A Riddle, Wrapped in a Mystery, Inside an Enigma

Lana Peters, aka Svetlana Alliluyeva, daughter of Joseph Stalin, died last week in Wisconsin. Among the details of her life, the obituaries brought up the much repeated bit about her being the inspiration for a classic Soviet perfume, Svetlana’s Breath.

It’s one of those old chestnuts that makes those goofy Fun Facts or Unlikely Celebrity Perfumes lists.  Interesting, since according to Svetlana herself, Old Joe apparently hated perfume, both for patriotic and ideological reasons – though he did send the odd bottle of scent to Svetlana’s mother when he was away on business.

The whole idea of a first daughter’s perfume  prodded the researcher in me and I spent a good while on google trying to learn a little more.   As will happen, it raised more questions than it answered.  Chief of these, the fact that the perfume, as far as I can tell, is unmentioned on Russia.

The earliest citations in English I’ve been able to find on this is in  Harrison Salibury’s American in Russia. He was not alone. John Gunther writes in 1962 that “one story going around Moscow was that a perfume named for Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana, and known as “Svetlana’s Breath,” would be renamed “Moscow Nights.”   Irving R. Levine in his 1959 book Main Street U.S.S.R. just couldn’t stop himself from referring to the alleged fact that “Svetlana’s Breath, a perfume named after Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana, fell into bad odor and disappeared from cosmetic counters.”  The line was entered into the Congressional Record, which tells us more than we would like to know about the Cold War Congress.

Snideness came with the territory back in those days.  Another American journal  (Aviation Week, for the record) from the period dismissed it as being “sickly sweet”,  and a Briton who insinuates  it was  indistinguishable from vodka – but then, these are the same people who got the name wrong in the first place.

And what about the name?

Granted, perfume names are odd to begin with, but this seemed excessively so, especially against the more staid Soviet offerings like Red Moscow or White Acacia or, for the gentlemen, plain old Chipr.

Granted too, that my command of Russian would shame a Moscow three year old, but I came across a commentator at Metafilter who noted the oddness of the name in Russian and suggested that  it was a misunderstanding  of the language.    The word for perfume in Russian is  dukhi, which is the plural for dukh (spirit, ghost, scent, and yes, “breath”).    Thus, Svetlana’s Scent, or Svetlana’s Breath.

Problem is, although there once was a perfume in Russia called Svetlana (it appears on this long list of Russian perfumes),  good luck finding any Russian mention of Svetlana’s Breath.

One Russian blogger writes:  “My mother bought the perfume ‘Svetlana’.”  And there’s this fellow writing up a memorial to Svetlana. He believes the name was coincidental.

So – several Russian references to a Soviet perfume called simply Svetlana and several English language references to Svetlana’s Breath.   What gives?

We can only conjecture.   Perhaps Mr Salisbury saw a sign saying “Svetlana” perfume and prompted either by ignorance or by mischief mistranslated dukhi and fobbed it off on their readers and on posterity.  Possibly some Russian shop assistant with an imperfect command of English  had written a sign for non-Russian readers at a store catering to tourists  and came up with “Breath” from a Russian English dictionary, and none of the men mentioned above was able to correct it or interested in doing so.

Regardless how it happened,  what is missing from this story is any hard evidence of perfume itself. A picture of the bottle itself, and some Russian references from back in the fifties.  I’ve had no luck so far, which is a little odd given how widespread the stuff was supposed to have been.

So – I appeal to our Russian readers.   Can anyone clarify this matter once and for all?  Is there any hard evidence that the stuff was named for her?  Was it re-named Moscow Nights?  Is there a picture of the bottle, or bottles?  Can someone  describe the smell of it?

Any help would be greatly appreciated.

POST SCRIPT:  (All the work I put into this post (including a vain attempt to get cyrillic letters to appear) and this guy comes along does it a whole lot better. Had to happen, I suppose. Still, he leaves a few questions unanswered, so if anyone has any further insight, please let us know.)

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