Five questions with Sophy Roberts

18 September 2020

1) Tell us about The Lost Pianos of Siberia

‘The Lost Pianos of Siberia’ is part picaresque quest, part history, but wholly the result of an obsession I developed after a summer spent with friends in Mongolia, near where the border meets Russia. It was 2015, and I was staying in the Orkhon Valley, when I heard a classical pianist, Odgerel Sampilnorov, play one evening, in a traditional felted Mongolian ger. Her talent was extraordinary, even though the piano was of indifferent quality, the sound blighted by harsh Mongolian winters. When my friend turned to me and whispered 'We must find her one of the lost pianos of Siberia’, the phrase stuck like a burr. He was referencing a unique history about Siberia’s little-known relationship with the piano. I started looking into the facts, the archives, the leads. I then spent the next three years travelling across Siberia, looking for instruments in one of the most hostile environments on Earth, in a place more commonly associated with exile and the atrocities of Stalin’s Gulags than with music. So it is through my pursuit of an object that I tell the story of the love affair between Russians and this instrument — an affair which penetrated into the most isolated corners of Siberia and survived generations of bloody history. 

2) As a journalist and writer what inspired your interest in wildlife conservation?

I spent many years writing about posh hotels and blue swimming pools for luxury travel magazines. To some, it sounded like a dream job. It wasn’t. I started to bore myself, let alone readers. The irrelevance of it all felt increasingly uncomfortable to me when the world was ‘burning’, ecosystems were disappearing, and with it, the biodiversity that had inspired my interest in travel in the first place (I was brought up on a farm in southwest Scotland: animals and books were my childhood friends). So I made a conscious decision to refocus my priorities, to use journalism to amplify the stories about people and places doing good work in fragile parts of the world. The issues inherent in wildlife conservation are also emblematic of some of the biggest problems our world currently faces: exploding populations, climate change, loss of heritage etc. Wildlife conservation is a magnifying lens through which to explore this splintering world.

3) If you could make one plea to world leaders about the environment, what would it be?

To impose hefty carbon taxes on all industries that contribute negatively to the natural world.

4) Is human culture losing its diversity - and does it matter?

Where I work, in remote communities, I constantly encounter the shift towards greater homogenisation. The African pastoralists in Nike T-shirts. The Nenets in northern Siberia using snowmobiles instead of their reindeer, to move about the tundra. What we share, wherever we come from, is our human ambition to get ahead, and use the modern tools at our disposal that give comfort and convenience. The sadness is that diversity is also lost in this one-size-fits-all culture, often driven by big business and Western consumerism. As for the UK, where I live, it seems on one level (In the liberal media, at least) that we are now celebrating the diversity of this nation and its people. But I worry it is only a surface sentiment: virtual gesturing rather than genuine activism, which is a trend as dangerous as it is inauthentic.

5) Post-Covid, what can we look forward to from you next?

I've been reading a lot of 1930s poetry and travel writing — another profoundly restless moment in our history, between the two world wars. There's some striking parallels between then and now: the frenetic need to escape from politics, the desire to shape a better world, and an outpouring of artistic creativity to counter all the darkness. I’m starting on a new journey that explores this theme, which I suspect could take a while to fulfil. I'm slowly coming to terms with the fact travel restrictions will block my plans. But there is a silver lining: I can indulge in the pleasure of literary escapism instead.