It’s summer 2017, and I’m standing with my mom in a supermarket in Yerevan, Armenia. She is an immigrant who left the former Soviet Socialist Republics when she was 10 years old; I’m a first-generation Armenian-American, born in Los Angeles. We’re fixed in place, staring at a tall wall stocked with a rainbow-colored assortment of beauty and grooming products. There’s Garnier, Malibu C, L’Oréal Paris and Dove. Micellar water, hair dye, suntan lotion, and hundreds of types of moisturizer. The packaging is mostly familiar, except the branding is in Russian, not English. My mom is borderline emotional over this very ordinary display. “When I was here,” she says, “we had none of this.”
In the Soviet Union, we didn’t have… is a familiar narrative, one I’ve grown up hearing. For some, like my late grandfather, it was a lamentation of good days gone by. It was also a refutation of American excess, and a general guilt-trip where possible, even though five-year-old me had nothing to do with which days I had off from school, for example, or why trash was picked up on Fridays in one part of the neighborhood and not until Monday in others. (“In the Soviet Union, everyone had the same days off.”) For others, including my mom, it’s a good riddance to a failed utopia, an unbelievable time in history that featured one of humanity’s most ambitious social experiments to date, one that resulted in the sacrifice of the individual for the benefit of the collective whole.
“In the Soviet Union,” my present-day mom says, about the relatively recent abundance of choice in the drugstore aisles, “you went to the store and, if the shelves were even stocked, you only had one choice — one kind of toothpaste, one moisturizer, maybe three soaps.”
“There weren’t any brands. The government was the brand.”
If you’re unfamiliar with the structure of the U.S.S.R., think of it like the fictional country of Panem in The Hunger Games. The capital was in Russia, and its “districts” were the Soviet Socialist Republics of Georgia, Armenia, Ukraine, Estonia, Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, and most of the countries whose names ended in -stan. By government-set tenets, all worked together to supply goods and products that would be distributed across the Union. This is what’s known as a planned economy, a closed system that rejects foreign imports or private enterprises that pose as competition. This applied to everything from bread and meat to perfumes and powders.
The Supreme Council of the National Economy, located in Moscow, set dictums and edicts, determined priorities and values. The government organization assigned facilities and manpower to produce specific commodities or products which would then be distributed throughout the rest of the Union.
It also controlled the flow of goods, determining how much of a thing would go to which place and when. Azerbaijan drilled for oil while Georgia made wine. Ukraine mined coal and Latvia housed automotive factories. Armenia distilled brandy and supplied rose, geranium, and apricot extracts, two endemic botanicals shipped to Moscow where they were used in the production of soap.
You went to the store and, if the shelves were even stocked, you only
had one choice — one kind of toothpaste, one moisturizer, maybe three
“What were the brands?” I ask my mother. She looks at me like I skipped communism day in school. “There weren’t any brands,” she says. “The government was the brand.” I try to envision a store full of self-identifying products, like American government cheese just labeled “cheese.” A 1964 Armenian comedy called Lipstick #4 illustrates a similar concept.
“All Soviet skin-care products and most soaps were produced in Russia at one of two factories, like Novaya Zarya,” Anahit Markosian, the ex-pat physicist cofounder of Nairian, Armenia’s first all-natural skin-care line and first beauty brand. “Because the organic chemistry industry wasn’t yet developed in the Soviet Union, these factories used a lot of natural components to create bulk personal-care items. It wasn’t fancy, but it was natural.” When chemicals became more sophisticated, the Union designated a factory in Latvia to produce fast, cheap synthetic products.
The concept of natural beauty was taken entirely literally
The Soviet Union also had ideas about how a woman should be. Magazines like Rabotnitsa (“working woman”) and Krestyanka (“peasant woman”), with millions of issues in circulation, published skin-care tips, sewing and knitting patterns, and articles about the home. They also served as powerful government propaganda, enforcing the official stance that cosmetically-enhanced feminine beauty was not patriotic. Researcher and author Lynn Attwood writes in her 1999 book, Creating the New Soviet Woman, “Cosmetics, according to one Rabotnitsa article, were unnecessary and harmful, blocking the pores and causing young girls to spoil their skin and lose the youthful, natural colour of their faces.’”
This video from The Cut hits the right general notes (as paraphrased by me) that Stalin hated makeup and loyalty to your Union made you all the more beautiful, something most women seemed to take to heart judging by collections of images spanning those decades, with barefaced women sporting handkerchiefs over their natural hair. Perhaps this was because they genuinely felt it, or because they didn’t have any other choice. Any hint of style or glamour denoted bourgeois aspirations, which were loudly denounced in a society focused on industrialization and agriculture.
There were also fashion magazines that came from Moscow (“Those were very nice and glossy but difficult to get,” Markosian recalls), and even a feminist publication called Kommunistka that refuted the idea of woman as a domestic figure and explored such taboo topics as abortion and sexuality.
There were not, however, any makeup tutorials or advertisements for lipstick in any of the pages. “The first time I saw a women’s magazine in the U.S., I was surprised how many commercials there were, much more than substance,” says Markosian. “In the Soviet, it was the other way around: all substance, no ads.”
The main beauty market was a black market
Of course, just because the magazines focused on “natural beauty” didn’t mean beauty products didn’t exist. All of the women I spoke to or surveyed mentioned a nebulous, informal black market that relied on tourists coming into the country with goods, or businesspeople leaving the country with permission, then smuggling things back in. Of the few imports allowed into the country, French brands like Lancôme and Yves Saint Laurent did come up frequently, but the consensus was that these goods were intended for diplomats’ wives. If you were just a civilian visiting Moscow, you might get lucky and find something on a shelf in a government-run store. But in Armenia? #Nomakeup was the general way of life. As my mother tells me: “We didn’t know what we were missing.”
My mother took her beauty cues from my grandmother, who had only
a bottle of the U.S.S.R.’s signature Red Moscow perfume and a bottle
of nail polish in the only color available.
But nine-year-olds don’t usually wear makeup, so maybe my mom was too young to know what she was missing. I looked to my former piano teacher, Marine Ter-Kazarian, an accomplished professor and operatic performer, to confirm. “What was your relationship like with makeup when you lived in Armenia?” I ask. “I was 17 when we left,” she replies. “I wasn’t wearing makeup there.” When pressed for memories on products, she mentions a popular cucumber lotion (colloquially called lossion) that they put on a cotton ball and applied to the face, and that women dipped their hair rollers in beer to help make the curls hold. Her recollections echo my mother’s, who says she remembers women dying their hair with black market henna since commercially-produced dyes were not available.
Markosian tells me that she remembers the hottest item on the black market being Lancôme mascara. If they were in a position to do so, women would buy dozens to distribute amongst friends and family. From 1921 through 1991, the rest of the world saw the birth of Maybelline New York, Jergen’s, Noxzema, Neutrogena, Almay, Clairol, Clinique, La Prairie, Coty, Estée Lauder, Clearasil, Shiseido, Mary Kay, Revlon, Dermalogica, M.A.C., and hundreds more brands that collectively produced many thousands of products, none of which made it to the Soviet states.
The strict walls that shielded Soviet denizens from the West and the rest of the world started seeing cracks, however, when the American National Exhibition came to Moscow in 1959, showing off such tantalizing capitalist advancements as dishwashers. In the coming decades, as the regime transitioned from Khrushchev to Brezhnev, a rough period of stagnation turned into an epidemic of malaise, with plummeting production and productivity rates.
Little by little, Armenia became like everywhere else.
A 1981 report filed with the Library of Congress touches on the shortages, which presented the “notoriously poor quality and narrow assortment of Soviet consumer goods and services” as being difficult to properly analyze since “the erratic, primitive distribution system and random shortages make shopping difficult for Soviet consumers.”
After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, global beauty brands slowly started trickling in through the now-open borders. Before she left Armenia to pursue a software-engineering career in Silicon Valley in 1993, Markosian remembers seeing Procter & Gamble, Oil of Olay, and Old Spice in the markets. Duty-free luxury products like Givenchy and Sisley landed at a new high-end chain called Rouge.
“There was some cheap, counterfeit stuff from Turkey, some plant-based cosmetics coming in from Russia and sold at the pharmacy. Vichy, a French brand, appeared here and there,” Markosian recalls. “Little by little, Armenia became like everywhere else.”
Armenia’s beauty industry has only just emerged as recently as within the past 10 years
While the country recovered from decades of being told what to do, a feeling of impossibility pervaded. Few Armenian enterprises emerged in the decades following the collapse, accounting for the country’s low GDP, which ranks it, still, at 138 out of 195 countries in the world.
I always thought it was a shame Armenia didn’t have a beauty industry,
especially considering we have all the necessary raw materials.
Markosian, who frequently traveled from America to her home country, found a lack of natural beauty products available there. A pregnancy-related side effect had left her sensitive to synthetic smells, so she’d developed a hobby in essential oils and natural fragrances. “Every time I went to Armenia, I would bring a suitcase full of my creams,” she says. “I always thought it was a shame we didn’t have a beauty industry, especially considering we have all the necessary raw materials.”
In 2013, Markosian’s brand Nairian became the first skin-care line founded in Armenia, made with many organic and natural Armenian botanicals harvested from sprawling fields located in the highlands just outside Yerevan: Tarragon, lemon basil, garden sage, calendula, and rose hip, to name a few. There’s a beautiful boutique in the city center, just off of Freedom Square. The products are also available to purchase online, which seems unremarkable until you think about the Soviet Union, about the limitations and restrictions, the boundaries put up against trade, the squelching of entrepreneurialism, and the rejection of frivolous femininity. The brand touts its apricot-based Night Serum as a best-seller.
In modern-day Armenia, Nairian remains the only Armenian-made beauty brand. There are now M.A.C. stores and junk shops stuffed with knockoffs, including beauty products by arguably the most famous Armenian, Kim Kardashian West. There are imports not just from America, but from around the world, including Miniso, a Japanese store that features a dizzying array of goods. If you walk down the capital’s streets, you see signs of capitalism everywhere: McDonald’s and craft breweries. Sidewalk cafes and rooftop bars. Niche beauty stores and sprawling supermarkets. The shelves are all stocked with an assortment that feels robust and exciting. There’s a Porsche dealership near the city center that still has a hammer and sickle statue outside. I’m endlessly fascinated by the dichotomy of past and present, the slow progress that brings more open businesses each time we visit.
I look into the last year my mother was here, 1969, before she left for America. In 1969, the first Sephora opened in France, revolutionizing the shopping experience by allowing women to sample products to their heart’s content, without having to rely on behind-the-counter staff. American Vogue published a long feature entitled “The American Woman: Her Looks…Her Life…Her Men…Her Mind” featuring model Windsor Eliot sporting a big bouffant, bold mascara, and a glossy pink lip on the Irving Penn-shot cover. And my mom was a nine-year-old whose primary concerns included watching the mailbox every afternoon, waiting for the visas to arrive so she and her family could finally leave the U.S.S.R. She didn’t know about Sephora or Vogue but took her beauty cues from her mother, my grandmother Emma, who had only a bottle of the U.S.S.R.’s signature Red Moscow perfume and a bottle of nail polish in the only color available. If they were still in the Soviet Socialist Republic of Armenia that coming summer, my grandmother promised to let my mother paint her nails red.
More global beauty:
A breakdown of beauty looks from arguably the most famous Armenian, Kim Kardashian: