The Odour of Europe: Western Smells in Russian Context

Dmitrii Zakharine, University of Konstanz

The sense of smell became an object of research not long ago (Corbin). Since the Enlightenment smell has been regarded as the lowest level at the hierarchy of sences. Civilization produced concert halls and art galleries, but no museums of smell.

Using the principles of New Historicism (Greenblatt) and Annales (Aries, Chartier, Braudel), we are going to compare the Russian smell policy with its European prototypes.

According to Freud, smell does not play any role in sexual relationships of human beings and is replaced by vision at the early stages of human development. However, Freud's statement contradicts the data of social research. Perfumes made from anal and sexual secretions of animals, amber and musk were the integral part of sexual activity in Europe in the 17th century. In Russian baths at that time musk was also a very common aphrodisiac (Bachmann 1824, Breuer 1832, Pochhammer 1824). Smell was a sign of presence, a reference to memory and power.

Animal smells disappeared in Europe under the influence of the English sentimental fashion. The new urban space, being considered a "natural" one, presupposed a high olfactory sensitivity. As a remainder of English "pleasure gardens", lavender and thyme became the basic "cultural" smells at that time. Russian culture was not unaware of these changes, but experienced them later than the Western world. This delay has usually been considered by the Europeans as a "lack of culture" (Herberstein 1526, Fletcher 1591, Petreius de Erlesunda 1605, Olearius 1656, de Custine 1825 etc.).

Russia joined the new, culturally-oriented system of smells only in the 19th century. To illustrate this statement, the last part of the paper is devoted to the "olfactory" analysis of texts by Gogol' ("The Inspector General", "Evenings on a Farm near Dikan'ka), Tolstoj (Anna Karenina), Saltykov-Shchedrin ("The Tale of The One City"), Dostoevskii (Poor Folk), Chexov ("The Cherry Orchard", "The Seagull", "Three Sisters"). Some statistical information on the use of different smell designations will be provided.