. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russians Revel in the New Scents of a Woman

Ten years ago, when you saw a beautiful woman on the street with an alluring scent trailing behind her, chances were that you knew what that scent was.

For more than 70 years, Soviet women were limited to about a dozen domestically produced scents. You knew if you didn't get Red Moscow perfume on your birthday, you were likely to get Scythian Gold. Whatever you were dabbing behind your ears at the mirror was likely to be just what the woman beside you was dabbing behind hers. Imported perfume, especially from France, required connections and money.

"It was a real event when a new perfume appeared in stores," said 50-year old Irina Gaidukova. "I remember buying International Women's Day when it came out in the 1970s. A woman stopped me in the metro to ask me what perfume I was wearing. When she learned it was a completely new scent, she almost jumped for joy."

But now Russian women are reveling in the sweet smells of the new perfumes available to them, most of them imported from the West. What was once seen as decadent and bourgeois has given women a new freedom to adorn themselves with the scents of their choice.

"I try all the new perfumes that come on the market here," said Elena Kosikova. "I collect them. I even have a special shelf at home where I display the beautiful bottles. I have realized that perfume can transform my mood and my image of myself in a way no outfit can. I would rather spend 500,000 rubles [$88] on a new perfume than on a dress."

In the past five years, the market for imported cosmetics has blossomed in Russia, and women can choose from the dozens of scents that are displayed in kiosks along with vodka, cigarettes and chocolates. More than 90 percent of the products are imported.

"My mother used to be willing to spend her month's salary on an imported perfume in Soviet times," said Galina Uvarova, a shopper at the Lancome store in GUM. "I feel the same way about perfume. But it is easier for me to spoil myself. I can always find a new and exciting perfume to buy these days."

And even though brand-name imported perfumes are about 1 1/2 times more expensive in Russia than they are in Western Europe and the United States, women are willing to buy them. The volume of perfume and cosmetic sales has grown from $79 million in 1992 to around $150 million in 1996, according to New Found Quality, one of the largest advertising agencies in Russia.

Western perfume makers and distributors at the recent World Parfum Expo in Moscow said Russian women buy Western perfume because they consider it the best and feel good about treating themselves to this luxury item.

"Even if Russians started to produce excellent perfume, and selling it at half the price of imported items, women here would still not buy it. Women do not look for bargains when they buy perfume. It is like buying gold-plated jewelry instead of real gold," said Mark Kapustin, general manager of the perfumes and cosmetics division of Haliton, proudly standing behind his display of sparkling perfume bottles.

"Attitudes toward perfume in Russia have changed dramatically," he added. "Women have realized that a new perfume is as much of a fashion statement as a new dress or hat. Our customers are always asking for new products. They have grown accustomed to the exciting variety of scents that have become available to them."

Indeed, experts said, not just the perfume market, but the whole body culture has gone through a revolution in the past five years. In Soviet times, many people did not use deodorant because it was not easily available. Smelling earthy in a country of workers and peasants was admirable, while masking these odors was viewed as decadent. Women used the limited array of domestic perfumes -- often mixing them together to make them more exciting -- not necessarily to enhance their mood or beauty, but to conceal unpleasant smells.

"My friend stole her mother's Climat when we were in high school," said Kosikova. "We took it to the girls' bathroom and dabbed this expensive French perfume under our arms because we were sweaty. When I think about that today, it makes me cringe."

Distributors and merchants at the perfume expo said the influx of perfume imports has meant sour times for the domestic perfume industry, which used to be all-powerful in dictating the scents available to the average consumer. Now, it's often as difficult to find such classic Russian scents as Red Moscow, Scythian Gold or Queen of Spades as it was to find coveted French perfumes during Soviet times.

Many perfume shops in Moscow do not carry Russian perfume because their managers do not feel that Russian scents could ever compete successfully with Western perfumes.

"The French have been making the best perfumes in the world for centuries," said Alexei Sokolnikov, an employee of Magazin Parfyumeria on Novy Arbat. "Our women finally have access to the best. Women who come into this store never ask for domestic perfumery products."

Elena Ernandes, executive secretary of the Perfumery and Cosmetics Association of Russia, said that the Russian perfume production industry is subject to the same financial slump as many of the other production sectors in the country.

"Most perfume producers cannot afford to develop new scents, let alone advertise them," she said. "Even such large perfume makers as Novaya Zarya and Svoboda cannot compete with Western perfume makers in advertising. They simply do not have the funds."

For that reason, the association, which was founded in 1996, plans to lobby the government to protect the Russian perfume and cosmetics market from Western competition.

But perfume industry experts said a perfume is more than just a smell. It's an image -- often created largely through advertising -- that tells a woman how she could change herself by changing her scent, and Russian women are deciding they want their images to come from the West.

"When a woman looks for a new scent, she wants to be transformed," said Kapustin. "Advertising campaigns for perfumes are about such transformations. The sultry Chanel, the innocent Anais Anais, the perfectly sophisticated 24, Faubourg -- creating them took not only the creation of the scent, but also the design of the bottle and the fashioning of an image women want to associate with themselves."

Nadezhda Vasilyeva, head of the new products division at the Moscow-based Novaya Zarya factory, said competing with such perfume makers as Christian Dior, Lancome and Chanel is not realistic for even the largest perfume factory in Russia, which churns out classic Russian scents like Red Moscow.

"We cannot afford to launch a fine fragrance. That is not our specialty," she said.

But despite the array of Western choices now available at many kiosks and stores, some Russian women still enjoy the classic Russian warhorses of scents.

Oksana Kornilova, a 23-year-old sales clerk at a perfume kiosk at the Savyolovsky train station, said Scythian Gold is one of her favorites.

"I have tried all the French, Italian, and American perfumes. Five years ago, it was a real thrill to suddenly have such a variety of perfumes. Now I find the heavier, sultry scent of Scythian Gold particularly appropriate for the Moscow winter. It wraps you like a fur coat," she said.