Moscow Honey – author notes

In the summer of 2011 I travelled by train from London to Beijing via Moscow, Irkutsk and numerous other places. Having seen it in the summer, I then decided to repeat part of the journey in the dead of winter, a highlight of which was a walk on the solid ice of Baikal, the world’s deepest freshwater lake. I also went to Georgia in 2016, both Tbilisi and the Caucasus mountains, but the town of Lali doesn’t exist. It’s partly based on Gori, Joseph Stalin’s home town which was invaded by the Russians in 2008, but the location and geography have been completely re-invented to fit the story.

My research for Moscow Honey included the following books, which influenced the story heavily:

Russia by Martin Sixsmith (2011). This book covers the sweep of Russian history, repeating themes of brutal events, mass suffering and the cycle of suffocating central control, then a promise of release followed by even tighter control again. Plenty of events in Russia’s history such as the storming of the Dubrovka theatre siege in 2002 which left over 100 Russian citizens dead, not to mention the USSR’s cover-up following the massive radioactive leak at Chernobyl in 1986, demonstrate that human life is indeed held cheap in this part of the world.

Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible by Peter Pomerantsev (2015). A journalist and broadcaster’s experiences working in Russian media. From this book I learned about the allure of the oligarchs and the women who seek them, as well as the status and respectability of provincial mafia leaders.

Mafia State by Luke Harding (2011). A journalist’s short-lived stint in Moscow before being thrown out by the Russian government. From here I learned about the FSB’s home incursions as suffered by Harding himself, the secret room in the British Embassy (which has passed into folklore), and the village made up entirely of women, two of whom were indeed called Olga.

One Soldier’s War in Chechnya by Arkady Babchenko (2006). A conscript’s experience serving in Chechnya, the brutality of hazing and the whole experience of war. In one episode the writer enters an abandoned flat and imagines it’s his own, which gave me the idea of Boris holed up in the flat in Lali.

The Angel of Grozny by Asne Seierstad (2007). This fearless journalist showed up in Grozny alone just after the start of the first Chechen war. I have nothing but admiration for her. She writes about a blond girl in an orphanage, who is in some ways the inspiration for Katya. Some of her descriptions of post-war Grozny I’ve used for Lali, although the circumstances are quite different.

Besieged by Barbara Demick (1996/2012). This focuses on one particular street in Sarajevo over the course of its three-year siege during the Balkan War. Again the situation in Sarajevo, a large city supported by UN airlifts, was different from the fictional stranglehold of Lali, but I’ve used many of the details of life under constant fire and the arbitrary nature of who lives and who dies.

I did plenty of other reading in addition to this, but at the end of the day the story comes first. I intend for these books to be accurate but impressionistic, with the focus on the story and the characters. Many things may have been changed to fit, but the inspiration for the stories comes from the research, from real places and real events.

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