“I it smells like an old Soviet woman and I love it, ”wrote Florence, a satisfied customer online commenting on her purchase of a bottle of Red Moscow perfume. Her fragrance was, he added, “something reminiscent of Chanel No. 5 and potent, and significantly cheaper.”
Florence has a good point. Not only is Red Moscow roughly five times cheaper than Chanel No 5 (which costs £ 62 for 35ml, while Red Moscow sells for £ 13.40 for 42ml on the same website), but Red Moscow (Krasnaya Moskva) smells similar and shares a common olfactory heritage. Oh come on, you might as well counter. Surely Russian scents smell of cabbage and disappointment, while Chanel No. 5 has typified sexualized glamor since Marilyn Monroe revealed that in bed she was wearing nothing else.
The truth, as revealed in Karl Schlögel’s gripping 20th-century olfactory story, is that both perfumes have roots in Tsarist Russia, particularly in a fragrance developed by two French perfumers, Ernest Beaux and Auguste Michel, to commemorate the 300. anniversary of the Romanov Dynasty in 1913. The Empress’s Favorite Bouquet (The Empress’s Favorite Bouquet) had bad luck, it appeared only four years before the Bolshevik revolution put an end to the Romanovs and everything they stood for, but it inspired the creation of Chanel No. 5 and Red Moscow.
During the Russian civil war, when perfumery became unviable, Beaux fled to France, crossing the arctic extremes of Russia on his way. It turned out to be an inspiring route, if indirect, because in the tundra his refined nose detected something unusual. “In the snow of the high alpine steppe and the devastated polar tundra,” Beaux wrote, “aldehydes appear in concentrations sometimes ten times higher than in snow elsewhere.” The smell of snow and meltwater, later recreated in Beaux’s laboratory in Cannes by means of synthesized aldehydes (approximately, sensitive molecules to be isolated and stabilized during the oxidation process), when combined with jasmine, were fundamental for the formula ( still secret) by Chanel No 5.
Beaux was visited in her lab by Coco Chanel in 1920. When she smelled five samples that he offered her as perfume from his haute couture brand, she chose the fifth because it had “the scent of a woman.” And not just any old woman, but a new species, freed from flowery hats, trains and rompers. Beaux’s aldehyde composition smelled of modernity, dispensing with complex floral juxtapositions of scents from earlier times. It was the olfactory equivalent of Coco’s little black dress or the Breton tops and baggy but elegantly cut pants that she designed. He decided that the fragrance would be called Chanel No. 5 and would launch on the same day as his last collection, May 5, 1921.
Meanwhile, in Moscow, another Frenchman was creating a rival modern fragrance. Auguste Michel was unable to leave the Soviet Union (the authorities lost, or perhaps we should say “lost” his passport), forcing him to stay in Moscow making soap until the authorities decided, quite sensibly, that people deserved to smell good and So. revived Russia’s perfume industry on a less elitist basis.
To that end, he created a perfume that celebrated the 10th anniversary of the revolution. Red Moscow even had an onion dome as a bottle stopper. It also represented a paradigm shift in perfume. Its opening notes consist of bergamot, coriander, neroli, and aldehydes; its heart notes are carnation, rose, jasmine and ylang-ylang; its base is woody and balsamic. However, what it smells like is less important than how it typifies the way Soviet perfumes were Bolshevised. One was called Pioneer, another Tank, and my personal favorite was captivatingly called Collective Farm Victory.
It would be going too far to say that Chanel No. 5 and those Soviet fragrances later became representatives of the cold war, but certainly much of the creativity of the 20th century was devoted to the perfume industries in both the West and the East. My favorite example of this is the bottle from Russia’s most popular cologne, Severny (which means north), designed by Kazimir Malevich. It looked like an ice floe and was topped by a small polar bear that also served as a bottle stopper.
But forget about the men. It is women who make Schlögel’s book indelible, as, for example, the scent of Laughter from Yardley. In particular, two tough women of humble origins, one terrible anti-Semite, the other Jewish born in a shtetl struggling to stay one step ahead of the executioner in anti-Semitic Stalinist Russia.
Coco Chanel not only had a Nazi lover in busy Paris, where she lived in the luxury that her compatriots were denied in her Ritz suite, but she was also on vacation with him in the Wannsee villa where the Final Solution was decided (facts you would never know from the 2009 hagiographic biopic Coco before Chanel starring Audrey Tautou). Only an exculpatory letter from Winston Churchill freed her from the postwar fate suffered by other French women guilty of so-called horizontal collaboration.
She is listed as the villain of the book: it cannot be a coincidence that, after reading her return to Parisian life in 1954, we turn the page to a chapter on another fragrance, the smell of camps. There, Schlögel writes, briefly but devastatingly, how the uncontrollable stench of the Auschwitz ovens spread through the Polish countryside. For the survivors, the smell of the death camps and the gulags is unforgettable; for the rest of us, there is no olfactory memory of the barbarity of humanity. The past has been deodorized.
Schlögel, a specialist in Russian history based in Frankfurt, is sensitive to how, in the hierarchy of the senses, smell is at the bottom. For us children of the Enlightenment, sight is the most rational of the senses; smell, by comparison, is unconscious, irrational, perhaps intolerable. He has done something unlikely: he has written a memorable book on the most elusive historical phenomenon. Osip Mandelstam said there was a noise of time (hence the title of Julian Barnes’s novel about Shostakovich); Schlögel plausibly argues that there is also an odor.
As for the other woman in the book, Polina Zhemchuzhina was a Jewish Stalinist who clearly captivates Schlögel. She was primarily responsible for reviving the Soviet Union’s perfume industry and making ordinary Russians fragrant unprecedented. A committed fighter for Bolshevism and for the role of women in the revolution from an early age, in 1921 she married Vyacheslav Molotov. Not only did he unknowingly give his name to the cocktail, he became, like President of the Council of People’s Commissars, the second most powerful Soviet politician after Stalin. As a result, Polina was, for a time, the second first lady of the Soviet Union. Zhemchuzhina became responsible for the Soviet production of perfumes and cosmetics, and for a time turned to the magnificently named State Fat and Bone Processing Industry.
For a time, she and her husband shared a communal flat with Stalin and his second wife. But Zhemchuzhina fell from grace and fell prey to the anti-Jewish purges of the 1940s. She was forcibly divorced from her husband and sentenced to exile. His problem was that he had a brother in Palestine from the British Mandate to whom he wrote; worse still, she became friends with the US ambassador’s wife. From such scant facts, the henchmen of the secret police chief Lavrentiy Beria concocted the lie that she was a Zionist spy. The truth is that she remained fiercely faithful to the memory of the diabolical dictator who ensured her downfall until his death in 1970, despite having spent five years in the gulag to be liberated after Stalin’s death.
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Russia has been conquered by Western brands and it smells like everywhere else. Red Moscow was despised by young Russians because it smelled, as someone put it, of “old women.” As if that was a bad thing. But that’s not the end of the story. Red Moscow is doing it again under a new business model that caters to nostalgic Soviets and those, like Florence, who want a cheap alternative to Chanel No. 5.
In the end, Schlögel points out that a luxury perfume boutique is planned at 23 Nikolskaya Street in Moscow, once a key site in Stalin’s Great Purges. Here, between 1936 and 1939, 31,456 Russians were sentenced to death, many carried through tunnels to the NKVD building in Lubyanka Square and shot. History, far from being deodorized, is now doused with high-end perfumes to disguise its stench. The Novaya Gazeta newspaper recommended that the names of the dead be projected on the façade of this commercial temple. Better was the idea of creating a new fragrance to mark the new incarnation of the old court. What should the perfume be called? Pulya vs zatylok, suggests the correspondent, which translates as a bullet to the back of the neck.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism