Sophie Pinkham is a writer on Russian and Ukrainian culture and politics. Her articles have appeared in The New Yorker, the New York Times, n+1, the London Review of Books, and Foreign Affairs, among other publications. Her new book is Black Square: Adventures in Post-Soviet Ukraine published by Norton.
Echo and the Bunnymen, “The Killing Moon,” Ocean Rain, 1984.
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By Sean — 8 years ago
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.Post Views: 1,136
By Sean — 5 years ago
This week’s Russia! Magazine column, “Russia’s Real Middle Class,”
When protests erupted in Moscow in December 2011, pundits held them up as the Russian middle class finally finding its political voice. Press reports, like in the New York Times, described “well traveled and well mannered” throngs of “young urban professionals” clad in “hipster glasses” denouncing fraudulent elections, corruption, and Putin. The Times, like many others, emphasized that the emergence of this newly politicized middle class was not without a measure of irony. They were the sons and daughters of the economic successes of very system they were protesting. Then as now the Russian middle class are viewed as the most revolutionary. They after all were fulfilling the historicist truism that “economic growth can inadvertently undermine autocratic rule by creating an urban professional class that clamors for new political rights.”And this assertion, too, is not without irony either. Journalists and pundits, who almost universally reject Marxist theories of revolution, still embrace one of Marx’s key maxims from the Manifesto: “The bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part.”
There are many problems with this historical teleology. Russia’s middle classes have yet to fulfill its historical mission. Its revolting ranks have atrophied as members of the so-called “creative class” have retreated back into hipsterdom. Many, of course, will point to Putin’s heavy fist as the main culprit. They would perhaps be a quarter right. The government crackdown, an aimless opposition, and the banality of street rallies have all worked in concert to deflate the protests. But there’s another cause for Russia’s middle class political doldrums. The middle class aren’t the savvy upwardly mobile urban professionals desiring political change as many thought. Rather, the Russian middle class has stagnated economically, isn’t growing, and its ranks are being dominated by state bureaucrats and employees of the security organs. This class is not looking for change, but desires above all security and stability. Rather than remake Russia into their own image, this class likes things just as they are.
Image: M. Stulov/VedomostiPost Views: 339
By Sean — 7 months ago