We have evoked scents of Imperial Russia before in these pages, but the recent triumph of Vladimir Putin at the polls has awakened memories of the Russia I knew in the 1970’s when I travelled on different occasions to Moscow, Leningrad, the Crimea and the outer wastes of Siberia across the frozen wastes of Lake Baikal. Every country has its own definitive smell: can anyone define the smell of England? Being a native I am maddeningly immune to it, as one so often is to one’s signature scent. But once abroad, the indigenous smells bombard me like a Battle of the Flowers. Syria was a fog of intense night-flowering jasmine and aromatic woodsmoke, undercut with diesel fumes and wafts of Chanel 19 exuded by the cafe boss at the Crusader castle of Krak des Chevaliers. Egypt in June was burning dust, sweet bursting fruits and dried animal dung. Tunisia was the sickly sweet, slightly headachey scent of oleanders, datura lilies and a curious but ubiquitous floral disinfectant. Russia… ah, Russia was then very potent; and as I have not returned in 30 years I should be greatly intrigued to know whether the ambience has changed with the fall of Communism. Let us know, world travellers.
In those days, it hit you as soon as you boarded Aeroflot, and only intensified on landing: waves of a warm mellow mature smell that somehow complemented the ubiquitous maroon of the furnishings and the hostesses’ uniforms. “Musky-tusky” was one passenger’s apt description – something like an old warm loft, filled with sunshine of a hundred summers, sweet hay and the golden scent of just slightly over-ripe apples. And of course, the tang of traditional Russian cigarettes in their rolled card holders. There was something animalic in there, too, from the winter furs in which nearly all the locals were swathed. To begin with we were slightly taken aback by the speed and firmness with which all our outdoor clothes were removed in every public bulding to vast beautifully ordered cloakroooms; then our darling Intourist guide explained in her purring English that many furs tended to be “ah…not so well cured…”, a condition to which the warmth of theatres, museums and restaurants drew unwelcome attention. A delicious scent of oranges blended in too, at the opera and ballet: the old Imperial box at the Maryinsky Theatre was still fitted out in walnut and blue velvet; crammed not with Grand Dukes and Duchesses, but ladies straight from the factories bringing vast string bags full of fruit and the occasional bottle of “Red Poppy” (Krasnya Mak) the only scent I ever saw on sale. Thickly oleaginous it was, a sweet powdery even chalky floral apparently macerated in petrol.
Each dim hotel landing was the domain of a (usually) elderly lady who sat at a desk at the top of the stairs and monitored all the comings and goings. She also, if so disposed, supplied tea,dispensed lavatory paper and extra blankets, if tactfully handled (individual pages of Vogue, biros and lipsticks being the preferred currency). These ladies never seemed to go off duty, night or day but kept up their vigilance fuelled by the samovar and tangy dishes of salted lemons, pickled herrings and cucumbers brought from the cosy little buffets that were to be found on every other floor of the big hotels. These buffets also sold tiny delicious cakes – shells of pastry filled with vanilla, chocolate and coffee cream, exactly as one imagined the delicacies stuffed with arsenic that were offered to Rasputin by his royal murderer, Yussopov.
Through Siberia, heaped with snow and such intense cold that the breath froze to crystals as one exhaled and the sense of smell was numbed. Expect this in very cold weather: your skin lacks warmth, there is not sufficient heat for perfume oils to open and evaporate. (I remember a damp freezing December in Berlin and going to a round of birthday parties, all curiously devoid of smell due to this phenonemon; and the new bottle of scent I had brought with me quite wasted). In Novosibirsk, a fried fish restaurant where emaciated waitresses leaned against the walls and coughed their lungs out; to the circus, full of sawdust and hot greasepaint: and thus aboard the Trans Siberian where passengers wore pyjamas for the duration; the perspiring cook, stripped to the waist, ladled out bear stew in the galley; and we settled our stomachs with a fragrant bottled honey drink the name of which loosely translated as “Bee Juice”.
And finally to the hot semi-tropical lushness of Yalta and the Crimea: a stomach upset treated by a tumblerful of boiling vodka, in which was dissolved black pepper and a knob of butter. It worked too: vodka has great medicinal properties. Years later when half-dead of food poisoning in Uzbekhistan, all alone with a bottle of Jicky, I was swabbed down by a charitable cleaner with a floorcloth sopped in vodka from what looked like a milk bottle. The beginnings of my recovery dated from that moment. The waterfront at Yalta was lined with marvellous flowering trees (never identified) covered with pink blossoms which looked and smelled like scoops of strawberry ice cream. A bronzed Dutch lady in a marvellous swimming costume covered in michaelmas daisies was invariably scented with Caron‘s Fleurs de Rocailles, its delicate notes of lilac and violet shimmering and transparent in the damp heat. We choked in acrid smoke from a burnt rainy barbecue on the Fairy Picnic: and I recall a magnificent oriental tea-party after a tour of Catherine the Great’s palace (airless and dusty: someone fainted) at the Fountain of Tears. A spread worthy of the Empress: rose petal jam, glasses of what smelled and tasted like Tia Maria, and sugar-coated jam doughnuts, served up in a conservatory filled with palms and scarlet hibiscus.
But weaving in and out of all this kaleidoscope of colour,taste and scent, there were always those musky apples in the background, like a miasma. I wonder if its still there….
Image from wayfaring.info