Text: Ksenia Krushinskaya
Illustrations: Tim Jarjombeck
Something in the air
Perfumery critic and writer Ksenia Krushinskaya talks about how Moscow smells, what the railway has to do with it and how the smell of the residential areas differs from the smell of the Patriarch Ponds.
Le Labo perfume brand beloved by many has a whole product line dedicated to the smells of the cities. Paris smells of vanilla - weightless and almost not sweet; Dallas - of fresh sheets in the hotel, New York – of sprightly citrus and a bouquet of white flowers, London - of darkening smoky tree. Moscow smells of a mixture of benzoin warming notes (aroma is called Benjoin 19), amber, cedar and incense. All together it sounds weirdly familiar - it reminds of the warm, salty smell of railway stations, which, for some reason, seems especially strong in Moscow. For example, one day I just smelled the hair of my loved one and realized that he passed the railway station on his way to see me. The rail tracks do not have such a thick smell anywhere but in Moscow - although the creosote, a substance that seems to be responsible for this specific aroma, is used for the rail impregnation in most major cities of the world.
The creators of the Le Labo and perfumer Frank Voelkl (by the way, he also created the main bestseller of the Santal 33 brand some time ago) deserve applause. Their olfactory imprint of Moscow was surprisingly accurate. It also gives a reference to Tolstoy, who is always referred to when it comes to the "mysterious Russian soul". Founders of the Le Labo Fabrice Penot and Edouard Roschi claim that Benjoin 19 is dedicated to Anna Karenina, or rather, that scene in the novel where Anna meets Vronsky for the first time. As we remember it happened at the railway station in Moscow. So, in general, everything is no coincidence.
Of course, the smell of the railway can quite be a smell-symbol of the city, where millions of people were coming by trains for centuries. And millions of people left it, and far from always their locomotives moved towards a bright future. But still, Moscow is a metropolis - so it is unlikely that we can limit ourselves to one olfactory association - and we don’t want to. If you are born here or have lived here for a long time, the city consists of dozens of odors for you and dozens of architectural styles. Some of them, both smells and buildings, we adore, to some we are generously tolerant. There is some whiff which we squeamishly wince - just as we turn away with contempt from the monster made of glass and concrete, which grew up on the site of a demolished historian mansion.
ON PETROVKA, YOU WILL BE COVERED BY A TOM FORD PLUME; ON OSTOZHENKA YOU WILL BE POURED OVER BY SOMETHING BY KILIAN; ON MALAYA DMITROVKA YOU CAN TRY TO CATCH THE TRAIL OF ELUSIVE FLEUR NARCOTIQUE.
The color zones on this patchwork olfactory map change from district to district. At the metro station, if you do not live in the very center, you will be bathed in warm wave of the shawarma smell (as an option — grilled chicken) from the nearest street food point. The smell is dense, damp and so greasy that it seems as if the fat from the chicken skin is now covering the fur on your collar. Going down to the metro, you get through the smell of sewage for a couple of seconds (sometimes, if flowers are sold in the metro passage, it is bizarrely mixed with the smell of maroon roses and faded peonies). Then, once on the platform, and then on the train, you inhale a bizarre cacophony. It smells of eau de toilette, cologne, shaving cream, shampoo, someone's sweaty hair. In winter it is wet sheepskin coats, in summer - not fresh shirt collars. A lamb pasty that someone had hastily eaten for breakfast, and vodka, which his neighbor tossed off with a lonely dinner last night. There is a place in this dense air for the smell of shoe polish and face cream, chewing gum, coffee from a plastic cup, a brand-new leather bag and someone's hastily smoked menthol cigarette before going down to the passage.
You emerge from this underworld with a sigh of relief. Your further olfactory impressions depend on where the train actually took you. Residential areas smell of melted snow in winter, smoke from foliage in autumn; heated concrete, dusty (and sometimes wet because of rain or a street flusher) sidewalks in summer. And in spring - which in olfactory terms is the most beautiful time in Moscow - there is a smell of lilac, cherry and sometimes linden.
BUT OF COURSE IN STOLESHNIKOV, ON BOLSHAYA DMITROVKA, AND ON THE PATRIARCH PONDS BACCARAT ROUGE 540 REIGNES SUPREME IN THE LAST FEW YEARS
The city center is unlikely to please you with such a variety of natural flavors. You are more likely to catch the smell of steak from "Voronezh" or burnt coffee beans from "Kofix". And of course, in the air of expensive Moscow districts, dense clouds of niche perfumes float, sometimes mixing with each other, then pushing each other away, like bouncy balls in water. On Petrovka, you will be showered with a Tom Ford plume; on Ostozhenka you will be covered with something by Kilian; on Malaya Dmitrovka you can try to catch the trail of elusive Fleur Narcotique. But of course in Stoleshnikov, on Bolshaya Dmitrovka, and on the Patriarch Ponds (especially on the Patriarch Ponds!) for the last few years Baccarat Rouge 540 has reigned supreme. This presumptuously sweet, woody and slightly iodic smell (haters call it the smell of a ward of a purulent surgery department) comes from girls in voluminous beige coats, from fans of a healthy lifestyle in plush tracksuits, from stylists of fashion magazines and from their bosses. French perfumer with Armenian roots Francis Kurkdjian, while inventing a fragrance for the anniversary of the Baccarat Crystal House five years ago, did not realize that he was about to give Moscow a real fragrance of the era. Perhaps if I had to leave the city forever and was allowed to take a piece of its air with me, this air would have a mix of creosote, flowering lime, shawarma, someone's new leather briefcase, warm dust on the asphalt in the yard. And of course, a small piece of Baccarat Rouge 540.