September 01, 2021

Scents and Memoirs

Scents and Memoirs

“Day after day, we traverse zones marked out by smells – the steam rising from coffee in a takeaway paper cup, the grease of a chip shop, the technoid whiff of oil and tar as we glide down an escalator into a subway station,” writes the historian Karl Schlogel.

The heart and nose of this book is reminding readers, even those of us completely uninterested in perfume, of how distinctive smell is in its ability to awaken memories. Smell, Schlogel quotes the philosopher Schopenhauer, is the time-traveler sense: “because it recalls to our mind more directly than anything else the specific impression of an event or an environment, even from the most remote past.”

Schlogel is the author of several works on Russia in the twentieth century and did not set out in a single-minded or commercially minded way to tell the crisscrossing story of two famous perfumes. By a series of surreptitious coincidences in his research, The Scent of Empires: Chanel No. 5 and Red Moscow became a history about the marketing of Russian and Soviet perfume, focusing particularly on the makers and promoters of Red Moscow. Those promoters included Polina Zhemchuzhina-Molotova (wife of Stalin’s infamous crony Vyacheslav Molotov), who “for a time was responsible for the entire Soviet cosmetics and perfume industry.” In parallel with the story of Red Moscow is the success of Coco Chanel’s Chanel No. 5, which she and France (and the world) had no idea originated as an immediate descendant of Red Moscow.

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