“In the beginning was a scent,” writes Karl Schlögel — a “somewhat sweet, heavy aroma” that once filled the air on festive occasions in Moscow. Schlögel, a German academic specialising in Russian history, decided to “follow his nose” to research the story of Krasnaya Moskva (Red Moscow), a popular Soviet perfume.
Slipping into the “glittering world” of fragrance was certainly a departure for Schlögel, whose previous books include Moscow 1937, an acclaimed history of Stalinism at its zenith. Yet, in the process he claims to have alighted on one of the more remarkable pairings in early 20th century history — Parisian haute couture juxtaposed with flint-faced communist officialdom — revealing the extent to which geography shaped lives in the 20th-century.
The Scent of Empires, translated by Jessica Spengler, recounts the shared history but divergent fates of the individuals involved in creating Chanel No 5 and Red Moscow. Both fragrances were developed by French perfumers who had worked in Tsarist Russia: Chanel No 5 by Ernest Beaux, who fled to France in 1919 and Red Moscow by Auguste Michel, who remained in Russia after the revolution. Both had studied under the same master perfumer, and an overlapping employer meant that Michel would have had access to the formula of Beaux’s precedent creation, Le Bouquet de Napoleon.
Chanel No 5, which this year celebrates the centenary of its release, was the quintessential essence of its era, balancing jasmine and rose with the freshness of aldehydes — synthetic molecules that dissipate quickly, boosting the “whoosh” of a fragrance. Beaux had already used aldehydes in Le Bouquet de Catherine, a scent released in 1913 in honour of Catherine the Great, for the 300th anniversary of the Romanov dynasty. While Chanel No 5’s creation myth imagines a lab assistant mistakenly overdoing the aldehydes, Schlögel argues that it’s more likely that the formula was a variation on Le Bouquet de Catherine.
Michel had developed his own homage to the empress, Le Bouquet Favori de l’Impératrice, also launched in 1913. But while France embarked on les années folles — its “roaring twenties” — Russia endured a post-revolution civil war, followed by famine and economic disaster. Perfume factories were nationalised and repurposed for the mass-market production of soap and basic toiletries. When essential oils began to be imported again, Michel created Red Moscow, the original version of which (according to one source) had notes of orange blossom, lemon, bergamot and musk. The fragrance was launched in 1927 to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the October Revolution, with a stopper shaped like the Kremlin towers.
As well as a shared heritage, both perfumes were associated with distinctive women. Oceans of biographical ink have been spilled on Gabrielle (“Coco”) Chanel. Less is known about Polina Zhemchuzhina, who oversaw the Soviet cosmetics and perfume industry and was married to Stalin’s foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov. Both women came from humble origins. But while Chanel maintained her residence at the Ritz during the occupation of Paris and settled in Switzerland after the second world war to avoid criminal charges of collaboration, Zhemchuzhina was exiled for five years during Stalin’s anti-Semitic campaigns, despite being a staunch Stalinist.
Beaux continued to produce perfumes and lived until the age of 79. Michel, meanwhile, disappeared without a trace in 1937, likely a victim of the Great Purge, as those with foreign surnames were vulnerable to accusations of espionage. “What befell the creators of these fragrances in the course of the 20th century was both asymmetrical and unjust,” writes Schlögel.
In addition to the parallel histories, Schlögel alights on other figures in fashion, a broader “scentscape” of Russia — not omitting the “smell of the camps” of Kolyma — and a meditation on scent and memory. He also evokes perfume bottle design to illustrate the march towards modernisation. The iconic minimalist design of Chanel No. 5 sits pretty in MoMA’s permanent collection. By contrast, a bottle created by none other than the avant-garde artist Kazimir Malevich for the best-selling Russian cologne Severny was designed anonymously.
Schlögel’s central premise, that Chanel No 5 and Red Moscow were kissing cousins, is not quite as clear-cut as the back flap suggests: due to industry secrecy and the instability of ingredients, there is no “archive of aromas” to compare the two perfumes or their predecessors. It’s a tantalising tale, even if at the end, the truth, like the sillage following a glamorous woman, remains elusive.
The Scent of Empires: Chanel No 5 and Red Moscow, by Karl Schlögel, translated by Jessica Spengler, Polity, RRP£20, 220 pages
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