Teresa Cherfas reviews ‘The Scent of Empires: Chanel No. 5 and Red Moscow’ by Karl Schlögel [translated from the German by Jessica Spengler]

22 September 2021

By Teresa Cherfas

Teresa Cherfas reviews The Scent of Empires: Chanel No. 5 and Red Moscow by Karl Schlögel, translated from the German by Jessica Spengler. Hardback 220pp ISBN-978-1509546596 (Polity, Cambridge, Oxford, Boston & New York, 2021)

The one thing you won’t discover from reading Karl Schlögel’s new book is that Soviet perfumes and cosmetics contained as much as 70% pure alcohol.  Charting what he calls the “semantically bolshevised” olfactory world of perfumes and cosmetics, with names like “Golden Grain”, “New Life”, “Red Poppy” and “Red Moscow”, and later, “Our Answer to Collective Farm Workers”,  “White Sea Canal”,  “Pioneer” and “Tank”, he mentions one called “Triple” (Troynoy).  But what he doesn’t tell you is that when someone was said to smell of “Triple”, it was an ironic way of saying that their breath stank of booze.  Of all the kinds of “internal emigration” practised by Soviet dissidents, the escape into alcoholism had a poignant beauty all of its own.

For the German-born, Karl Schlögel, the smells that divided East and West in the Cold War could be experienced just by crossing the border at Friedrichstrasse in Berlin.  As a historian of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, he is of an age to have spent more years in a divided Germany than a united one.  

Time spent at festive occasions in both the USSR and the GDR, left him with vivid memory of a smell, a scent whose name came to epitomise evenings at the Bolshoi or at the Moscow Conservatoire, the parquet floors and mirrored halls where smartly dressed people sipped shampanskoe and ate caviar in the intervals, or as a guest at weddings and official receptions in the GDR.  It was not until much later that he put a name to that scent and embarked on the research for this book.

The Scent of Empires is a wonderful discursive exploration of scent and smell, memory and loss, but also of the olfactory side of historical catastrophe in the 20th century:

The smell of scorched earth and mass graves, bodies crammed together in deportation trains, pyres of burning books, the smell of the gas piped into the gas chambers and the smoke rising from crematoria, the stench of decay that only blossoms with the spring thaw when bodies preserved in the frozen ground float free, the burnt smell of cities destroyed by nights of bombing…

But its central notion is that Red Moscow, the fragrance that wafted through Schlögel’s memories of the Eastern Bloc, shares an origin story with Chanel No. 5, and from this central premise, he spins a web of fascinating threads, which weave together the fates of two men, two women and much more olfactory flotsam and jetsam besides.

Imperial Russia and France had close ties and the Russian Empire was seen as a vast market ripe for exploitation, where young Frenchmen could make their name and fortune.  Perfume was so quintessentially French, and with the expansion of French perfume factories and shops all over Russia, it became an aspirational luxury not just of the Russian aristocracy but of the burgeoning petty-bourgeoisie.

The two men, both French, worked in Imperial Russia’s perfume business.  One was Ernest Beaux, the other was Auguste Michel.  Each played a decisive role in the creation of the two iconic scents: Ernest Beaux for Chanel No. 5 and Auguste Michel for Red Moscow.  Whilst Beaux’s role in the creation of Chanel No. 5 is well-documented, if only in his not altogether reliable memoirs, Michel’s biography is less well-known. 

Ernest Beaux had worked as chief perfumer in the French-owned Russian perfume factory Rallet and had fled Russia in the chaos of the Civil War.  Working in Grasse, France’s perfume capital, for the company that bought Rallet, Beaux was introduced to Coco Chanel by her lover, Grand Duke Dmitry Pavlovich.  It was the late summer of 1920.  Looking for a new perfume to define the new, modern scent of a woman, Beaux offered her ten numbered phials of fragrance to smell.  She chose No. 5.  The rest, as they say, is history.  

Beaux and Michel both worked at Rallet under the tutelage of Alexandre Lemercier, master perfumer, until 1908, when Michel was poached by the other great perfume factory in Moscow – Brocard & Co.

Both Red Moscow and Chanel No. 5 owe their source fragrance to scents created by these two Frenchmen in Russia before the Revolution.  Beaux had created Le Bouquet de Catherine, to mark the tercentenary of the Romanov dynasty in 1913, whilst Michel had created Le Bouquet Favori de l’Impératrice.  Each kept the secret formulas ready to draw on when times were more settled. 

After the Revolution both factories were nationalised and renamed.  Rallet became Soap Factory No. 4 and then Svoboda (Freedom), whilst Brocard & Co. was Soap Factory No. 5 and later Novaya Zarya (New Dawn).

When the Five-Year Plans were extended to include a modicum of consumer goods for the new NEP generation and the Soviet bourgeoisie, Auguste Michel was drawn back into perfume production.  He created the scent Red Moscow for the 10th anniversary of the October Revolution.

The industry was consolidated into the Gosudarstvennyy Trest Zhirovoy i Kosti Obrabatyvayushchey Promyshlennosti (State Trust of the Fat and Bone Processing Industry).  Known as TeZhe (as Schlögel points out, it was pronounced like a French tejé, giving it a certain pre-revolutionary élan) the cosmetics trust became the go-to Soviet cosmetics label of the 1920s and 1930s.  

A 2014 article by Sasha Raspopina for The Calvert Journal (reprinted in the Guardian, 19 November 2014), illustrates the popularity of TeZhe with this little ditty that became part of Soviet folklore before the war:

TeZhe on your eyes, TeZhe on your lips, TeZhe on your cheeks, where am I supposed to kiss?

A poster advertising their “Boutique of My Grandmother” soap had the simple but compelling slogan: “15 million people buy soap”.  Competition, after all, was a fetish of capitalist markets.

In 1937, the year of Stalin’s Great Terror, the showpiece of the Soviet Pavilion at the Paris World Expo was Boris Iofan’s winning model for the Palace of Soviets.  It was to be accompanied by a scent of the same name.  Drawing on a profile of Auguste Michel written by Mikhail Loskutov and published in the USSR in 1937, Schlögel describes how Michel had been commissioned to create “a perfume worthy of the latest superlative the Soviet Union has to offer, a perfume named Palace of Soviets, with an aroma that adequately expresses this masterpiece of engineering.” But the perfume never materialised (as Schlögel asks: “what does a feat of technical engineering smell like?”) and all trace of Michel after 1937 is lost.  His fate was that of the foreign specialist stranded and adrift in Stalin’s Soviet Union. 

In juxtaposition to her glamorous French counterpart, Coco Chanel, who came to represent the epitome of French fashion, Schlögel gives us the Soviet Polina Zhemchuzhina.  Known mostly for being the Jewish wife of Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov, it turns out that Polina Zhemchuzhina was a powerhouse of a woman in her own right.  The only woman candidate member of the Central Committee of the CPSU and the only female People’s Commissar, Zhemchuzhina was for a time responsible for the entire Soviet perfumes and cosmetics industry.  When she was first stripped of her candidate membership and demoted to deputy people’s commissar, and later arrested, and then sent into exile for five years, her husband did nothing but wring his hands.  When she was released and brought back to Moscow, Beria sought her out on 10th March 1953, five days after Stalin’s death.  Zhemchuzhina greeted him by asking after the Vozhd’ and promptly fainted when Beria told her he was dead.  A convinced Stalinist to the last, it was perhaps this alone that linked her to Coco Chanel – Chanel also had a penchant for powerful dictators, in her case Hitler and the Nazi high command in occupied Paris.

From this premise of commonality in the fates of two scents, their two creators, and the two formidable women at the heart of their success, Schlögel takes us on a fascinating journey down an olfactory rabbit hole, which seems to be as much a revelation for him as for us. 

The book reads more like a series of essays, random thought pieces, smells to conjure with, food for thought. Each chapter seems to start anew, following another line of enquiry, drawing on the work of any number of authors, whose writings inform Schlögel’s mosaic.  Perhaps this is why there is so much repetition, restating the central thesis, details from the biographies of the main protagonists, sometimes within one single chapter, sometimes within the space of a page.  It’s a slim volume, which might have been even slimmer.

From perfume and fragrance, we enter the world of smells that defined the era – the smoke of the crematoria and the smell of Kolyma.  For the first, he draws heavily on Hans J. Rindisbacher’s The Smell of Books and for the latter, on Ekaterina Zhiritskaya’s Zapakh Kolymy (The Smell of Kolyma).  Rindisbacher’s research offers this chilling excerpt from the memoirs of Holocaust survivor Olga Lengyal, recalling the SS guard Irma Grese, whose nickname was the “Hyena of Auschwitz”:

Where she went she brought the scent of rare perfume. Her hair was sprayed with a complete range of tantalising odours: sometimes she blended her own concoctions. Her immodest use of perfume was perhaps the supreme refinement of her cruelty. The internees who had fallen to a state of physical degradation, inhaled these fragrances joyfully. By contrast, when she left us and the stale, sickening odour of burnt human flesh, which covered the camp like a blanket, crept over us again, the atmosphere became even more unbearable.

To judge by many of the titles in Schlögel’s bibliography, olfactory history is very much à la mode.

But where Schlögel’s treatment falls short is in its omission of what you might call the ‘taste of smell’.

In the time of Brezhnevian stagnation, where nothing that contained alcohol could not be drunk, Veniamin Erofeev’s poetic prose ruminations of a philosopher drunk, had a significant underground following.  His samizdat text  Moskva-Petushki contains recipes for cocktails that could induce a state of sublime oblivion.  In 2013, on what would have been Erofeev’s 75th birthday, RIA Novosti’s Weekend supplement published five of his cocktail recipes of choice, with strict instructions in red “not to try them at home under any circumstances”.

With names that mock the best of those “semantically bolshevised”, Erofeev offers his readers recipes to conjure with: such as “Tears of a Komsomol Girl”  (ingredients: Lavender face cleanser – 15 g.; Verbena eau de cologne —15 g.; “Forest Water” face toner with Vitamin C – 30 g.; Nail polish – 2 g.; Tooth elixir – 150 g.; Lemonade – 150 g.) or “Spirit of Geneva” (ingredients: “White Lilac” perfume – 50 g.; Remedy for sweaty feet – 50g.; Zhigulevskoe beer – 200 g.; Alcohol-based nail varnish – 150 g.).

RIA Novosti helpfully notes:

Nowadays, face lotions, as a rule, contain no more than 35% alcohol, but in Soviet times, “Forest Water” was 70% alcohol, making “Tears of a Komsomol Girl” one of the most popular of drinks.  As for the nail varnish element, that remains a puzzle.  One can only guess as to whether the colour made a difference to the taste.

The editors go on to point out something that Schlögel’s book very much touches on – the nostalgia factor, so evocatively linking memory with smell: 

Despite the fact that Moscow-Petushki was written more than 40 years ago (in 1969-1970), all the ingredients for “Spirit of Geneva” can be found today.  True, whilst half a century ago “White Lilac” perfume cost literally a kopek in today’s money – 4.50 rubles – now that we are into “vintazh“, you’ll have to pay between 8,000 and 14,000 rubles.  But the bottle, the box and the smell will be most authentic.

As Schlögel writes: “A drop of perfume is time captured in scent, and the bottle is the vessel that holds the fragrance of time.”

A recent review on Amazon of Red Moscow perfume by a girl called Florence sums up the appeal: “I smell like an old Soviet woman and I love it!”

Leave a Reply