Isolation Read #81

Even if you are not much interested in my book review, visit the website of the book because it has some fantastic videos and photos from Roberts’ travels in Siberia plus some wonderful music, played on the pianos found there.


It is the world that is remote. We are at the centre.

From the late C18th, the upper circles of Russian society were infatuated with idea of ‘being more European’, which meant emulating the fashions, art, literature of the larger nations of the continent: a Russian wasn’t anybody if they couldn’t converse in French. Part of this emulation included a vast appetite for owning the latest in European status symbols, the pianoforte: whether grand or upright every home had to have one. Sophy Roberts set out on a quest to track down these relics of the extremely unlikely game of ‘keeping up with the Jonses’. Each piano should have a registration number, that should be traceable back through records.

The practicalities of actually getting pianos to many of the outlying places of this enormous land – even accounting for the fact that Roberts’ limited the scope of her enquiries to Siberia, itself one-eleventh of the entire global landmass – are staggering to contemplate. The Siberian Railway was not in place and working until the turn of the C20th, so before that, these things were dragged, often for thousands of miles across either ice / snow or the huge, deep mud baths that followed the spring thaw. Other than the option of sailing all the way round, which a) took along time and b) still left the problem of getting from the port to the destination, the best way of transporting people and goods across Siberia was the Great Siberian Trakt – the main post road, a bumpy highway made up of planks of wood…for several thousand miles.

The conceit for the book is niche to say the least but what makes it interesting beyond the apparently narrow market are the digressions (isn’t it always the case?) and the people she meets. Along the way Roberts’ visits Ekaterinberg and the house where the Romanovs were finally executed, because obviously the house had a piano – she had some interesting detail about the order of events and some of the confusion around the fate of the deposed royal family.

She visits the far north of Siberia, on the Yumal which extends into the Arctic, where the Nenet people live very different lives from the proscribed Soviet norm – shamanism, animism, hunters following wildlife. She travels in Chekhov’s footsteps out to Sakhalin Island, and the former exile camp; branches briefly into Mongolia where there is a piano somehow surviving life in a yurt; until she ends up at The Commanders, two islands, officially the furthest east point of Russia/Siberia – beyond the Kamchatka peninsula – “the fog archipelago”, sufficiently remote and unwelcoming that there are no real signs of human habitation, just occasional visiting patrols and wildlife-watcher cruises.

Other destinations include a plateau in the Altai mountains known as “The End of Everything” that sits at the junction of four countries, Russia, China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan. Then there is Novosibirsk, which houses the largest opera house in Russia – a cupola, twice the size of St Paul’s and a theatre that could accommodate a column of tanks, if required.

Perhaps my favourite anecdote involves St Petersburg in 1942, under Nazi bombardment, and Shostakovich has written the Leningrad Symphony in response. Mid-siege the authorities instruct the Leningrad Radio Orchestra to reform in order to perform the debut of the piece but many original members are dead, some soldiers are drafted in. Soviet firepower was turned to ensure that no bombers could reach Leningrad that day. The city had more than 1700 loudspeakers set up on the streets, and they broadcast it to the frontlines of the war, thus on 9 August 1942, much of Leningrad’s starving population came outdoors to listen to the symphony. It is reported that many ‘dressed’ for the occasion and that at the front there were standing ovations from both sides.

Roberts’ style is relaxed and chatty while still being informative, and clearly well-researched.

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