Champagne Socialism

What Luxury Looks Like Without Rich People

By Jennifer Wilson

Photos by Yudi Ela

When asked what she wore to bed, Marilyn Monroe famously told reporters, “Chanel No. 5.” I’ve

often wondered if Polina Zhemchuzhina, wife of Comrade Molotov (of the Molotov cocktail) ever said the same thing. Zhemchuzhina, who ran the Soviet perfume factory Novaya Zarya, or New Dawn, in the early 1930s, believed in a luxurious communism, less red, more rouge. While her husband, born Vyacheslav Skryabin, adopted an appositely revolutionary last name derived from molot, which means “hammer,” Polina chose “Zhemchuzhina,” from the Russian for “pearl.” Under her leadership, New Dawn offered Soviet women a vision of socialism that rejected austerity; choosing instead, in what would become a Soviet tradition, to recast supposedly bourgeois pleasures like candy, champagne, and perfume as examples of the abundant future that communism promised.

New Dawn produced a number of fragrances — Crimean Violet, Scythian Gold, Elena —  but its signature perfume was Krasnaya Moskva, Red Moscow. It came in a fine glass bottle with a red cap designed to look like a Kremlin tower. While there were many fragrances made to celebrate the Soviet woman, including one to honor the Georgian chess champion Nona Gaprindisvilli (her perfume, Nona, came in a black bottle in the shape of a queen), none attained the cultural status of Red Moscow. In times of national pride, it was a symbol of elegance and glamor. In his poem “Through Farwell Tears” Timur Kibirov reflected on the waning years of the USSR by recalling the country’s most familiar smells: “birch leaves at the sauna,” “Belomor cigarettes,” and “a woman in Red Moscow perfume.” In the hands of a cynic, Red Moscow was the butt of a joke. In Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Look at the Harlequins, the cantankerous protagonist makes his first trip back to the Soviet Union and complains: “The farcical air-conditioning system failed to outlive the whiffs of sweat and the sprayings of Krasnaya Moskva.” The scent functioned in the popular imagination as the Soviet answer to Chanel No. 5, a reputation helped along by the rumor that the factory New Dawn was housed in used to be known as Soap and Perfumery Factory No. 5.

Unfortunately, Red Moscow had a rather inconvenient capitalist history. The scent is alleged to actually be a fragrance created by Henri Brocard, perfumer to the tsars. A gift for Maria Feodorovna, mother of Nicholas II, its original name was “The Empress’s Favorite Bouquet.” Brocard’s factory was nationalized in 1918 and renamed New Dawn in 1922. While Red Moscow was officially a new fragrance, many suspected, then and now, that it was actually just a case of socialist rebranding. In an interview with the BBC, perfume expert Galina Anni said, “chemically of course, yes,” it was a different fragrance, “because some of the ingredients and aromatic substances that the Brocard family worked with in 1913 simply did not exist in the Soviet Union in 1924.” However, the underlying composition, Anni told the BBC, “iris accentuated with bergamot, orange blossom, cloves, and ylang-ylang, was preserved.”

Red Moscow smelled like “iris accentuated with bergamot, orange blossom, cloves, and ylang-ylang”

To some, “Soviet perfume” sounds like an oxymoron, an extension of jokes about champagne socialism, but there was such a thing as the latter: sovetskoe shampanskoe, which translates to “Soviet champagne.” To a Soviet citizen, the idea that wearing perfume or drinking champagne were somehow uniquely incompatible with communism would have been nonsensical. While excess and pleasure were firmly associated with the evils of capitalism in the immediate aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution, over time Soviet leaders adjusted their thinking. Communism would not mean the end of luxury goods, they decided, but actually the proliferation of them — a bottle of Red Moscow perfume for every factory worker. In The Soviet Dream World of Retail Trade and Consumption in the 1930s, Amy Randall explains: “Strange as it may seem today, there was once a time when retail trade and consumption were heralded as not only central to the socialist revolution but also the stage upon which the limits of capitalism would be exposed.” In this way, Soviet perfume might be considered the first step in the kind of abundance-driven socialist ethos that motivates the popularity of “fully automated luxury communism,” a coinage promoted by 21st-century socialists like Aaron Bastani to overturn socialism’s association with scarcity.

The Soviet embrace of luxury goods wasn’t, however, a seamless transition. For much of the 1920s, perfume was permitted but regarded with suspicion. In the wake of the Russian Civil War in 1921, Lenin instituted his New Economic Plan (NEP) in which some elements of capitalism (like small-scale private enterprise) were re-introduced to stimulate the economy. Boutiques selling foreign perfumes, make-up, and cigars began popping up on Moscow’s boulevards alongside jazz clubs and bootlegger bars. Armand Hammer, grandfather of the actor Armie Hammer, was in Russia at the time, amassing a fortune selling wheat, pencils, and buying up Fabergé eggs. He came to be known as “the red millionaire.” Reflecting on his glory days in NEP-era Russia, Hammer remarked: “One could buy the choicest French wines, liquers and the best of Havana cigars. The finest French cloth lay side by side with the most expensive French perfume.” 

Soviet champagne, chocolates, and perfume were all meant to prove that the capitalist West did not have a monopoly on pleasure.

After a decade of warnings about the ills of bourgeois capitalism and morally corrupt capitalists, NEP brought on something of a moral panic. Soviet citizens made “rich” from NEP came to be known as “NEP-men” and were often villainized in popular media, even children’s books. (One from the era shows a greedy capitalist NEP-man gorging himself on ice cream until he freezes to death). Women, likewise, were scolded about the dangers of falling into bourgeois modes of being… and smelling. In The Body Soviet, historian Tricia Starks says magazines and articles geared towards Soviet women insisted that “rouge and lipstick, which were necessary in capitalist countries, where women had to hide their pasty complexions, lost their necessity in a country ruled by and for workers.” Soviet women’s complexions were to be vitalized through labor, not blush, and no perfume could match the fragrant aroma of sweat from a hard day’s work on the collective farm.

But things began to change under Stalin’s second Five-Year Plan, which altered production goals to include consumer goods, even luxury goods like champagne. In 1934, a chemist developed a way to ferment the beverage in large reservoirs, making an item once considered the height of luxury available to the masses. By 1942, the middle of World War II, the USSR was producing 12 million bottles of champagne a year; it was even available on tap at Soviet supermarkets. After Gastronom, a chain of upscale grocery shops, opened in 1932, chocolates from the Red October candy factory were widely available. (Nationalized by the Soviets a decade earlier, the red-brick factory in the center of Moscow was formerly known as Einem Chocolatiers) Soviet champagne, chocolates, and perfume were all meant to prove that the capitalist West did not have a monopoly on pleasure.

The recasting of the USSR as a consumer society only ramped up in the post-war years under Nikita Khrushchev, especially after the 1959 American Exhibition in Moscow. In a glitzy pavilion on Red Square, the U.S. government laid out a dizzying array of consumer goods (washing machines, Polaroid cameras, Pepsi) for the Soviet public to see firsthand. In 1951, American sociologist David Reisman published a satirical essay titled “The Nylon War,” in which he claimed, “if allowed to sample the riches of America, the Russian people would not long tolerate masters who gave them tanks and spies instead of vacuum cleaners and beauty parlors.” By the end of the decade, that had essentially become Cold War policy. Khrushchev responded by reopening tsarist-era shopping arcades, and, of course, making sure people were well-perfumed. In 1960, one year after the American Exhibition, New Dawn released a new line of fragrances. The 1960 Women’s Day issue of Ogonek, a weekly Soviet magazine, included an article with a picture of a perfume saleswoman standing amidst glass vials. As historian Susan Reid explains, the photograph positioned the saleswoman as “an operator before complex space control panels, thus synthesizing… the alchemist’s art with that of modern science.” To wear perfume was to show off the preeminence of Soviet science, both in the skies and on the skin.

Red Moscow, an early token of the promise of abundance that communism would deliver, sadly remained just that. In the final years of the Soviet Union, the country was plagued by food shortages and rising levels of alcoholism led to reports of people drinking perfume. New Dawn still operates in Moscow, but now it embraces its pre-Revolutionary history, proudly displaying the Brocard name on its storefronts. You can even buy Red Moscow on Amazon. Some of the reviews there are from people who lived in the Soviet Union. The scent seems to provoke nostalgia: “What a good memories of our youth it brings to me!” reads one.

Luxury communism is not a straightforward demand in the face of the climate crisis.

Luxury communism is not a straightforward demand in the face of the climate crisis, when many of us are considering how a consumer society might give way to a livable future. But Red Moscow is less a testament to consumerism than it is a symbol of a moment when socialism’s success was judged in part by its ability to democratize beauty and pleasure. It’s easy today to think of socialism as merely a remedy for the worst predations of capitalism — debt and impoverishment, ecological devastation, and murderous policing. It can be difficult to imagine a new world amid such dire conditions. Red Moscow simply marks an era in which the promise of an equal society did not just stave off the darkness but sparkled briefly in the light. 

Jennifer Wilson is a Lux contributing editor and a contributing writer at The Nation.