December 2021
Karl Schlögel: The Scent of Empires

Book Cover: The Scent of Empires
© Polity Books

Fans of Neil MacGregor’s approach to history may enjoy Karl Schlögel’s The Scent of Empires.

A History of the World in 100 Objects was an immediate bestseller when it came out in 2011. Written by Neil MacGregor, the then director of the British Museum, the book took a range of different objects – from the extraordinary to the everyday – as a starting point to explore the societies each object was a part of.

Karl Schlögel’s The Scent of Empires: Chanel No. 5 and Red Moscow (tr. Jessica Spengel) uses a similar approach – taking two perfumes as a jumping off point to examine everything from Franco-Russian relations in the 1930s to the smells which defined pre-revolutionary Russia. An important caveat here: while engaging communication is an integral task for anyone who – like MacGregor – works in museums, it is something that academics tend to be less good at. Schlögel is a professor of Eastern European History and the breadth and depth of his knowledge is remarkable – but the reader does have to put up with a certain amount of repetition and the occasional non-sequitur.

Nonetheless, the book really is a treasure trove of information. The premise behind The Scent of Empires is that Chanel’s iconic No. 5 fragrance shared a common origin with one of the most popular perfumes in the Soviet Union, called Red Moscow. Both perfumes were created by French perfumers who had studied under Alexandre Lemercier, a master perfumer in tsarist Russia, and both had access to the same perfume formulas in the early 1910s. While one, Ernst Beaux, returned to France and was fatefully introduced to Coco Chanel, the other, Auguste Michel, remained in Russia thanks to a quirk of Soviet bureaucracy and continued to work in a dramatically changed perfume industry.

Schlögel places this parallel at the centre of a web of interweaving themes and storylines, which he goes onto explore. With reference to the scents and the bottles designed to hold them, he makes detours into modernism, fashion, politics and biography. He finds a Soviet counterpart to Coco Chanel in the figure of Polina Zhemchuzhina-Molotova, a devoted communist who played a key role in the USSR’s state-run perfume industry – and a member of Stalin’s inner circle who, like so many, slipped from favour.

The most intriguing part of the book is perhaps Schlögel’s consideration of the parallels between the aesthetics and aims of early Soviet Russia and of west European modernism. While these two societies tend to be viewed in opposition to each other, both – as he points out – were attempting to recover from cataclysmic change and to imagine a better future, both politically and artistically. Fashion interweaves ideas about how we should be living with ideas about art – and it is here that the kinship Schlögel traces is perhaps most notable: both Coco Chanel, with her signature little black dress, and leading Soviet couturier Nadezhda Lamenova broke with the looks of Europe’s belle epoque in order to combine utility with aesthetic sophistication.

About the author

Annie Rutherford is an incorrigible bookworm and Jill of all (word-based) trades. She is the Assistant Festival Director at StAnza (Scotland’s international poetry festival), a German-English literary translator, and runs Lighthouse Bookshop’s Women in Translation book group, among other things. She has been known to read while cycling (she does not recommend it), and can spot a misplaced apostrophe at a distance of fifty yards.

Glasgow library: Reserve the original German title and the English translation.

E-Library: Borrow the original German title and the English translation online.

Find out more about the blog.

Book Blog Overview