Smelly Russia

There is something uncanny about smells in Russia.  Not just the musty vapors that arise from the unwashed or improperly deodorized metro rider next to you.  Stink is just a fact of metropolitan life.  It’s the supposed “good” smells that are the most troublesome.  Walking down a metro platform makes you an open target for a waft of strong perfume from Russian women.  Their faux scent can be so strong that you wonder if they bathe in eau de Cologne or carry bottles of it in their enormous handbags for quarterly douses. But even the strong stench of cheap perfume is somewhat normal . . .

What isn’t “normal” is the plethora of scented toilet paper, tissue and overly scented soaps and lotions.  When I first got to Moscow three weeks ago, one of the first trips to the market was to purchase a package of toilet paper.  Toilet paper here is a serious purchase.  One must find a brand that doesn’t feel like cardboard and doesn’t disintegrate on touch.  The three-ply, bouncy, thick and fluffy rolls that populate the shelves at Target (or whatever might be your favorite American box store) just don’t exist.  The Charmin squeeze test is an essential practice when making your choice. What I didn’t expect and discovered when I got home is that the toilet paper is scented.  That’s right, scented.  In fact, the vast majority of the asswipe has a manufactured smell added to it.  There is paper in vanilla, strawberry, some kind of flower smell, and an assortment of “fresh” smells.  Now why the hell would some one want scented toilet paper?   Especially if its just going to be used to wipe the smelliest thing humans produce.  Am I missing something and the paper also serves as air freshener?  And what about concerns of chemical irritation?

The same goes with tissue.  I bought one of those ten packs of tissue paper unaware that it has “Aroma” stamped on the front.  I didn’t notice because I didn’t look. I didn’t look because I didn’t think to. Now I get a scent of fake strawberry every time I blow my nose.

Smell, it seems, is cultural.  I already discovered that this is the case for taste.  For example, in America everything has more sugar–yogurt, juice, ice cream, cake, chocolate–than its equivalents elsewhere.  Apparently, in Russia products have more smell.  It is not Russian companies that are selling products with more smell.  International corporations like Kleenex, Dove et al, are producing scented items for a particular Russian market.  For example, I brought a bottle of Dove “Go Fresh” cucumber and green tea body wash from the States.  The other day I bought another Dove “Go Fresh” at my local market.  The same brand, same bottle (though the Russian version is smaller.  This is another difference: Americans like their products BIG.).  Totally different strength of smell.  The American version is a slight fake cucumber and green tea aroma.  The Russian version pierces your lungs to the point of choking.

There is a new topic for all your Russianists out there: The history of smell in Russia.  There is already such a book for France: Alain Corbin’s The Foul and Fragrant: Order and the French Social Imagination.  Given my recent experience, it’s high time for a similar cultural history for Russia.