Dorset-based travel writer Sophy Roberts often reports from destinations that Brits are advised not to visit. In her forthcoming Shaftesbury talk, Sophy will explain how a series of chance encounters helped her uncover a special story from Siberia.
Many Condé Nast Traveller, The Economist and FT readers have enjoyed Sophy Roberts’ travel writing. Sophy’s recently published book, ‘The Lost Pianos of Siberia’, takes us on a journey around one of the most challenging environments on earth in her quest to uncover the instruments which are treasured by many Siberians.
Sophy used to write hotel reviews for her ‘bread and butter’ but she says she has become more excited by uncovering the earth’s little known and understood destinations. “As I’ve grown older, I find myself drawn towards places where there’s a kind of mythology of fear. Those red spots on the map that the Foreign Office deem dangerous,” she said.
Sophy is proud of some of her unusual passport stamps. “I quite like the passport stamps that come from countries that aren’t organised well enough to have a passport stamp. I’ve got a rather wonderful one from Myanmar, where the visa office wasn’t quite functioning, so it’s handwritten. I’ve travelled a bit in Chad. And I’ve always loved that passport stamp. It has that kind of romance with Francophone Africa to it.” Sophy also treasures the ‘fabulous stamp’ of a penguin she collected at the former Port Lockroy British Antarctic research base.
Journalists who ask probing questions are often unwelcome by officials in some of the places Sophy visits. “I am drawn to the stories about the ‘little guys’ that otherwise wouldn’t find a voice in parts of the world that are worthy of protection in some way, or worthy of more education and more knowledge,” she said. Sophy says she features people and uncovers stories which have nothing to do with the ‘PR machine’ of modern media.
Sophy says she has been worried about reporting from some of the countries she has visited. “It can be difficult to tell the story of conservation in Africa when a government is complicit with the dark side, in terms of letting things go by unnoticed. You have to find a way through it. But ultimately, you’ve got to report it and tell the truth.”
Russia can prove problematic for reporters, with its restrictions on press freedom. But Sophy says she was curious to learn more about Siberia, because it’s not widely written about. “The biggest challenge as a journalist and a writer is to make yourself heard outside this morass of Google and to find the stories that haven’t been told. Siberia presented that opportunity to me. It’s 11% of the world’s land surface.”
In 1892, the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov described Siberia as ‘beginning in Yekaterinburg, a city in the Urals, and ending ‘goodness knows where’. Sophy likes that description. “It’s vast. We know it as travellers largely through the Trans-Siberian Railway, which stretches for 5,500 miles from Moscow and St Petersburg, all the way through to the shores of the Pacific in Vladivostok,” she said. “That’s a tiny thread through territory that reaches the Mongolian Steppes to the Russian Arctic. How much more must there be? That’s what I was excited by, trying to find the stories in the sort of more distant, ‘back of beyond’ towns.”
Sophy first became aware of the Siberian passion for pianos when she visited family friends in Mongolia, another relatively isolated place but a destination that is more open to tourism. As her hostess played a Yamaha baby grand, the pianist’s partner remarked, ‘How I wish she was playing one of the lost pianos in Siberia’. That caught Sophy’s attention. “It was a phrase he threw out there. He’s a storyteller. He had worked in film before. In feeding me that phrase, he knew he was feeding my wanderlust. I started to see if this hunch had bones. It did. I travelled to Siberia for the first time in March 2016. And therein set an obsession.”
Sophy explained that pianos were an important facet of Russian culture. “Under Catherine the Great, they were introduced into the salons of Moscow and St Petersburg. In the early 19th century, there was this craze for the European instrument. It was ‘a highly civilising piece of furniture’, as one historian called it. Everybody of wealth wanted one of these great inventions. Then came the virtuosos.”
Sophy says the composter Franz Liszt visited Russia in 1842 and the papers described the tour in a way similar to a rock concert. “Frenzied women would throw flowers at him. Around the same time, governments were beginning to colonise Siberia more forcefully than they had before.” Sophy says that noble exiles, misfits and mavericks moved into the area and they would take pianos with them. “It was a form of solace. A reminder of the sort of high culture they’d left behind,” she said.
Sophy wanted to see whether she could find pianos in Siberia and tell the story of the region and its residents. Understanding Siberia and uncovering locals’ stories is tricky when you can’t speak Russian fluently. “I worked with several interpreters,” said Sophy. “Eventually, I landed on one brilliant woman. I was working in New York and I got to hear the Siberian-born pianist Denis Matsuev at Carnegie Hall, it was exceptional.”
Sophy wanted to visit the Altai Mountains, the range where Russia, China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan meet. Her trip was planned for January, which she described as, ‘a fierce time of year to be in this very remote place’. She couldn’t sleep because of jet lag, so she booted up her laptop and Googled some Siberian blogs. She found someone who had written, in English, about the spiritual draw of this mountainous region.
“I emailed her. I said, ‘I’m looking for someone with a four-wheel drive. I need a driver and an interpreter. I need them for three weeks and this is where I want to go, can you help?’ She called me back. She said, ‘I found you someone and that is going to be me’. And so began a relationship that lasted and remains,” said Sophy.
In the Altai Mountains, Sophy met a former Aeroflot navigator who had relocated from Moscow during the perestroika period of communist reforms. She explained that she was looking for a piano for her story. He told her that if she found one, she should bring it to him because he was building a concert hall at the back of his modest home for the people of the mountain villages. Sophy remarked on how remote the location was. The man disagreed, telling her that the world is very remote, and that Siberia was ‘at the centre’.
“That was a very important moment for me because it’s realigned my sense of perspective,” said Sophy. “I realised that we think of Siberia as the back of beyond but for the Siberians, it’s a universe and I needed to find a way to empathise with that way of thinking.”
Many journalist colleagues might have considered Sophy’s Siberian research mission to be daunting but luck seemed to be on her side. Chance encounters paid off and Sophy got her story. It’s made her think.
“I do believe there’s a bigger power to serendipity than we think. Spending time in Russia, you start to believe in these different energies. It’s a shamanistic culture. The landscape strums in a way that you do think there’s the stuff that we don’t understand or can reason about. I often take a sign, in an encounter, as a reason to keep on going,” she said.
Sophy says the first time she went to Siberia was on assignment for a British newspaper, to write about a tiger conservationist in the Russian Far East, in the forest. “I added on a few days to do a little bit of piano hunting, to see whether or not this idea for a book had any legs,” she said. “And at the beginning of the journey, we left the city of Khabarovsk. We drove for about four hours and we hit the forest. It was very deep snow. There were tiger prints in the track in front of us. The tiger conservationist could not believe it.”
Sophy explained that the professional tiger conservationist would be lucky to see one of these tigers once or twice in their career, because only 500 remain in the wild. “We turned the corner from these prints and there lay this extraordinary golden beast. And it stood up, slowly. The snow fell off its back. It looked at us, and it walked off into the forest. We let the silence hang. We approached where it been lying down and in the snow that were drops of blood from its recent kill. And there were these golden hairs in the snow. The conservationist said to me, ‘You must go look for your pianos. This encounter will bring you luck’. It grips you to think that magic can happen. I kept on thinking, ‘If I can run into a wild tiger in Russia, then surely I can uncover a piano for a Mongolian pianist’.”
Sophy says her book isn’t about music, despite the title. “I’m not claiming to be a specialist in any of the history. I’m not claiming to be as a musicologist. I’m approaching this as a curious generalist, as a traveller,” she explained. “I hope that what I say about the history of the instrument is accurate and erudite, but it is not a book that is trying to sit in the library shelves of musical historic research. I wanted it to be much more active than that much more about the stories that lie behind closed doors in a Siberian village. It was about me putting my feet on the ground and searching for these things.”
As we chatted, the sound of Storm Dennis buffeting Bridport created a fitting soundtrack for talking about Siberia. Most people imagine the terrain to be snow-clad, with chilling winds, bleak tundra and the vast emptiness. Sophy says there is more.
“Siberia is a land of extremes. This wonderful woman I met early on in the journey said to me, ‘Siberia is a wardrobe problem. It’s too cold in winter and too hot in summer. Dress right and get over it’. I wanted to be there in winter. I’m a lover of literature, and I’ve fallen in love with the Siberia of Tolstoy or Boris Pasternak. I wanted it white. I wanted romance. I liked the virginity of that landscape.”
When someone talks of Siberia, in her mind’s eye Sophy pictures a view from high above the land. “It’s the Siberia that sits outside of the plane window. It is mesmerizing to see that white space and to see the forest and the snaking rivers when you are flying lower on the local planes and helicopters. It’s just extraordinary,” she said.
Sophy says that when she visits Africa, she can set her watch and almost guarantee that someone will greet her or chat with her within two minutes of arrival in any place. Siberia is the opposite. “You could wait for days, and no one would appear. And that is rare in this world of ours, where human populations are exploding and where wild landscapes are disappearing.”
Sophy hopes that people who attend her Grosvenor Arms Hotel talk will be inspired to learn more about Siberia and Russia’s past. “When I first wrote the book, I realised how ignorant my English education was about Russian history. We’ve learned a lot in my school about what happened in Nazi Germany. We learned a lot about what happened with the Holocaust. But we didn’t learn about the Gulag,” Sophy said, as she reflected on Stalin’s brutal forced labour camps. “We didn’t learn about the Russian Revolution. It’s more about getting people to fall in love with the idea of an object, revealed as a place that they’ve never thought to consider before now.”
Sophy Roberts presents ‘The Lost Pianos Of Siberia’ At The Grosvenor Arms Hotel at 7pm on Thursday, the 27th of February. Tickets are £10 and can be purchased on the hotel website.