Travel east by train from Moscow and the clip of iron on track beats out the rhythm of your approach toward the Ural Mountains. This band of hills separates western Russia from Siberia, rising in Kazakhstan and following an almost direct line up through Russia to the Arctic Ocean.
There is no dramatic curtain-raiser to the edge of Siberia, no meaningful brink to a specific place—just thick weather hanging over an abstract idea. “The region has the virtue of not startling or astonishing you right away but of pulling you in slowly and reluctantly, as it were, with measured carefulness, and then binding you tightly once you are in,” wrote the popular Siberian-born author Valentin Rasputin.
“And then it’s all over—you are afflicted with Siberia.”
Music and Katorga
Russia’s relationship with the piano began under Catherine the Great, the 18th-century empress with a collector’s habit for new technologies. But while her generous patronage of the arts gave St. Petersburg and Moscow the trappings of cultural sophistication, there was no true Enlightenment. The same autocracy was also sending criminals and dissidents into forced labor, known as katorga, as the czarist regime transformed Siberia into the most feared penal colony on earth.
The next dramatic phase in piano technology, thriving in the first three decades of the 19th century, pushed the instrument into concert halls all over Europe. The traveling virtuosos made a craze out of the instrument. There were so many pianos in St. Petersburg it was nicknamed “pianopolis.” This was also when the piano began to migrate more widely—a trend witnessed by James Holman, a blind Englishman who traveled to Siberia in 1823 for no other reason, it would seem, than to furnish himself with a stack of drawing-room anecdotes. He wrote in his account: “One lady of my acquaintance had carried with her to the latter place, a favourite piano-forte from St Petersburg at the bottom of her sledge, and this without inflicting the least injury upon it.”
That stately instruments might still exist today in such a profoundly enigmatic place as Siberia feels somehow remarkable. It becomes nothing less than a miracle when one learns that not only did Catherine’s 1774 Zumpe survive a 20th-century wartime sojourn in Russia’s terra incognita, but that other historic pianos are still making music in sleepy Siberian villages. Where wooden houses seem to cozy up together for warmth, there are pianos washed up from the high-tide mark of 19th-century European Romanticism.
“One lady … had carried with her … a favourite piano-forte from St Petersburg at the bottom of her sledge.”
Often all that is left of a piano’s backstory can be gleaned from the serial number hidden inside the instrument—stories reaching back through more than 200 years of Russian history. These instruments not only tell the story of Siberia’s colonization by the Russians, but also illustrate how people can endure the most astonishing calamities. They also show how an object is never just an object—that each piano sings differently because of the people who protect it against all odds.
When I applied for my Russian visa, in London, I told the consulate my purpose of travel was to look for pianos in Siberia. The woman at the desk glanced at me as if I had lost my mind. As I was leaving, another applicant held the door open for me.
“That was the worst story I ever heard,” he said.
“Why are you going?,” I asked.
Pianos of Siberia
I came to Irkutsk, a city not far from the eastern shore of Siberia’s Lake Baikal, in pursuit of a piano belonging to Maria Volkonsky, the wife of one of the 19th century’s most high-profile political exiles.
The piano’s Siberian story began with a poorly conceived rebellion in St. Petersburg on December 14, 1825. It was the day of the winter solstice—an event traditionally bound to all sorts of ideas about birth, death, and change. Before dawn was up, a group of men gathered in the city’s Senate Square with the intention of deposing the czarist regime. The Decembrists, as the rebels came to be known, comprised soldiers, gentlemen, and noblemen—including Maria Volkonsky’s husband, Sergei. Having fought alongside the peasantry during the Napoleonic Wars, Russia’s elite had come to admire the stoicism of their fellow countrymen. Liberal idealists, the Decembrists not only wanted emancipation for Russia’s beleaguered serfs; they also sought to replace the country’s political structure with a constitutional monarchy, or even a republican form of government—a response to the despotism of the Romanovs, which had defined the dynasty’s long lineage since 1613.
While the Decembrists’ motives were impassioned, their regiments were not. By nightfall, the revolt was quashed by Nicholas I’s soldiers, and the perpetrators were rounded up. On the same day as the Decembrist Revolt, Nicholas I declared himself czar. Close to 600 suspects were put on trial. Five men were hanged, including the poet and publisher Kondraty Ryleev, who was executed holding a book by Byron in his hand. (When the rope snapped on the first attempt, one of the prisoners reportedly quipped: “What a wretched country! They don’t even know how to hang properly.” Another of the condemned men was rumored to have remarked on the privilege of dying not once but twice for his country.)
“What a wretched country! They don’t even know how to hang properly.”
A core of more than a hundred men were identified as coup leaders and sent to Siberia for hard labor. They were stripped of their wealth and privileges, and wives wishing to follow their husbands were forced to leave their children behind. As the political exiles were members of some of the grandest, most decorated families in Russia, this was the high-society scandal of the time, with the vengeance in Nicholas’s response also changing Russians’ perception of banishment forever.
Sergei Volkonsky was one of the most well-known Decembrists banished for life—he was a childhood playmate of the czar’s, and his mother had been a principal lady-in-waiting to the dowager empress. Maria Volkonsky came from an equally elite family (her father, General Raevsky, was one of the heroes of Napoleon’s defeat in 1812). With her knowledge of literature, music, and foreign languages, Maria was a descendant of Catherine’s “European” Russia. Maria decided to abandon her circle—as well as her infant son, who would die aged two—and follow her husband into exile. It became one of the most talked-about tragedies of a feverishly romantic century. “All her life was this one unconscious weaving of invisible roses in the lives of those with whom she came in contact,” Tolstoy wrote of his heroine, modeled on Maria, in his unfinished novel, The Decembrists.
A Decembrist Princess
Maria inspired paintings, music, and Pushkin’s poetry when she strapped a clavichord to the sleigh that would take her some 4,000 miles from Moscow to join her husband deep in the Siberian taiga. It was a remarkably brave endeavor, with both princess and instrument surviving the infamous Great Siberian Trakt—the muddy road pre-dating the Trans-Siberian Railway—over a frozen Lake Baikal in the middle of winter.
Maria spent her first few months in exile in the town of Nerchinsk, near the Mongolian border, living in a hut. She was allowed to visit Sergei’s cell twice a week. At first the men were forbidden to receive packages from relatives in European Russia, so the women began to sneak money into Siberia through secret channels in order to buy the prisoners extra privileges. When a French-born couturier arrived in pursuit of her Decembrist lover, she turned up with hundreds of rubles stitched into her clothes. She also smuggled in Italian sheet music for Maria.
The women were pushy, persistent, and resourceful. As for the Decembrists’ prison commander, he soon got the measure of their capabilities, remarking he “would rather deal with a hundred political exiles than a dozen of their wives.” When the men were moved to a new jail at Petrovsky Zavod, another mining settlement east of Lake Baikal, the wives were allowed to share their husbands’ rooms. Maria’s clavichord moved into the windowless prison.
Maria inspired Tolstoy and Pushkin when she strapped a clavichord to a sleigh and joined her husband deep in Siberia.
As the years went by, Maria gave birth to a little girl, who died after only two days. Her next two children, a son and a daughter, survived. While family provided comfort to a few of the Decembrists, it was through culture—for many, music in particular—that they were able to maintain some kind of connection to the lives they had left behind. “What remarkable fighters they were, what personalities, what people!” wrote the 19th-century Russian journalist Alexander Herzen of the gentlemen revolutionaries. The Decembrists represented everything brave and humane that was missing from Czar Nicholas I’s lightless reign. They teamed up to create a small academy in exile, setting up carpentry, blacksmith, and bookbinding workshops and running lectures on subjects from physics to fiscal theory which benefited hundreds of Siberian peasant children. They established a library, which they filled with thousands of books sent by their relatives (according to one account, the collection numbered nearly half a million). Another building was turned into a music room. Locals came to study, and to attend the Decembrists’ musical soirées.
When Sergei Volkonsky’s decade-long hard-labor sentence was up, the Volkonskys had greater freedom to influence Siberian culture, specifically in and around Irkutsk, where they were required to settle in exile. Helped by a sympathetic new governor, Maria expanded Irkutsk’s hospital for orphans, fought for musical education in schools, and raised money to build the town’s first purpose-built concert hall—civic duties that earned her the sobriquet “the Princess of Siberia” (also the name of the seminal English-language biography of Maria, by Christine Sutherland). Sergei led a humbler life; he grew a long beard and frequented the market with a goose under his arm. Nicknamed “the peasant prince,” he was simple and unostentatious, deeply respected by Siberians who sought his help. He made numerous friends among the locals, with whom he shared his knowledge of agriculture and strand of liberal political philosophy.
Keys to the 19th Century
When I visited the Volkonskys’ two-story house in Irkutsk, now a museum, frost laced the panes and dulled the glow of lamps inside. Upstairs there was a pyramid piano—an instrument of peculiar shape and height, like a concert piano turned up against the wall. Downstairs, there was a beautiful Russian-made Lichtenthal, which Maria’s brother delivered from St. Petersburg. The Lichtenthal, made by a piano-maker who had moved to Russia following the Belgian revolution of 1830, was the grandest instrument Maria owned. It was also the most potent surviving symbol of her affection for music, given that Maria’s original clavichord, which had traveled on her sledge from Moscow to Siberia, had disappeared—when or where, no one was quite sure.
The Lichtenthal behaved awkwardly when a museum worker tried to make the prop stick hold up the lid. The keys were sticky, like an old typewriter gluey with ink. He struck the keys until the softened notes—muted by a layer of dust, perhaps, or felt that had swollen in the damp—started to appear. Inside the piano, the amber wood still gleamed, the strings’ fragile tensions held in place by tiny twists around the heads of golden, roundheaded tuning pins. The Lichtenthal, said the museum worker, was full of moods that made it challenging to tune.
A friend in Mongolia, a concert pianist called Odgerel Sampilnorov who first inspired my travels in Siberia, told me early on: “Bach tells us about tragedy and pain in a musical language. Whenever I read about the triumph of the Resurrection I cannot feel very much, but when I play ‘Chaconne,’ the story comes alive. Bach taught me how to breathe.” Was it the same for Maria Volkonsky? What did a piano mean to her in exile? Did Siberia allow her to live more intensely than she could have ever done in high society back home? Because despite the privations of their exile, the Decembrists didn’t view Siberia as a place only of katorga.
“The further we moved into Siberia, the more it improved in my sight,” observed the Decembrist Nikolai Basargin. “To me, the common folk seemed freer, brighter, even better educated than our Russian peasantry.... They better understood the dignity of man, and valued their rights more highly.” Siberia, you see, never had a history of serfdom. There were the exiles who came as prisoners of the state, but there were also many, many more migrants who ventured into Siberia for the taste of freedom.
Sophy Roberts is a contributor to the Financial Times and Condé Nast Traveler. She lives in the U.K.