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McDonald’s leaving Russia after 32 years is the end of an era

Soviet shoppers line up outside a newly opened McDonald’s in the Soviet Union on January 31, 1990 on Pushkinskaya Square in Moscow.

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It was 4:00 am, and streams of Russians were already beginning to line up outside the building in the bitter winter cold, hours before opening.

When the doors opened, hundreds of hungry, bundled-up Muscovites rushed in to try the alien creation for the first time: the Big Mac.

It was January 1990, and McDonalds was opening its very first restaurant in the Soviet Union, becoming one of the few Western companies that, in its last days, broke through the iron curtain, slowly opening up to the world.

At that time the Russians were hungry. Literally. Stores often ran out of food and lacked most of the food that existed in the Western world. Lunch at McDonald’s cost half a day’s pay, but “it’s unusual…and delicious,” one local woman told CBC News at the opening after tasting her first burger.

“We are all hungry in this city,” the woman said. “We need more places like this – there’s nothing in our stores and restaurants.” As a result, McDonald’s was forced to stay open several hours later than the official closing time due to high demand and cater for whopping amounts. 30,000 customers on opening day – a record for the cult American network.

Of course, over the past 32 years, Russia has become a capitalist haven, teeming with thousands of recognizable Western brands and foreign investment. But in the weeks following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine, and amid global condemnation, most of these brands have shut down, either temporarily or leaving the country entirely.

Thus the scenes of 1990 were almost repeated three decades later, albeit in a completely different context. When McDonald’s announced the temporary closure of its more than 800 restaurants in Russia in early March, pending a decision this week to move out of the country permanently, long queues formed outside its businesses as Russians turned up to get what could be their last gold medal. arch. burgers and french fries.

One Russian man even handcuffed himself to the door of a Moscow McDonald’s in protest, shouting “The closure is a hostile act against me and my fellow citizens!” before the arrest.

“Huge symbolic value”

For Bakhti Nishanov, a Eurasian scholar who grew up in the Soviet Union, the departure evokes strange emotions.

“It’s really weird how it strikes me. It’s almost like hope leaving the country,” he told CNBC.

“It has a huge symbolic meaning: McDonald’s coming to Russia, which was then part of the Soviet Union, was an implicit signal to the world that Russia was open for business. The departure of the company from Russia is a clear signal that the country is no longer a place. you want to be in business,” Nishanov said.

People wait in line to enter a McDonald’s restaurant in Moscow on March 11, 2022, after the chain announced the temporary closure of 850 of its restaurants in Russia, joining other foreign brands that have suspended operations in Russia following the country’s military campaign in neighboring Ukraine . . McDonald’s has since decided to leave Russia for good.

Vlad Karkov | sopa images | Light rocket | Getty Images

“I first read about McDonald’s in Russia in the youth magazine Young Technician,” says Nishanov. “I was absolutely mesmerized and fascinated by this article and the idea that a person, for a relatively modest amount of money, can also become part of the American culture, of which McDonald’s was a real embodiment.”

“For a generation of Russians, McDonald’s, commonly referred to as McDuck, was an exciting phenomenon,” he added. “They are obviously connected to American culture, but are very much a part of their daily lives and, in some ways, are less alien or alien than many other brands.”

Lots of staff and lots of money

From an economic point of view, the departure is also significant – 62,000 people work at McDonald’s throughout Russia. Together with hundreds of other foreign companies that have left the country, the number of jobs that have disappeared is in the hundreds of thousands.

The burger chain will now sell its business, which included about 847 restaurants, saying “the humanitarian crisis caused by the war in Ukraine and the exacerbation of the unpredictable operating environment have led McDonald’s to conclude that further business ownership in Russia is unacceptable.” more reasonable and inconsistent with McDonald’s values.”

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

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CEO Chris Kempchinski said he was proud of all the company’s employees working in Russia and that the decision was “extremely difficult.” He also said that employees will continue to be paid until the business is sold and that “employees will have a job in the future with any potential buyer.”

Shoppers look at closed McDonald’s and KFC restaurants at the Mega shopping center in Khimki, Moscow region, Russia, March 27, 2022.

Konstantin Zavrazhin | Getty Images

The write-off of McDonald’s in connection with the withdrawal from Russia will be from 1.2 to 1.4 billion dollars, according to the company. Simply shutting down its restaurants in Russia during the first few weeks hit its bottom line significantly, costing the company $127 million last quarter. Together with 108 restaurants in Ukraine, the Russian and Ukrainian business accounted for about 9% of McDonald’s revenue in 2021.

“Decisive soft diplomacy” during the Cold War

Politically, the golden arches also mattered a lot, says Trisha Starks, professor of history at the University of Arkansas and author of the forthcoming book Cigarettes and Advice.

“The American way of consuming was the decisive front of soft diplomacy in the Cold War… getting the Soviets familiar with America’s material standards was another battleground,” Starks said. Several other brands took over this role in the USSR before McDonald’s, namely Pepsi in 1972 and Marlboro in 1976.

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

Peter Turnley | Historic Corbis | Getty Images

But McDonalds, unlike a can of Pepsi or a pack of Marlboro cigarettes, “was a completely immersive experience of the sensual joys of capitalism,” she said.

“From the moment you walked in, it was a completely different experience than in a Soviet restaurant. You were greeted with smiles and cries of “How can I help you?” The products were of consistent quality and always fit for consumption. The burgers were hot!”

It came as a culture shock to Soviet residents, many of whom expressed bewilderment when employees smiled at them. “When I smile, people ask what’s wrong, they think I’m laughing at them,” one Russian employee told a reporter at the opening of McDonald’s in 1990.

Russian musicians in traditional dress perform in front of the then busiest McDonald’s restaurant in the world on Pushkinskaya Square in Moscow during the celebration of the 15th anniversary of the opening of the first restaurant in Russia on January 31, 2005.

ALEXANDER MEMENOV | AFP | Getty Images

“When you were done, a worker would come and take away the trash, and the exhibition hall on Pushkin Square was kept clean, despite the fact that thousands of people came during the day – some of them waited for hours to spend a month’s salary on lunch for a family of four ”, Starks described, noting that the concept of customer service simply did not exist in the USSR. “Service was a by-product of the McDonald’s experience.”

“Thank you for all your sanctions”

Not all Russians complain about the departure of golden arches.

“Hello Americans… We want to thank you for all your sanctions, for taking Coca Cola, KFC, McDonald’s and all that shit out of our country. Now by the summer we will be healthy, strong and without an ass, ”- Russian influencer. comedian Natasha Krasnova wrote in an Instagram post in March that has been viewed more than 5 million times.

A mobile fast food van in Moscow, Russia, as people shop for alternative fast food after McDonald’s closed about 850 of its restaurants across the country. March 21, 2022

Sefa Karakan | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Many Russians are encouraging the replacement of Western chains with Russian-made brands and are now quite capable of making their own hamburgers and other fast food items. Some have also sought to abandon American-style food altogether in favor of local fare, as much of the country rejects Western symbols out of patriotism.

A view of a McDonald’s restaurant in Murmansk, Russia, the world’s northernmost city, on March 11, 2022, after the chain said it would temporarily close all of its 850 restaurants in Russia in response to the country’s invasion of Ukraine. In May, she announced her permanent departure from Russia.

Semyon Vasilevy | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Many Russians feel bitter about having to deal with the consequences of a war they did not choose. These consequences pale in comparison to the horror that has befallen Ukraine, where thousands of civilians have been killed by Russian bombs and numerous cities have been reduced to rubble.

But as war rages on and Russia becomes increasingly isolated by international sanctions, time will tell how many Russians will leave their country in pursuit of the more open world they knew, and how many of them will choose loyalty to the state against of this world.

For Nishanov, this is not just McDonald’s, but something more.

“The departure of McDonald’s from Russia hit many of my generation in different ways,” he said, “I think because it represented – and I know it sounds dramatic – hope and optimism. The departure of the company confirms that Putin’s Russia is a place devoid of these two things.


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