the people who owned, transported and played them, often in the face of personal tragedy and collective suffering. She came to understand what they might teach us about fortitude, solace and making music.
For Roberts, Siberia, (which etymology tells us probably comes from the Tatar word sibir, meaning ‘the sleeping land’) is an economic miracle, a tectonic wonder, and a place rich with history and Indigenous culture. It is also an ecological disaster, with resources under pressure, white snow turned toxic black in places because of open-pit coal mines, and the climate crisis causing permafrost to melt.
The stories of the people in this extraordinary book, and the pianos they play, act as footholds in the vast landscape that Roberts shows us. Some of the people we meet are familiar, such as Wassily Kandinsky, the turn-of-the-century Russian artist obsessed with the relationship between music and painting. For others, Roberts offers glimpses of their truth and testimony, and realises that ‘people basically want the same thing: harmony, beauty, continuity’.
Roberts’ curiosity drew me in; she explains how her motives expanded as she travelled deeper into the landscape, people and idea of Siberia. The result is an adventurous, moving and revealing exploration of landscape and often dark history – but above all, of humanity, music and memories.