McDonald’s is the culmination of an era that left Russia after 32 years

Soviet customers line up outside the first McDonald’s in the Soviet Union on January 31, 1990, at Pushkin Square in Moscow.

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At 4 o’clock in the morning and just hours before the opening, the Russians began to line up outside the building in the freezing cold.

When the door opened, hundreds of hungry, bundled-up Muscovites rushed for their first taste of this alien creation: Big Mac.

It was January 1990, and McDonald’s was opening its first restaurant in the Soviet Union, becoming one of the few Western companies in its last days to break the Iron Curtain because it was slowly opening up to the world.

The Russians were hungry then. Literally. Shops often ran out of food, and most of the products in the Western world were in short supply. A McDonald’s meal costs half a day’s wages, but “it’s unusual … and delicious,” a local woman told a CBC News reporter at the opening, after trying her first burger.

“We’re all hungry in this town,” she said. “We need more of these places – we have nothing in our shops or restaurants.” Due to high demand, McDonald’s had to stay open for several hours beyond its official closing time, and served 30,000 customers on its opening day – a record for the iconic American chain.

Of course, in 32 years, Russia has become a capitalist haven, full of thousands of recognized Western brands and foreign investment. But in the weeks following the invasion of Ukraine, a neighbor of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and worldwide condemnation, most of these brands have closed their doors, either temporarily shutting down or completely evacuating the country.

So the scenes of the 1990s repeat themselves almost three decades later, albeit in a very different context. When McDonald’s announced the temporary closure of more than 800 of its restaurants in Russia in early March, before deciding to leave the country permanently this week, the Russians saw a long line outside its facilities to get what could be their last golden arch. Burgers and fries

A Russian man even handcuffed himself at the door of a Moscow McDonald’s in protest, shouting “Shutting down is hostile to me and my fellow citizens!” Before being arrested.

‘Wide Symbolic Significance’

For Bakhtiy Nishanov, a Eurasian expert who grew up in the Soviet Union, the departure is strangely emotional.

“It’s really weird how it hurts me,” he told CNBC.

“It has a huge symbolic significance: McDonald’s arrival in Russia, then part of the Soviet Union, was an underlying signal to the world that Russia was open for business. Nishanov said.

People are waiting in line to enter a McDonald’s restaurant in Moscow on March 11, 2022, when the chain announced that it was temporarily closing 850 of its restaurants in Russia, joining other foreign brands that suspended operations in Russia following the country’s military operation in neighboring Ukraine. . McDonald’s has decided to leave Russia permanently.

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“I first read about McDonald’s in Russia in a youth magazine called Uni Tehnik,” Nishanov noted. “I was completely mesmerized and fascinated by the article and the idea that McDonald’s was a real representation that could be part of American culture, for a relatively small amount of money.”

“For a generation of Russians, McDonald’s – commonly known as McDuck – was an interesting phenomenon,” he added. “Strongly connected to American culture, yet many parts of their daily lives and, less often, aliens or aliens than many other brands.”

Lots of employees and lots of money

Economically, too, the departure is significant – McDonald’s employs 62,000 people across Russia. Hundreds of other foreign companies that have left the country are thought to have lost their jobs in the thousands.

The burger chain will now sell its business, which includes about 847 restaurants, saying that “because of the humanitarian crisis caused by the war in Ukraine and the unpredictable operating environment, McDonald’s has come to the conclusion that the business in Russia has no continued ownership. . “

The logo of the McDonald’s restaurant closed on March 18, 2022 at the Aviapark Shopping Center in Moscow, Russia.

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CEO Chris Kempzinski said he was proud of all employees of the company employed in Russia and that the decision was “extremely difficult”. He added that employees would continue to be paid until the business was sold and that “employees have future employment with any potential buyer.”

Shoppers look forward to the McDonald’s and KFC restaurant closing on March 27, 2022 in Khimki, Moscow, Russia.

Constantine Javrajin | Getty Images

McDonald’s ride out of Russia will be between $ 1.2 billion and $ 1.4 billion, the agency said. The closure of its restaurants for the first few weeks in Russia hit its revenue significantly, costing it গত 127 million in the last quarter. Russian and Ukrainian businesses with 108 restaurants in Ukraine accounted for about 9% of McDonald’s revenue in 2021.

‘Important soft diplomacy’ during the Cold War

Politically, gold arches have come a long way, says Tricia Starkus, a professor of history at the University of Arkansas and author of the upcoming book “Cigarettes and the Soviets.”

“The American approach was an important soft-diplomacy front in the Cold War … Familiarizing the Soviets with American material values ​​was another area of ​​warfare,” Starkus said. Prior to McDonald’s, several other brands in the USSR took on this role, such as Pepsi in 1972 and Marlboro in 1976.

A Soviet policeman stands by a line of people waiting to enter a newly opened McDonald’s on Gorky Street in Moscow in 1990.

Peter Turnley | Corbis Historian | Getty Images

But unlike McDonald’s, Pepsi cans or Marlboro cigarette packets, “capitalism had a completely immersive experience of sensual pleasure,” he said.

“From the moment you entered, it was a completely different experience than a Soviet restaurant. You were greeted with smiles and shouts, ‘Can I help you?’ The products were of consistent quality and always usable. The burgers were hot! ”

It was a cultural shock for the Soviets, many of whom were confused about when workers would laugh at them. On the opening day of McDonald’s in 1990, a Russian worker told a reporter, “When I’m smiling, people are asking what’s wrong, they think I’m smiling at them.”

Traditionally dressed Russian musicians perform in front of the world’s busiest McDonald’s restaurant in Moscow’s Pushkin Square on January 15, 2005, the 15th anniversary of the opening of the first restaurant in Russia.

Alexander Memenov | AFP | Getty Images

“When your work was done, a worker would come and remove the rubbish, and the show-place in Pushkin Square was kept clean even though thousands of people came all day – some of them waiting for hours to spend a whole month’s wages for dinner. The family, “described Starkus, noted that customer service in the USSR is not just an idea. “The service was a by-product of McDonald’s experience.”

‘Thank you for all your restrictions’

Not all Russians feel bad for leaving the gold arch.

Russian influential and comedian Natasha Krasnova wrote in an Instagram post in March that it had more than 5 million views.

A mobile fast food van is seen in Moscow, Russia, as people buy alternative fast food after McDonald’s closes about 850 restaurants across the country. March 21, 2022.

Sefa Karakan | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Many Russians have encouraged replacing Western chains with Russian-made brands and are now fully capable of making their own burgers and other fast food products. Some have also pushed for the exclusion of American-style food as a whole in favor of local food, as most of the country rejects Western symbols because of its patriotism.

A scene from a McDonald’s restaurant in Murmansk, Russia, on March 11, 2022, when the chain said it would temporarily close 850 of its restaurants in Russia in response to the country’s invasion of Ukraine. In May, it announced a permanent withdrawal from Russia.

Semen Vasilevi | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Many Russians feel bitter about dealing with the consequences of their chosen war. The results are bleak compared to the horrific treatment being meted out to Ukraine, where thousands of civilians have been killed by Russian bombs and countless cities have been reduced to rubble.

But as the war rages on and Russia is increasingly isolated by international sanctions, time will tell how many Russians will leave their country in search of a more open world, and how many will choose allegiance to the state, turning against that world.

For Nishanov, it’s not just about McDonald’s, it’s something bigger.

“McDonald’s leaving Russia has hurt many of my generation differently,” he said. “I think because it represents – and I know it sounds dramatic – hope and optimism. Place. “

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