The Strange History Of Bolshevik-Era Soviet Perfume, Including My Favorite Fragrance of All Time

The Bolsheviks were deep believers in equality between the sexes, and so widely available cosmetics, as a symbol of liberated womanhood and new proletarian prosperity, were absolutely necessary.
Publish date:
September 3, 2014
perfume, cosmetics, Russia, USSR, stalin, lenin, bolsheviks, democratization of beauty

When you think of Soviet Russia the first thing you think of probably isn’t absolutely glorious perfume and mass distribution of cosmetics, and you’re probably right in not having it be the first thing you think of (the first thing you should think of should be one of the following:

1. Stalin was an absolute monster, and Lenin tried desperately to warn people about him.

2. The Red Army was incredibly heroic and saved our asses during WWII and the Night Witches and Lyudmila Pavlichenko were some of the most badass ladies to ever exist ever, like these Wikipedia articles really play down how badass these women were.

3. Lenin legalized homosexual sex, and allowed openly gay people to serve in the government in the 1920s (basically before anyone else), Stalin recriminalized it because again Stalin was a horrible person and committed innumerable atrocities.

4. The fact that pre-revolution the Russian peasantry lived a lifestyle that had remained unchanged since the iron age.

However, exquisitely formulated perfumes, and mass distribution of cosmetics were both important parts of life in the early U.S.S.R. Prior to the revolution, cosmetics beyond what one might be able to produce at home were an unimaginable luxury for most Russian women. They used a little beet root for color on the cheeks and lips, a little lamp black on the eyelashes, and maybe a little moisturizer if you could spare the fat from cooking, or could get lanolin. After the revolution perfume and cosmetics became an extremely important part of the second five-year plan (starting in 1933) which focused on improving consumer goods, and social progress for women.

The program included state-funded child care and canteens for food so women would not be burdened by the traditional duties of motherhood and food preparation, but also included the mass-marketing of cosmetics by the national essential oils trust known as the TeZhe.

Now, this may seem strange today, but in the 1920s and ’30s in the Western world the open use of cosmetics and women’s liberation and suffrage were seen as almost indelibly linked. What had been taboo (the realm of prostitutes and their equally disreputable cousins, actresses) was suddenly a daring symbol of rebellion against a male-dominated society. (For further reading I strongly recommend Kathy Peiss’s excellent book Hope In A Jar.) The Bolsheviks were deep believers in equality between the sexes, and so widely available cosmetics, as a symbol of liberated womanhood and new proletarian prosperity, were absolutely necessary.

This alone does not explain the quality of Soviet perfume. Despite the best of intentions, many consumer goods produced in the Soviet Union were shoddy, ugly, or otherwise undesirable. Soviet perfume on the other hand is beautifully packaged in high art deco style, exquisitely formulated, and was arguably the highest quality perfume produced in Europe at the time.

All this comes down to the forceful personality of one woman, Polina Zhemchuzhina. Polina was a dedicated Bolshevik, who’d served in the Red Army during the revolution and was married to politician and diplomat Vyacheslav Molotov. She basically bullied Stalin into getting her the highest quality essential oils, devoting huge factories to the production of cosmetics, perfume and toilet goods, and having new manufacturing techniques invented so that they could make Kremlin-shaped perfume bottles. (Google them, they’re gorgeous).

She also, and no I am not kidding, had spies sent into American cosmetics companies to steal their formulas, because although nukes and getting to the moon are important, they just aren’t as important as a truly kiss-proof lipstick.

By the mid-1930s, they were producing around 110 different perfumes and colognes, various fancy soaps, powders, creams, lipsticks, cake-style mascaras and so on. She even pioneered the idea of adding vitamins to moisturizers (including vitamins A and C, staples of modern anti-aging creams) in an attempt to make cosmetics beneficial to health as well as beauty. All these were packaged in high art deco style, designed by famous artists. The packaging was so beautiful that people would often decorate their homes with soap wrappers.

Polina was a devoted Bolshevik, a true believer in a government of cynics, having been a member of the party since the early days of the revolution. Her revolutionary sentiments are reflected in the names she gave to various products, including the first perfume produced in Soviet Russia (which also happens to be my favorite perfume in the world) Red Moscow, which is still one of the most popular perfumes in Russia. Other limited edition scents had names that reflected current events like Victory of Kolkhoz celebrating the completion of collectivisation and White Sea Canal celebrating the construction of said canal (it had a nasty history, but I doubt Polina was aware of it).

The TeZhe also opened beauty salons which treated scarring for soldiers, skin conditions and birth marks, as well as offering treatment for everyday citizen’s cosmetic concerns. They sold basic soap at the price of one kopek a bar (far below production cost) to raise the abominable standards of hygiene among the poor in Russia at the time and financed this noble effort with the sale of fancy perfume and cosmetic items.

They marketed beauty and leisure as a right. “Beauty for all!” was their favorite slogan, and honestly I can see their point, there is something particularly hideous about a society in which the rich can make themselves look as they wish, and the poor cannot. Control of your own appearance is humanizing, and in a society with the resources to provide this to all, I believe it is a human right. In a world where, increasingly, cosmetic dentistry, plastic surgery, and $500 keratin treatments mark the boundaries of class, “Beauty for all!” sounds like a pretty good rallying cry to me.

The TeZhe was one of the most successful Soviet enterprises -- so successful that Stalin believed Polina a threat to his authority and sent her to the gulag. Polina and her cosmetics bureau are a symbol of the ideals of the revolution, of the Soviet state that might have been, of the dream of a society not only free of want, but with true freedom, human dignity and pleasure for all.