For a couple of years after those golden arches first appeared in Moscow on 31 January 1990, McDonald’s was a really big deal in Russia. It was more than a food experience. It was an exotic destination of devoted pilgrimage. In 1992, I was living in St Petersburg for the summer to study Russian. I had traveled to Moscow on the overnight train with a group of Russian friends. The first thing I wanted to do – being in Moscow for the first time in my life – was to see Red Square as the sun came up. My friends had other ideas about the most important port of call. We had to go straight to McDonald’s and get a beeg mak or – just as exciting – a gamburger. (Actual Russian word.) There was no point in standing in their way. The Kremlin would have to wait.
This week, McDonald’s announced that it would be suspending its operations in Russia. This affects 847 branches and 62,000 employees, who will continue to be paid. The company’s president and CEO Chris Kempczinski said: “Our values mean we cannot ignore the needless human suffering unfolding in Ukraine.” The response echoes the actions of dozens of brands from Chanel and Burberry to Apple and Starbucks.
Once upon a time three decades ago, the arrival of McDonald’s in Moscow represented the end of the cold war and the triumph of the joys of capitalism. On that first day in 1990, that first branch on Pushkinskaya Square expected to serve around 1,000 customers. But even before opening time, a line of 5,000 Russians was snapping round the block. As Russian customers explained to the western media covering the event, the queue was not a big deal. Queuing was something they were very used to. Customers marveled at the size of the milkshakes. Some kept Big Mac boxes and other packaging to re-use at home because it was such a precious novelty. Others shook their heads at the outrageous prices. At 3 roubles and 75 kopecks, a Big Mac was the equivalent of half a day’s wages, costing the equivalent of $6.25 at the time – the most expensive McDonald’s in the world.
It is hard to overstate the frenzy around consumer experiences in the very early post-Soviet days. By the time that Mikhail Gorbachev left office in 1991, western brands such as Dunkin’ Donuts, Baskin-Robbins and Nesquik were becoming household names and were a source of curiosity, excitement and, sometimes, suspicion. (Gorbachev was later criticized for his appearance of him in a 1998 advert for Pizza Hut that was only shown in the United States.) This was at a time when western visitors would still be stopped in the street and asked if they wanted to trade their Levi’s. For a brief period in the early 90s, you would perhaps be the only foreigner Russians had ever met in person. When I went to live in Russia the year after my first visit, return trips home would be dominated by long shopping lists of things Russians wanted: washing powder, tights, makeup, always jeans. These things were starting to become available but they weren’t always good quality or easy to get hold of.
As a foreigner, I was also regarded as a handy source of information about new brands being advertised on television. The nine-year-old sister of one of my friends would quiz me on this slowly. Was Bounty really the taste of paradise? What did that mean? Had I tried Uncle Ben’s rice? How was it different from other rice? Who was Uncle Ben? Was it true that he had been to Russia? It’s almost impossible, 30 years on, to imagine a world with next to no branding and devoid of consumerism. But in the late Soviet period people were used to state restaurants – which often had no food and no visitors – bearing the name “Restaurant” and shops identifying themselves by a giant logo denoting “Bread” or “Fish”. (And often selling items completely other than bread or fish, if indeed they had any items at all.)
In this climate, McDonald’s went early and went fast for maximum impact. The company had been in talks with Soviet officials about opening a branch since the mid-70s, so keen was it to get a foothold. But the innocence of the early 90s couldn’t last: Russians soon became demanding and discerning customers. Over the past two decades McDonald’s has had to compete with a growing array of homegrown Russian fast-food brands such as Kroshka Kartoshka (Little Potato), a baked potato emporium with more than 300 branches; Teremok, which also has 300 outlets and specializes in blini, borscht and pelmeni (dumplings); and Shokoladnitsa (Chocolate Girl), a coffee chain with more than 240 branches in the Moscow area alone. This level of competition has influenced the Russia-specific McDonald’s menu, which includes “country-style” potatoes (thick-cut wedges made with Russian potatoes), chicken wings, a non-alcoholic tarragon and mint mojito and the glamorous McShrimp – a Russian McDonald’s exclusive.
My own memory of that first Moscow outing makes me smile at the naivety of it all. On that moment, I paid (obviously). My Russian friends ate their way through the menu in reverential, delighted silence, pausing only to sigh with contentment, picturing their bright consumerist future. Then one of them looked up and asked eagerly, “Can we get more’I’m soboy‘?” What does that mean, ‘s soboy’?” I asked? It literally means “with oneself”. A long explanation ensued and I finally understood to my horrified astonishment what they meant – “to take away”. They wanted to buy as many items as possible to take home so that everyone they knew could try these delicacies. I tried to explain that this was not the point of McDonald’s. But my protests were in vain. And so, we traveled back 400 miles on an overnight train journey to St Petersburg, transporting the ultimate status symbol: a paper bag of cold gamburgerysoggy and festering in their luxe branded wrappers.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism