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Murmansk Letter: Northern Lights brighten prospects for Arctic’s biggest city

Russia’s land of the midnight sun said to have inspired creator of Chanel No. 5

Sitting inside the Arctic Circle almost 2,000km north of Moscow, the city of Murmansk feels far from almost everywhere in Europe, and certainly from the glittering fashion houses of Paris and grand French Riviera perfumeries of Grasse.

Yet memories of this region are said to have inspired Ernest Beaux to create the scent that became Chanel No. 5, after the Moscow-born perfumer settled in France following the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 and Russian civil war.

It was in Grasse in 1920 that he met Coco Chanel, apparently through her then companion, Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, an exiled Russian nobleman who had participated in the murder four years earlier of Grigory Rasputin, the peasant mystic who wielded dubious influence over the family of the last tsar, Nikolai II.

Beaux had succeeded his father as head perfumer of Alphonse Rallet & Co, purveyor to the Russian court, and then served in the French military during the first World War and later in an Allied "intervention" force that entered northern Russia when the Bolsheviks withdrew from the conflict after ousting the tsar.


Beaux was among tens of thousands of Allied troops who were sent to Russia to prevent the Germans seizing military stores and establishing bases in the far north, and who also took part in the country’s post-revolution civil war by helping the White Army fight the Bolsheviks.

That effort was doomed, but Beaux is quoted as saying in a 1946 lecture that his sojourn in Arctic Russia remained vividly with him on the sunny Cote d’Azur.

‘Characteristic scent’

“I am asked when I created Chanel No. 5. It was in 1920, just after I returned from the war. Part of my military campaign was spent in northern Europe, beyond the Arctic Circle, during the time of the midnight sun when the lakes and rivers exude a special freshness. I kept this characteristic scent in my memory, and after a lot of effort and work I managed to recreate it.”

Beaux also served in the northern Russian city of Arkhangelsk and at an infamous camp for Bolshevik prisoners on Mudyug island, but they are not inside the Arctic Circle – prompting Murmansk to claim the link to Chanel No. 5 for itself.

Murmansk is barely older than the famous perfume, having been officially founded in 1916 on an ice-free bay where Allies could deliver wartime supplies to Russia.

It was the last city founded by Imperial Russia, and was originally named Romanov-on-Murman, combining the names of the ill-fated royal family and this stretch of coastline on the Barents Sea.

Local historians say many foreign workers helped build the city – where the sun does not rise above the horizon for several weeks in winter, and does not set for a similar spell in summer – and its own small Chinatown even emerged in the 1920s.

Chinese tourists

A century on, the Arctic's biggest city and the surrounding Kola Peninsula were experiencing a remarkable boom in Chinese tourist numbers before the coronavirus pandemic struck.

In 2019, almost a quarter of Murmansk's 67,000 foreign visitors came from China – some 16,000 people, compared to just 167 in 2013 – and a significant portion of the rest came from other Asian states.

The rise coincided with a sharp weakening of the rouble and a promotion campaign by Murmansk tourist officials who realised how many Chinese were looking for a relatively cheap way to see this region’s greatest natural wonder – the Northern Lights.

“They have a lot of legends associated with the Northern Lights – that they bring luck and happiness to you and your children,” explains Kostya, a taxi driver in Murmansk, which is home to some 300,000 people.

Local guides now offer “aurora hunting” nights, using weather and geomagnetic activity forecasts to find the best place and time to view the aurora borealis.

“The pandemic hasn’t been too bad for business. More Russian visitors have started coming, and domestic tourism might be the only sector that’s getting real government help,” says Alex, a guide in Murmansk. “Along with the port and the military, it’s now an important source of jobs in Murmansk.”

Glossy brochures in Russian, English and Chinese offer visitors husky-sled rides, visits to an indigenous Sami village, ski and snowmobile trips, and also excursions to Teriberka, the fishing outpost where Andrei Zvyagintsev set his acclaimed 2014 film Leviathan – and which served as a symbol of corruption, decay and despair in modern Russia.

“Lots of Chinese tourists really love Teriberka,” says another driver, Andrei. “To see the Northern Lights over the Arctic Ocean – that’s their dream.”