Russia is not a country usually associated with luxury perfumes, a sign more of Western ignorance of the country’s history than of its actual reality.
Before the 1917 Revolution Russia was in fact a world leader in the art of perfumery, with the tsar’s court spoken of as the most scented in the world. Moreover Russian aristocrats who bought Fabergé jewellery and Talberg watches, and who attended the Imperial Ballet, admired the music of Scriabin, and read the poetry of Mirra Lokhvitskaya and Konstantin Balmont, brought the same quality of sophisticated discernment to their choice of perfume.
As was often the case with luxury manufacturers in pre-Revolutionary Russia, the two leading perfume companies – Rallet and Brocard – had French names. Both however – like Fabergé – were actually Russian houses, set up by French émigrés in Moscow in 1843 and 1861 respectively, but both by the time of the Revolution fully Russianised.
Two perfumes survive today which capture the quality of Russian perfumes of this era, and it is a tribute to their quality that after each became popularly available in the 1920s one swept the board in the East and the other swept the board in the West.
Taking first the Russian perfume which conquered the West, this is none other than the legendary Chanel No. 5, devised by Ernest Beaux, the head ‘nose’ (perfumier) of Rallet, who despite his French name was also Russian, born in Moscow of French émigré parents in 1881.
Chanel No.5 is based on Beaux’s pre-Revolutionary perfume, Le Bouquet de Catherine, named for Catherine the Great. This super luxury highly expensive perfume was launched in St. Petersburg in 1913, timed for the celebrations of the Romanov tricentenary. Its high cost however caused it to be a commercial failure, with later attempts to re launch it as Rallet No.1 also unsuccessful.
Following the Russian Revolution Beaux joined the White Army and was posted to Arkhangelsk in Russia’s Far North. Highly impressed by the Arctic landscape, following his escape to Paris he sought to capture its polar freshness in a new perfume based on Rallet No.1 (ie. on Le Bouquet de Catherine) modified with new synthetics.
This became Chanel No.5, which Beaux offered to the French fashion designer Coco Chanel in 1919, to whom he had been introduced by her lover, Grand Prince Dmitry Pavlovich Romanov, Rasputin’s murderer.
As for the perfume which conquered the East, this is a perfume launched in Moscow in 1925 as Krasnaya Moskva (“Red Moscow”), which remained the most popular women’s perfume in the USSR right up to its fall.
There is some debate about the origins of Krasnaya Moskva. What is known is that following the 1917 Revolution Rallet and Brocard were both nationalised by the new Soviet government, with orders to concentrate on making soap. However in 1922 both factories, renamed Svoboda (“Freedom” – Rallet) and Novaya Zarya (“New Dawn” – Brocard), fell under the control of the formidable Polina Zhemchuzhina, wife of the powerful Soviet politician Vyacheslav Molotov, and a force to be reckoned with in her own right. Zhemchuzhina was to play a similar role as godmother in the USSR to Krasnaya Moskva as did Coco Chanel to Chanel No.5 in the West.
Krasnaya Moskva is a product of Novaya Zarya (the former Brocard factory). Records show that it was devised by a perfumier called Auguste Michel, who is known to have been the teacher of a famous Soviet perfumier, Pavel Ivanov. However there is uncertainty about the date, with some claiming it was devised in 1925 – the year of its launch – and others saying that it dates from 1913, being the same as a perfume launched by Brocard for the Romanov tricentenary called Le Bouquet Préféré de l’Impératrice (“the Empress’s favourite bouquet” – the Empress in question being the glamorous Dowager Empress Maria Fyodorovna, Nicholas II’s mother).
Whether this is so or not, a perfume launched in Moscow in 1925 at a factory which only a few years before had been making perfumes for the Russian court was bound to have about it a strong likeness to the perfumes devised in Russia before the Revolution. Together with Chanel No.5 Krasnaya Moskva is therefore the last remaining perfume that connects us to this otherwise lost world of pre Revolutionary Russian perfumes.
Regardless of its exact origin Krasnaya Moskva took the USSR by storm in much the same way as Chanel No.5 took the West by storm. With the expansion of the Soviet sphere of influence after 1945 it also became the most popular women’s perfume throughout the socialist world.
By the late 1950s if Chanel No.5 was the iconic perfume of the West Krasnaya Moskva was the iconic perfume of the East, with few however being aware of the common origin of both perfumes in the world of pre-Revolutionary Russia.
The fall of the USSR inevitably caused a reaction to set in, with ‘new Russians’ rejecting – often vehemently – a perfume that had become associated with the Soviet past, and turning to Western perfumes instead. Today any visitor to Russia can find the same perfumes on sale there as are found in the West.
Krasnaya Moskva however retained a loyal following, and it continues to be produced in Moscow by the Novaya Zarya factory, which together with the Svoboda factory (the former Rallet factory) remains in business.
As the reaction against things Soviet has faded it has been making a strong comeback, and it can now also be bought in the West in its strikingly Russian looking bottle at a very competitive price for a high class perfume, for example via Amazon, whose customers are giving it rave 5 star reviews.
Comparisons of Krasnaya Moskva and Chanel No.5 show a distinct family likeness, reflecting the origins of both perfumes in the world of pre-Revolutionary Russia.
Krasnaya Moskva is best described as a spicy floral or as a floral chypre, rather powerful and with long development.
As with Chanel No.5 there are distinct rose and jasmine notes, strongly favoured for their perfumes by the aristocracy of pre Revolutionary Russia, as for example in O-DE-KOLON No.1 Vesovoi, the perfume devised by Rallet for Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna, Nicholas II’s wife.
Despite their obvious kinship Chanel No.5 and Krasnaya Mosvka are however clearly different perfumes, and cannot be confused with each other.
Now widely available, Krasnaya Moskva is one of the world’s great perfumes, redolent of an imperial court and of a socialist revolution which are both vanished, but both of which form an essential part of Russia’s DNA.
No perfume can match its history, and because of its intrinsic quality it deserves its growing success.