The Lost Pianos of Siberia, by Sophy Roberts. London, Doubleday, 2020. 448pp., £18.99
When Sergei Volkonsky was exiled to Siberia in December 1825, his wife Maria volunteered to go with him. Her devotion was matched only by her strong will, as she insisted on taking her clavichord with her, the cumbersome instrument lugged over 4,000 miles by sledge. First placed in her husband’s prison cell, the instrument would later be played at Maria’s musical salon in Irkutsk. Somewhat incredibly, there in deepest Siberia educated exiles created a vibrant civic life (Maria made building a concert hall and bringing musical education to schools her personal projects), transforming Irkutsk into ‘the Paris of Siberia’. Like so many instruments, her clavichord would be lost amid the tumult of Russia’s later history.
Maria’s story turns the idea of Siberia as a featureless wasteland on its head and, in this beautifully written book, Sophy Roberts thoroughly convinces that the region – which covers an 11th of the world’s landmass – defies any simple categorisation, having been home to thriving trading posts and model Soviet towns as well as the Tsarist-era penal colonies and Soviet Gulag with which it is synonymous. This travelogue-cum-detective story details Roberts’ quest to find a piano of rare quality, deep history and matchless voice for a young Mongolian virtuoso, but the result is a unique short history of Russia, from Catherine the Great to Putin, which reveals how the piano came to speak to the Russian soul…
History Today, March 2020, Vol 70 Issue 3, pp. 102-103.