Thursday, December 01, 2011

The Real Svetlana's Breath

The original Svetlana

Svetlana Alliluyeva, Stalin's daughter, died on 22 November 2011. She had a long and, at times, troubled life. A Kremlin princess until Stalin's death in 1953, in 1967 she defected to the USA, an event that was a big propaganda coup for the West. (see video below, wiki about her here).

There is a persistent myth linked with her name. At least I think it's a myth. The myth that there was a Soviet perfume named after her.

It was probably started by an American journalist's mention in the 1950s feature and found its way into other publications, including serious studies of Russia, and in a bounce-flash, is now mentioned, as fact, in Russian press. (See this article, which also includes videos about Alliluyeva.)

One blogger's obituary says: 'Growing up, she was a beloved celebrity in her home country. Thousands of girls were named after her. So was a bestselling perfume.'

The obituary links to an article from Russia by the AP Women's Editor Dorothy Roe. It is dated December 1957 and says: 'Just recently Russia started manufacturing perfume, the most expensive and prized of which is called 'Svetlana's Breath' – Svetlana is Stalin's daughter, you know'.

The American article is uncomplimentary about conditions of life for Russian women. But the correspondent obviously did an honest job walking around, observing and interviewing people. The year 1957 was an exciting time in Russia. Khrushchev has just denounced Stalin's crimes, Sputnik was launched and the International Youth Festival created an atmosphere of incredible openness and optimistic outlook. Khrushchev and Eisenhower were looking for a way to end the cold war.

The Moscow perfume factory, 'Novaya Zarya' – New Dawn, founded 1884, (link to their official web-site, small wiki article in Russian here), did indeed make a perfume called 'Svetlana', not 'Svetlana's Breath'. It is mentioned, for example, in this overview of the factory's products as one of its top quality brands. Either the correspondent misunderstood the name of the brand, or the interviewee made a joke about Stalin's personality cult that was lost in translation.

The trap here, for a translator – and a journalist, is in the word дух – spirit, ghost, which also means smell, scent. In fact, Pushkin played on the word in the introduction to the poem Ruslan and Lyudmila: "Там русский дух, там Русью пахнет" – "there is the Russian spirit, it smells of Russia there". Dahl's dictionary (словарь Даля), the biggest collection of Russian words, gives the whole range of meanings in an article on дух (link to Vasmer's etymological dictionary on dukh, which in turn links to major Russian dictionaries, click on Dahl). Дух is cognate with душа (soul) and дыхание (breath) but духи in plural with the stress on the last syllable has only one meaning – perfume.
The name of the perfume, after Khrushchev's 1956 denunciation of Stalin, is unlikely to have been linked to Svetlana Alliluyeva, but, I am almost sure, is a reference to 'Lullaby for Svetlana', a hit number from the musical "Давным-давно" – 'Long Time Ago' (play by Alexander Gladkov, music by Tikhon Khrennikov). In 1962 Eldar Ryazanov made a film version, "Гусарская баллада" ('The Hussar Ballad). Svetlana is the name of the doll belonging to the main character Alexandra (Shurochka). She sings the lullaby 'Sleep, my Svetlana' before running away from home to join, disguised as a hussar, the Russian army fighting Napoleon in 1812.

The play was written in 1941, just before Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union, and staged for the first time in 1942 in Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg), where many Moscow organizations were evacuated. Scenes and musical numbers from the play were broadcast over the national radio. It has remained a signature production for the Central Army Theatre in Moscow ever since. Its patriotic theme was apt for the time and the catchy tunes are still, seventy years on, popular.

My grandmother and mother, a little girl then, were also evacuated to Sverdlovsk – and my mother had a doll there called Svetlana. That's where my sister later got her name from. I didn't know about the doll, mother only told me the other day when I mentioned the death of Svetlana Alliluyeva. My mother doesn't remember the perfume, nor the play from those times, but she and my grandmother may have seen it then.

The name Svetlana in the play might have been 'inspired' by Stalin's daughter, but would have been linked to the poet Vasily Zhukovsky's 1808-1812 romantic ballad 'Svetlana' based on Gottfried Burger's Lenore (wiki on Lenore). Zhukovsky did another version of Lenore titled 'Lyudmila'. Both Svetlana (meaning the Light One) and Lyudmila (Beloved by the People) remain two of the most popular pre-Christian Russian women's names. It is possible that Stalin's daughter was named after Zhukovsky's heroine. While 'thousands of girls named after Stalin's daughter' is obviously what was happening at the height of his cult, the name had its own life, separate from Stalin.

Stalin's daughter or not, the lines from Zhukovsky's ballad "О, не знай сих страшных снов, Светлана" – 'Oh, never shall you know those terrible dreams, Svetlana' are widely known, and during the Stalin period would have had certain reverberations – abduction, having a dead man for a groom, trying to figure out your fate and then waking up from a bad dream.

Novaya Zarya has a long tradition of giving their perfumes women names with romantic connotations. In the 70s one of the popular brands – which I remember buying myself – was called 'Natasha', possibly after Tolstoy's Natasha Rostova. One of their current brands is 'Yelena'. My theory about 'Svetlana' perfume could only be confirmed by evidence from the Novaya Zarya archives or by someone who remembers how the name was assigned. For now, I simply offer this as a theory.

The Hussar's Ballad can be seen on YouTube in full. The lullaby scene begins at 22 min. (Embedding is disabled, copyright is owned by Mosfilm). RuTube has a clip with the lullaby:

Here Svetlana Alliluyeva speaks at the press-conference after her defection in 1967:

Picture, an illustration to Zhukovsky's poem: Karl Brullov, Svetlana's Magic Fortunetelling, 1836, o/c, 94 x 81 cm, Art Museum of Nizhny Novgorod.

Special thanks to Languagehat for the prompt to make this post.

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