Once a powerful symbol in Russia, McDonald’s is stepping down

Two months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, another powerful symbol has opened its doors in the heart of Moscow: a shiny new McDonald’s.

It was the first American fast food restaurant to enter the Soviet Union, reflecting the new political openness of the time. For Vlad Vexler, who aged 9 stood in a two-hour queue to enter the restaurant near Pushkin Square in Moscow on the day it opened in January 1990, it was a gateway towards the utopia he imagined the West to be.

“We thought life there was magical and there were no problems,” Vexler said.

So it was all the more poignant for Vexler when McDonald’s announced it would temporarily close that store and nearly 850 others in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“That McDonald’s is a sign of optimism that ultimately didn’t materialize,” said Vexler, a political philosopher and author who now lives in London. “Now that Russia is entering a period of contraction, isolation and impoverishment, you look back at those openings and think about what could have been.”

McDonald’s said in a statement that “at this stage, it is impossible to predict when we may reopen our restaurants in Russia.” But it continues to pay its 62,500 Russian employees. The company said this week that it expects the shutdown to cost around $50 million per month.

Outside a McDonald’s in Moscow last week, student Lev Shalpo lamented the closure.

“It’s wrong because it was the only affordable place for me to eat,” he said.

Just as McDonald’s paved the way for other brands to enter the Soviet market, its exit brought about a cascade of similar announcements from other American brands. Starbucks has closed its 130 outlets in Russia. Yum Brands closed its 70 company-owned KFC restaurants and was negotiating the closure of 50 franchise-owned Pizza Huts.

McDonald’s entry into the Soviet Union began with a chance encounter. In 1976, McDonald’s loaned buses to organizers of the 1980 Moscow Olympics who were visiting Olympic venues in Montreal, Canada. George Cohon, then manager of McDonald’s in Canada, took visitors to McDonald’s as part of the tour. That same night, the group began discussing ways to open a McDonald’s in the Soviet Union.

Fourteen years later, after Soviet laws were relaxed and McDonald’s established relationships with local farmers, the first McDonald’s opened in downtown Moscow. It was a feeling.

On the day it opened, the restaurant’s 27 cash registers recorded 30,000 meals. Vexler and his grandmother lined up with thousands of others to enter the 700-seat store, entertained by traditional Russian musicians and costumed characters like Mickey Mouse.

“The feeling was, ‘Let’s go see how the Westerners do things better. Let’s see what a healthy society has to offer,” Vexler said.

Vexler saved money for weeks to buy his first McDonald’s meal: a cheeseburger, fries and a Coke. The food had a “plastic goodness” he had never experienced before, he said.

Eileen Kane visited the first McDonald’s often in 1991 and 1992 when she was an exchange student at Moscow State University. She found it a stark contrast to the rest of the country, which suffered from frequent food shortages as the Soviet Union crumbled.

“McDonald’s was bright and colorful and they never ran out of anything. It was like a party atmosphere,” said Kane, who is now a history professor at Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut.

McDonald’s entry into the Soviet Union was so revolutionary that it spawned a political theory. The Golden Arch Theory holds that two countries that both have a McDonald’s will not go to war, as the presence of a McDonald’s is an indicator of the countries’ level of interdependence and alignment with US laws, said Bernd Kaussler, professor of political science at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

That theory held until 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea, Kaussler said.

Kaussler said the number of countries now pulling out of Russia and the speed with which they have acted is unprecedented. He thinks some __ including McDonald’s __ might calculate it is unwise to reopen, which would leave Russia more isolated and the world less safe.

“As the Russian economy becomes less interdependent with the United States and Europe, we fundamentally have fewer domestic economic factors that could dampen current aggressive policies,” Kaussler said.

Vexler said the admiration for the West that drove Russians to embrace McDonald’s three decades ago has also changed. Russians now tend to be more anti-Western, he said.

Anastasia Chubina visited a McDonald’s in Moscow last week because her child wanted a last meal there. But she was indifferent to its closure, suggesting that Russians would be healthier if they stopped eating fast food.

“I think we lived without before and we will live again,” she said.

Entrepreneur Yekaterina Kochergina said the shutdown could be a good opportunity for Russian fast food brands to enter the market.

“It’s sad, but it doesn’t matter. We will survive without McDonald’s,” she said.

About Walter Bartholomew

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