Soviet Chanel: How “Red Moscow” Became the Most Popular Perfume in the USSR

Just a whiff of Krasnaya Moskva (Красная Москва, or “Red Moscow” in English) is enough to transport Russian citizens to the nostalgia of their childhoods.
Vecherovskaya, Wikimedia Commons // CC by SA 4.0 (bottle has been removed from image and placed on a background); enjoynz/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images (background)

What did a theater lobby, high school graduation, and a grandmother’s apartment have in common in 20th-century Russia? People who grew up in the Soviet Union would say they all smelled like Krasnaya Moskva.

Russian for “Red Moscow,” Krasnaya Moskva (Красная Москва) is the name of a neatly packaged, rose-and-orange-scented perfume developed in the 1920s that became so popular in Russia that even the faintest whiff of it, according to German historian Karl Schlögel, can transport older generations back to their communist childhoods.

Though the Communist Party initially ridiculed the perfume as a bourgeois luxury, it eventually embraced Krasnaya Moskva as an accomplishment of Soviet industry and engineering. The perfume’s Catherine the Great-inspired secret recipe predated the Soviet Union, and ended up outliving it, too.

To tell the story of Krasnaya Moskva, in short, is to tell the story of an entire country.

The Birth of “Red Moscow”

Russia’s perfume culture goes back centuries, with local communities incorporating scented materials into their traditional medicine and sauna routines—but it was during the 18th century, when the Russian court established a close relationship with France, that Russians were introduced to manufactured perfume.

This exchange was greatly accelerated by the French Revolution, which led friends and allies of the beheaded monarchs to resettle in Russia. Aristocrats and industrialists from Western Europe brought not only their perfumes, but also the means to produce them on a large scale.

Russia’s cosmetics industry, like any other industry, became collectivized and nationalized after the Bolsheviks took over in the October Revolution of 1917. By 1921, independent perfume houses were fused together to form Shirkost, an acronym for the Union Trust of Distinguished Perfumery, Fat-Processing, Soap-Making and Synthetics Production.

Advertising Poster For The State Parfume Factories Tezhe
Advertising poster for the state parfume factories Tezhe, circa 1938. / Heritage Images/GettyImages

Shirkost would have remained a dominant player in the industry were it not for the Russian Civil War, whose chaos allowed previously consolidated French firms to relaunch under new names. One of these firms, Novaya Zarya (formerly Genrikh Brokar, a.k.a. Henri Brocard) struck gold by reviving a perfume that had actually been invented before the Revolution, and had disappeared from the markets following prolonged economic hardship and political instability: Bouquet de Catherine. Also known in Russian as Lyubimy buket Imperatritsy, or the “empress’s favorite bouquet,” the perfume was first given to Maria Feodorovna (or Fyodorovna), the beloved mother of Tsar Nicholas II, in 1913 to mark the 300th anniversary of the Romanov dynasty, which began with Michael I in 1613.

The perfume’s origin isn’t clear. According to one story, Bouquet de Catherine—and, by extension, Krasnaya Moskva—was created by Ernest Beaux, a Russian-born perfumer of French heritage also called the “Napoleon of perfume.” Others attribute the Bouquet’s invention to Auguste Michel, a French perfumer for Brocard who became stranded in Russia after the Soviet government “lost” his passport.

One thing is undisputed: The recipe for Krasnaya Moskva is essentially the same as that of an equally famous western perfume, Chanel No. 5, which Beaux developed a few years before Krasnaya Moskva and eventually turned into its own, distinct brand in the West.

Defining a Fragrance

Krasnaya Moskva’s complex, layered scent—consisting of more than 60 components—is described differently by different noses. A 1955 book cited by Schlögel in his monumental work The Soviet Century: Archeology of a Lost World identifies “jasmine essence” as the perfume’s primary component. Renata Litvinova, a Russian actress and director, prefers “sugary.”

Marina Bykova, a professor of philosophy at North Carolina State University also cited by Schlögel, goes into greater detail, writing:

“Only natural ingredients are used in the production of this scent. Its dominant notes are bergamot and neroli, complemented by grapefruit and coriander; they quickly attract attention. The sharpness of these aromatic compounds is softened by the velvet notes of jasmine, roses, and ylang ylang, with a slight admixture of nutmeg. And lastly, as a trail, a magnificent compound of iris, vanilla, amber, and patchouli.”

Arguably more important than the scent itself are the thoughts and feelings Krasnaya Moskva evokes in those that smell it. Schlögel, whose research is particularly concerned with the way Soviet culture lives on inside people’s minds and memories, writes that “The scent is associated with particular scenes that stand for the more attractive, beautiful and joyous sides of Soviet life—an evening at the theatre beneath bright chandeliers, women teetering on high heels, tables lavishly overflowing with food.”

The perfume must have provided a stark contrast with other Soviet smells Schlögel mentions, including the sweaty stink of a kommunalka (a shared apartment) or the stench of expired groceries filling understocked supermarkets.

Even the perfume’s elegantly designed packaging—a “pom-pom reminiscent of a jewelry box,” according to Schlögel—was nothing like the bland, brown wrapping paper used everywhere else. Dousing themselves in Krasnaya Moskva, Soviets may have closed their eyes and pretended they lived in a wealthier, more glamorous society.

An Ideological Threat

Krasnaya Moskva’s status as a luxury product did not sit well with the Bolsheviks, who, under the auspices of Marxism-Leninism, tried to purge Russia of what they saw as bourgeois decadence. “Powder and perfume were widely regarded as unworthy of a class-conscious working woman,” Schlögel writes. In 1924, a writer from the communist magazine Rabotnitsa (The Woman Worker) even stated that “cosmetics will be liquidated by raising the cultural level of women.”

This, of course, did not happen. On the contrary, the more stable and industrious the Soviet Union became under Bolshevik rule, the more demand for luxury products like lipstick, cigars, and perfumes increased. Vladimir Lenin’s New Economic Policy, a 1921 campaign to stimulate the Russian market with controlled injections of capitalism, was as helpful for the perfume industry as the ending of the Civil War. Following the end of the conflict in October 1922, Russian newspapers and magazines—save, maybe, Rabotnitsa—advertised new fragrances. And not just Krasnaya Moskva, but other patriotic aromas like “Red October” and “1 May,” after Russia’s Labor Day.

White Night. Powder. Perfume. Cream, 1937. Artist: Miller, A.A. (active Mid of 20th cen.)
White Night. Powder. Perfume. Cream, 1937. / Heritage Images/GettyImages

Communist propaganda did not reduce people’s desire for luxury products such as cosmetics. As Schlögel notes, English soap remained a favorite gift among Soviet families for much of the 20th century. Krasnaya Moskva must have been a close second.

Eventually, even the Communist Party came around to perfumes. At first regarded as an agent of consumerism that could corrupt the hearts of Soviet workers—in Schlögel’s words, a “manifestation of excess,” of “the individual note, the need to stand out from the ‘gray mass’”—it later was seen as a symbol of Soviet industrial and chemical prowess, not a sign of wealth, but a product of skill and knowledge.

“The cosmetics industry of the 1930s,” Schlögel writes, was depicted as “an exemplary branch of industry, equipped with modern chemical laboratories. It went beyond all romantic ideas of the empire of fragrances and served a highly cultured mass market.” A planned but never produced perfume, “Palace of the Soviets,” sold in a bottle designed after the planned but never produced building, would have contained notes of cement, concrete, iron and steel, and capture “the scent of a new age.”

Krasnaya Moskva Today

Since its fabled creation, Krasnaya Moskva has been produced and sold in Russia almost non-stop. The perfume is still available today, both in Russia and abroad—a bottle goes for around $20 or $30 on Amazon.

But, as Schlögel notes in The Scent of Empires, “The smell of this third-generation Krasnaya Moskva is probably far removed from the original scent.” Getting a whiff of the original would require either “reconstruct[ing] the earlier versions using the original formulas and original ingredients,” he writes, or finding “a tightly sealed, well-preserved bottle and open[ing] it.”

Vintage bottles of Krasnaya Moskva can be found today, too—though usually for a larger sum than the prices you’ll find on Amazon.