The Scent of Empires: Channel No. 5 and Red Moscow by Karl Schlögel (trans. Jessica Spengler; Polity, 2021), reviewed by Emily Couch

Punctured Lines is grateful to Emily Couch for her review of Karl Schlögel’s The Scent of Empires: Channel No. 5 and Red Moscow, translated by Jessica Spengler. This book held a particular interest for me because I firmly associate the perfume Red Moscow (Krasnaya Moskva) with my grandmother, who, like many in the Soviet Union, wore this scent. At the same time, I have a memory of standing in a Paris perfumery at the end of my study-abroad program buying a small bottle of Chanel No. 5 to bring back to her as a gift. In one sense, this seems very odd to me, since I can’t remember her wearing perfume in the U.S. and I can’t totally say that I’ve remembered this accurately. But this book and review makes me think I’m right: perhaps my grandmother did like the French perfume because it reminded her of the Soviet one since, as it turns out, there was a connection between them.

Karl Schlögel’s The Scent of Empires: Channel No. 5 and Red Moscow (translated by Jessica Spengler), Review by Emily Couch

I wanted to love The Scent of Empires.  When I happened upon it in the flagship Waterstones store in London, I felt a burst of excitement.  Here was a book that united many of my personal passions: Russian and French history, fashion, design. The blurb announced that the reader should expect “the interconnected histories of two of the world’s most celebrated perfumes” and “a surprising story of power, intrigue and betrayal.” Yet, unlike the two headline perfumes whose boldly designed bottles represented the revolutionary nature of the scent within, Schlögel’s book does not live up to the promise of its packaging. Despite its diminutive length, The Scent of Empires is not an easy book to distil because it lacks a single essence.

In Chapter 1, Schlögel describes the genesis of the two related scents, charting the trajectories of Ernest Beaux and Auguste Ippolitovich Michel – French perfumers who made their careers in Imperial Russia working for Rallet & Co., purveyor of perfume to the imperial court. Beaux remained with Rallet & Co. until the Russian Revolution in 1917, when he returned to his native France, whereas Michel moved to Brocard, a rival Russian perfumery (which, upon its nationalization became Novaya Zarya). In 1912, to mark the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Borodino, Rallet & Co. released the scent “Bouquet de Napoleon,” and both Beaux and Michel took the formula of the “Bouquet” into their post-revolutionary lives. In Beaux’s hands in France, it became Chanel No. 5; in Michel’s in the Soviet Union, it became Red Moscow.

In Chapter 2 the author takes a theoretical turn, examining the place of scent in Western philosophical thought. The Western attitude towards the olfactory, writes Schlögel, was shaped by the Enlightenment, whose thinkers posited smell as “all that is non-conscious, unconscious, non-rational, irrational, uncontrollable, archaic, dangerous.” Despite this antipathy, however, “we cannot simply catapult ourselves out of the realm of scent. We perceive the world not only with our eyes, but also with our nose.” In Chapter 3, he characterizes the Russian Revolution as an event that not only shattered the social pedestal of the elite, but also their sensory world. The smell of cabbage soup, factories, and overcrowded train carriages “breached the walls of the hermetically sealed and orderly olfactory world of the ancien régime.”  In the tumultuous years of World War I, the Russian Civil War, and the mass social upheaval that these phenomena entailed, the “odour of the front lines and the bivouac, the sweat of factory work, the stench of overcrowded train carriages – it all forces its way into the perfumed and deodorized realm of high culture.”

Chapter 4 examines how Russia and France – the former through revolution and the latter through World War I – experienced radical breaks with their pasts and dramatic leaps into their own forms of modernity, which manifested itself in fashion and material culture. Schlögel demonstrates how this post-war, post-revolutionary tendency was seen in women’s fashion, drawing parallels between Gabrielle (Coco) Chanel and the leading Soviet couturier, Nadezhda Lamanova, whose designs rejected flounces and adornment in favor of bold, clean lines that allowed freedom of movement to the body. Both “stood for a type of fashion that combined taste and quality and was intended to be accessible even to ordinary people.”

Chapters 5, 6, and 7 outline the cultural and political connections between Russia and France both pre-and post-1918. Chapters 5 and 6 examine the movement of people and ideas between France and Russia. The first highlights how pre-war France was a popular destination for Russia’s elite and dissidents alike: “Paris stood alongside Italy as the most important destination for Russian travellers prior to World War I […] Russian colonies sprang up on the Côte d’Azur in Cannes, San Remo, Antibes, and Nice, and on the Atlantic in Biarritz and Deauville.” Meanwhile, “Paris became a place of exile for Russian revolutionaries […] Revolutionary democrats and oppositionists of all stripes turned Paris […] into a locus of anti-tsarist resistance.” In the second, Schlögel shows how, after the revolution, leading French cultural figures such as Christian Dior, Elsa Schiaparelli, and Le Corbusier, visited the Soviet Union, viewing it as “an ally against capitalism and the impending war.” Chapter 7 pays particular attention to Frenchman Auguste Michel’s rehabilitation by the Soviet authorities, one of the “valuable examples of the Soviet state’s successful deployment of the old intelligentsia,” and his attempts to create perfumes – with names like “1 May” and “Palace of Soviets” to embody the new order.

Schlögel dedicates Chapter 8 to the biographies of Coco Chanel (1883-1971) and Polina Zhemchuzhina (1897-1970), elucidating the unexpected parallels in their life trajectories despite their wildly differing social circumstances. While the general contours of Chanel’s career are likely well-known to the Western reader, those of Zhemchuzhina’s are probably less so. “[F]rom the impoverished environs of the Jewish shtetl” in what is now eastern Ukraine, she rose through the Communist Party ranks until she became the People’s Commissar for the Food Industry in 1939. More well-known to history is the man who became her husband – Vyacheslav Molotov, Stalin’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. The chapter is born of good intentions, presenting both Chanel and Zhemchuzhina as “iron women” who made their way in a male-dominated world. The vaguely feminist approach to their biographies is, unfortunately, lost in the somewhat contrived points of comparison between two individuals who, as the author himself admits, “were disparate to the point of antagonism.”

Chanel’s biography contains a somewhat disturbing attempt by the author to excuse her well-documented collaboration with the Nazis: “What the documents do not tell us is whether her activities ever caused anyone great personal harm”.  While the book should certainly not attempt to put Chanel on trial for her actions during the occupation, this one-line attempt to brush any criticism of the designer aside is unsettling and detracts from the overall narrative. Schlögel’s account of how the designer used her connections with the Nazi high command to further her business interests – while a well-intentioned attempt to portray her as a strong woman making the best of dire circumstances – is off-putting.  In the same vein, Chapter 9’s jarringly brief reflection on the sensory facet of Soviet and Nazi camps brings an unintentional glibness to these horrifying forms of repression and death. “We have the smell of scorched earth and mass graves,” Schlögel luridly writes, “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 the crematoria.”

In Chapters 10, 11, and 12, the author ambitiously attempts to cover the nearly seventy years between Stalin’s death and the present day.  In Chapter 10 he describes the boom in Soviet consumer culture post-1953, which gave rise to the “Golden Age of Soviet perfumery.” Then, he takes a rather unexpected detour – titled “Excursus,” which appears to be sandwiched between the two chapters –into the life of Olga Chekhova, an actress-cum-cosmetics entrepreneur who founded a perfumery in Munich (not to be confused with her aunt, Olga Knipper, Anton Chekhov’s wife). Schlögel devotes Chapter 11, a mere five pages, to the life of Soviet perfumes in the post-Soviet era. The explosive emergence of Western designer brands after the collapse of the Soviet Union triggered a “reaction against what some viewed as a foreign invasion [that] was not long in coming. Many set off on a search for the lost time that had taken the scents of the Soviet epoch with it.” The revival of Red Moscow, and the proliferation of old Soviet perfume bottles for sale in makeshift markets, symbolized this nostalgia for the recent past. The final chapter, rather oddly, goes back to the early 20th century and the long-unknown foray of avant-garde artist Kazimir Malevich into perfume bottle design. In the early 1910s, the artist who would later go on to create the Black Square designed a bottle for the Brocard fragrance – “Severny (North)” – shaped like a polar bear standing atop an iceberg. The design, writes Schlögel, reflected “the spirit of the times” in which nations scrambled to explore and claim the North Pole, “the last remaining terra incognita.” Despite being the premise of the book, Chanel No. 5 and Red Moscow appear as a mere afterthought in the final chapter.

As the above discussion shows, one of the book’s principle flaws is its disjointedness. Instead of a sweeping historical narrative, with the stories of each perfume blended as sublimely as the eponymous scents, Schlögel offers a tale in fits and starts. Just as readers begin to lose themselves in the fascinating, if somewhat hard to follow, origin of the smell that defined two very different societies, they find themselves blown suddenly of course. Chapters 5, 6, 7, and 11, while presenting material of undoubted interest, bear little relation to the story that Schlögel sets out to tell. Chanel No. 5 and Red Moscow scarcely feature in these chapters, which make up a substantial portion of the book. His imagined “museum of fragrances,” in which “Krasnaya Moskva, and even Kazimir Malevich’s polar bear on an iceberg, could take their place alongside Chanel No. 5,” is an intriguing flight of fancy, but there is a distinct sense that the two perfumes on which the work is premised are something of an afterthought, thrown haphazardly into the book’s final sentence to close the narrative circle.

The Scent of Empires is a mere 163 pages, not including the reference and index sections. The readers’ senses have been stimulated, but not satisfied. There is a distinct feeling that much of the story remains untold. It is a shame, for example, that Schlögel does not provide greater insight into his research process. In the prologue, he piques the reader’s curiosity by noting that “[w]hen you rove the bazaars of Russian cities and start collecting bottles […] you encounter amateurs everywhere who have turned themselves into experts,” but this tantalizing sentence remains without follow-up. What kind of Soviet citizen wore Red Moscow? What lives did this state-generated commodity lead after it left the laboratory and reached the apartments of the populace? Now that the scent has been “re-booted” for the post-Soviet era, how has its use and meaning changed? These are just some of the questions which Schlögel leads the reader to ponder but which he leaves unanswered.

The book’s fault lies not in the decision to tell these intertwined stories – even if the connections are, at times, a little contrived – but rather in the superficial treatment that Schlögel gives to them. All this being said, this book is worth reading, containing as it does elements to draw in Russianists, Francophiles, and design aficionados alike and encouraging readers to understand an époque that many believe they know so well through an unexpected medium.  The Scent of Empires contains a myriad fascinating notes – the aesthetic embodiment of post-war modernity, Polina Zhemchuzhina’s leading role in the Soviet cosmetics industry, the philosophy of scent – but the author does not quite manage to connect them into a single narrative.

Emily Couch is a Program Consultant for Eurasia at PEN America. Prior to this position, she worked as Program Assistant for Europe at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), where she worked on Eastern Europe and the Western Balkans. She also previously worked at the Kennan Institute, where she regularly organized events featuring high-profile academics, practitioners, and political figures from the region, and frequently wrote blogs and reports on political developments in the region. She holds a double M.A. in Russian and Eastern European studies from University College London and the Higher School of Economics. She is a passionate advocate for fostering greater diversity and inclusion in the Eurasia field, and has spoken on and written about this topic for multiple conferences and platforms, including the Association for Slavic, Eurasian, and East European Studies (ASEEES).

You can purchase the book here and in your favorite independent bookstore. If you are interested in reviewing one of the titles on our Books for Review list, please get in touch at PuncturedLines@gmail.com

3 thoughts on “The Scent of Empires: Channel No. 5 and Red Moscow by Karl Schlögel (trans. Jessica Spengler; Polity, 2021), reviewed by Emily Couch

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