literary journalism

Karl Schlögel’s ‘The Scent of Empires’

“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, a widely celebrated 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 twentieth 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. The two men 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…

Read the full review online in the Financial Times

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