‘Quelle est cette odeur agréable/Bergers, qui ravit tous nos sens?’ In the old French carol, the shepherds to whom the angel announces the birth of Christ are first struck by a ravishing scent they can’t identify, then by a great light, and finally by heavenly sounds. This introduction of a smell to the Annunciation story has no biblical justification, as far as I can discover, but it certainly stakes a claim for smell in a hierarchy of the senses. As a child, I thought the carol’s opening line absurd. Bad smells have always been worthy of disgusted comment, but pleasant smells were an alien concept. I registered the next-door flat, occupied by postwar European refugees, as having a ‘funny smell’ (bad), but thought of my own home as having no smell (good). Adults in my Australian family would not have dreamed of using perfume. True, there were displaced Europeans who did so, and when I was sixteen, one of them gave me a bottle of Worth’s Je reviens. I liked the colour of the bottle (a deep blue) but I didn’t particularly like the smell, and it seemed to go off after a while. Had I been a shepherd at the Annunciation, I might not have paid much attention until the son et lumière started.
The Scent of Empires is about two perfumes, Chanel No. 5 and Red Moscow (or Krasnaya Moskva), developed in interwar Paris and Moscow from a common imperial Russian source. Chanel No. 5 was the hugely successful scent that the French couturier Coco Chanel presented to the Western world in 1921. Red Moscow was a perfume created for the new Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and the woman who dominated the early years of the Soviet perfume industry was Polina Zhemchuzhina, wife of the Soviet leader Vyacheslav Molotov, who was determined to democratise perfume and make it available to the people. As far as the Soviet Union is concerned, Karl Schlögel’s book develops themes first raised in his evocative Das sowjetische Jahrhundert: Archäologie einer untergegangenen Welt (2017), but now the history of the Soviet perfume is entwined with a doppelgänger from the capitalist world.
French parfumiers were active in late imperial Russia, and among their creations was a scent called Le Bouquet Favori de l’Impératrice. After the October Revolution, the parfumier Ernest Beaux relocated to France, met Coco Chanel and offered her an array of choices based on Le Bouquet Favori, from which she selected No. 5. Another parfumier, Auguste Michel, stayed in Russia, working for the TeZhe trust (an acronym for the unromantic State Trust of the Fat and Bone Processing Industry). TeZhe produced Red Moscow, another reworking of the empress’s alleged favourite. The Chanel No. 5 bottle – a sharp-cornered glass cube, very different in its aesthetic from the flowers, cupids and curves of a conventional perfume bottle – carried a message of modernity. Red Moscow might well have done the same, given the avant-garde, constructivist influence on Soviet fashion of the 1920s, but in fact its bottle was topped with an imperial cliché, a stopper featuring the onion domes of the Kremlin.
Chanel No. 5, in a technical description quoted by Schlögel, features a ‘top note dominated by the vividly fresh, lightly metallic-waxy-smoky aldehyde complex … with its typical echoes of waxy rose petals and orange peel. The hesperidic-citric facets are picked up and emphasised by bergamot oil, linalool and petit-grain oil. The heart note is spanned by an aromatic core of jasmine, rose, lily-of-the-valley … iris butter and ylang-ylang oil.’ To see how the scents compared, I looked up Je reviens on the web and discovered the following: ‘Top notes are aldehydes, ylang-ylang, jasmine, bergamot, orange blossom and lemon; middle notes are narcissus, hyacinth, lilac, ylang-ylang, orris root, cloves and rose; base notes are oakmoss, violet, incense, sandalwood, musk, tonka bean, vetiver and amber.’ In other words, at least so far as I’m concerned, gobbledygook A and gobbledygook B. Schlögel helpfully tells us that aldehydes are synthetic molecules able to create a variety of scents that vanish quickly but intensify other ingredients and trigger reactions in the nervous system, including ‘a tingling freshness, a little frisson of an electric sparkle’. Aldehydes were still novel in the perfume industry of the 1920s, and certainly in the amounts used in Chanel No. 5, and were thought by aficionados to contribute the perfume’s characteristic champagne quality (presumably also characteristic of Je reviens).
As Schlögel acknowledges, smell is a difficult topic for historians to write about, although we have a whole book on the subject by the French historian Alain Corbin, The Foul and the Fragrant (1982), which shows how the upper classes achieved olfactory separation from the smelly lower classes in the course of modernisation. The problem is that odour is ephemeral and can’t be archived, and conventional descriptions are completely ineffective in summoning up the actual smell: it’s like trying to appreciate a poem once it has been translated into Morse code. In other words, we don’t know what we are talking about when we talk about smells, at least not pleasant ones.
This was a problem for the advertising industry too, but in the early 1980s it was thought to have been solved when a process was developed to attach particular scents to ‘fragrance strips’ that might be inserted in magazines. A great future was predicated for this technology, which could reproduce not only perfumes but also the smell of pizza, fried chicken and even a Rolls-Royce. But there were (understandably) many complaints, and the custom seems to have disappeared, at least in the papers I read. I applaud Schlögel’s decision not to go downmarket by including fragrance strips for Chanel No. 5 and Red Moscow in his book, but at the same time it does leave questions unanswered. Did these perfumes really smell the same? An added complication seems to be the possibility of change over time: we are told that Red Moscow ‘was slightly modified in 1954, and those familiar with the prewar fragrance were convinced that the new scent was the same in name only’.
Balzac is good on smells, and of course there is Proust’s madeleine in the related area of taste (as well as Patrick Süskind’s 1985 blockbuster Perfume: The Story of a Murderer), but it’s rare for a memoir or literary work to focus on smell. By chance, however, when I started Schlögel’s book I was in the middle of reading a memoir published fifteen years or so earlier, Ella Schneider Hilton’s Displaced Person: A Girl’s Life in Russia, Germany and America, a memoir told in terms of smell. Ella was the daughter of ethnic Germans, displaced from the Soviet Union and living in Germany during and after the Second World War before being resettled in the United States. In her mother’s opinion, she had an ‘oversensitive’ nose. Her Russian and German memories as a small child focused on the filthy smells of outhouses and basement shelters. Nobody washed themselves and their clothes much, but the old women, able to urinate unnoticed under their voluminous skirts, were the worst, especially in summer, when they stripped off a few layers. By comparison, the smell of the parental generation was relatively inoffensive – until they got to America. Despite living as indentured workers in a broken-down shack in Mississippi, Ella’s family quickly learned to use the basics: toilet paper, laundry soap, toilet soap and sanitary towels. But the teenage Ella, taken into their employers’ home as a domestic servant, got an intensive course in modern American hygiene from the woman of the house and was instructed that dresses and underclothing needed to be changed every day, showers taken and deodorant applied, and underarms and legs shaved. Ella complied, but her mother, who hated the American South and sank into lifelong depression on their departure from Europe, would not. This was when Ella discovered that her parents and siblings, too, smelled bad: ‘Up until then, I had never noticed the foul body odour of my family. Now I could hardly stand it’ – Corbin’s modernisation hypothesis transplanted onto migration.
Gabrielle (later Coco) Chanel and Perl Karpovskaya (later Polina Zhemchuzhina-Molotova) experienced their own, less extreme version of the journey upward from the unwashed masses. Chanel, born in 1883 in the département of Maine-et-Loire, was the illegitimate daughter of a street vendor. Her introduction to the discipline of order and cleanliness probably came from the nuns in the orphanage where she spent her adolescence. She worked initially as a seamstress, but through her singing she met lovers from higher social circles, notably an upper-class Englishman, Arthur ‘Boy’ Capel, who provided the encouragement and financial backing to establish fashion boutiques in Biarritz and later Paris.
Zhemchuzhina (perl is Yiddish for ‘pearl’ and zhemchuzhina is its Russian translation) was born in 1897 in a Jewish shtetl in Ukraine. As a young woman she worked in a tobacco factory and then as a cashier in a pharmacy. In contrast to her brother and sister who emigrated after the Revolution, Perl joined the Bolshevik Party in 1918 and served as a political commissar in the Red Army during the Civil War. In 1921 she met and married Vyacheslav Molotov, a Russian from a higher social background who was already a leading figure in the party. The couple lived in the Kremlin across the hall from Stalin and his young wife, Nadezhda. Judging from a rare photograph that survives from this period, Zhemchuzhina had not yet acquired the poise and elegance of her later years, but she was intent on self-improvement, studying first in a workers’ preparatory school and then at university for the first five years of her marriage. In 1927, she became chief party organiser of the Novaia zarya (New Dawn) perfume factory, and was promoted to factory director in 1930.
The next part of the story for both Chanel and Zhemchuzhina was one of great success in the 1930s followed by near disaster after the Second World War. Chanel had always had a series of influential lovers of various nationalities, so it was natural that during the German occupation the lover should be German: Baron Hans Günther von Dincklage, a diplomat with intelligence connections. After the war, Chanel, living at the Ritz, was briefly arrested on suspicion of collaboration and questioned by the Commission d’Épuration, but was soon released and allowed to leave for Switzerland. There was, in fact, ample evidence of Chanel’s collaboration, not only through the Dincklage connection but also because she had taken the opportunity to settle scores with the firm of Pierre and Paul Wertheimer, Jews whom she considered had swindled her out of profits from Chanel No. 5. It was the intercession of an old society friend, Winston Churchill, that got her off the hook in 1944 and enabled her to retreat to Lausanne.
Zhemchuzhina, meanwhile, had risen to become a deputy minister of the food industry and then minister of fisheries by the end of the 1930s, serving not only as an adjunct to her husband, now foreign minister, in dealing with diplomats, but also to Stalin. Very unusually in the Soviet context, she developed a friendship with Marjorie Davies, wife of the US ambassador. The late 1930s were a dangerous time, and some of Zhemchuzhina’s trusted subordinates from the perfume trust were arrested in June 1939 and interrogated about her. But she made it through the war years, and in the process seems to have rediscovered her Jewish identity, serving on the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee and even identifying herself as a Jew and a Yiddish speaker to Golda Meir, then the Israeli ambassador in Moscow, in 1948. But the postwar Soviet antisemitic campaign was gathering momentum, and later that year Zhemchuzhina was expelled from the party and arrested as a ‘Zionist’. Molotov was removed from his position as foreign minister, though not from the Politburo; his wife’s arrest may well have been part of a move by Stalin to oust him from the leadership altogether. Zhemchuzhina was sentenced to five years’ exile in Kazakhstan.
Schlögel calls Chanel and Zhemchuzhina ‘iron women’, a term first used by the Russian émigrée Nina Berberova to describe herself and other resourceful, confident, energetic and perhaps ruthless women with good social connections who, through displacements and disasters, had demonstrated their survival skills. This implies a spiritual kinship which would have come as a surprise to both Schlögel’s subjects – though that isn’t to say the claim is unwarranted.
Chanel might have recognised Zhemchuzhina’s toughness and enterprise, but it’s unlikely she would have accepted her as a kindred spirit. In the first place, Zhemchuzhina was Jewish, and Chanel was personally antisemitic as well as sharing the conventional antisemitism of the society she moved in. In addition to this, the Russians Chanel knew and liked were dispossessed Russian aristocrats such as her sometime lover Grand Duke Dmitry Pavlovich (cousin of the last Romanov emperor), and his sister Maria Pavlovna, who worked in Chanel’s embroidery workshop making Russian peasant tunics (rubashki) while they were in vogue. Chanel was also close to Russian émigré modernists such as Stravinsky and Diaghilev, who were short on sympathy with the Bolsheviks. Had Zhemchuzhina showed up in Paris as the wife of the Soviet foreign minister after the war, it would presumably have won her some kudos with Chanel, who appreciated power. But the Soviets didn’t let wives out of the country – even those with the most powerful husbands – for fear they might defect, and the closest Zhemchuzhina got to Paris in the postwar period was for a health cure in Karlovy Vary in socialist Czechoslovakia. In any case, Chanel liked people who were fun even more than people who were powerful, and Zhemchuzhina, a serious person married to the most po-faced of all the Soviet leaders, would scarcely have qualified.
From Zhemchuzhina’s point of view, Chanel’s status as a successful capitalist might have been a hindrance, although this hadn’t stopped her from becoming friends with Mrs Davies, née Marjorie Merriweather Post, heiress to the General Foods fortune. Chanel’s wartime collaboration and antisemitism would have been more of a stumbling block. Still, the two had a great deal in common. Both loved fashion and had a flair for it. They were even of the same physical type, Zhemchuzhina being small and trim – a good fit for Chanel’s clothes, which she undoubtedly would have loved to wear. But it seems certain that, for all his uxoriousness, Molotov failed to bring back any Paris fashions from his postwar visits: a night at the opera (the Marriage of Figaro) was all the recreation he allowed himself in Paris; while in London he found time only to visit Marx’s grave.
Although upwardly mobile, Chanel and Zhemchuzhina both kept ties with their families and, particularly in Zhemchuzhina’s case, put up with a good deal of embarrassment from them. They were also alike in having many lovers. We know this, in Zhemchuzhina’s case, courtesy of the secret police, who interrogated a number of men about their sexual activities with Zhemchuzhina and sent the transcripts to Stalin, who circulated them to the Politburo – including Molotov, who bore the humiliation in his usual stony silence. The Molotovs had an open marriage – not so unusual in the emancipated 1920s, though in practice she was the one who took advantage of it. But Zhemchuzhina’s lovers seem to have been subordinates, not men at her own political level, still less that of her husband.
The disasters of 1944-49 might have crushed lesser women, but by the mid 1950s both Chanel and Zhemchuzhina had returned from exile and resumed something like their previous lives. Chanel moved back to Paris, and her fashion house made a comeback; she died in 1971 at the age of 87. Zhemchuzhina’s path out of exile was more dramatic: immediately after Stalin’s death in 1953, Lavrenty Beria had her flown back to Moscow from Kazakhstan, and the Molotovs – divorced on Stalin’s orders after her conviction – resumed their reportedly devoted marriage. Molotov remained a member of the post-Stalin leadership as foreign minister until 1957, when he was ousted by Khrushchev. Zhemchuzhina, whose exile in Central Asia had, of course, been much more physically and psychologically taxing than Chanel’s in Switzerland, never re-entered public life. She died in 1970 at the age of 73.
Zhemchuzhina and Molotov remained staunch communists and Stalinists to the end: indeed Molotov, who died aged 96 during perestroika, narrowly missed becoming a centenarian and seeing the collapse of the Soviet Union. While Zhemchuzhina would surely have disliked the politics of post-Soviet Russia even more than she disliked those of Khrushchev’s regime, her grandson Vyacheslav Nikonov is currently prospering as a TV commentator and Duma delegate from Putin’s United Russia party.
In post-Soviet Russia perfume was one of the luxury goods that symbolised the repudiation of Soviet puritanism. While Zhemchuzhina’s attempt to bring perfume to the masses and rebrand it as socialist was forgotten, the Soviet perfumes produced under her leadership were not: as Schlögel tells us, Red Moscow is back on the market, now as a Soviet nostalgia item. But it’s Chanel who has the last word. Although she never visited Moscow, she had considerable indirect influence on the revival of Soviet fashion that took place during Khrushchev’s Thaw. The Coco Chanel house participated in the International Fashion Festival in Moscow in 1967, and Chanel fashions and perfume – genuine and counterfeit – were among the new Western goods available on the market after the Soviet Union’s collapse. The first Chanel store opened in Moscow in 2006, and GUM, the revamped Soviet department store on Red Square, now has its own Chanel boutique. In 2007, Chanel No. 5 wafted through the halls of an exhibition of Chanel fashion in the Pushkin Museum. The ‘little black dress’ was paired with avant-garde designs by Aleksandr Rodchenko, while Chanel’s Russian embroidery – perhaps even made under Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna’s direction – was hung beside a 16th-century icon of Our Lady of Vladimir.