It was in the middle of winter – January 31, 1990 – but people still came out in droves. Grainy CNN television footage shows lines snaking out the door and crowds of people inside tasting Big Macs for the first time.
Pushkin Square was huge, it could accommodate hundreds of people. At the time, it was the largest McDonald’s restaurant in the world. Inside the diner was seething. In many ways it was like any other McDonald’s of the era. But underneath the golden arches was a hammer and sickle flag, and inside there was an international theme featuring a model of London’s Big Ben in the dining room.
The arrival of McDonald’s in Moscow was about more than just Big Macs and French fries, said Darra Goldstein, Willcox B., and Harriet M. Adsit, professor emeritus of Russian at Williams College. It was the clearest example of glasnost in action, an attempt by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbechev to open his crumbling country to international relations.
“There was a really noticeable crack in the iron curtain,” she said. “It was very symbolic of the changes that were taking place.” In about two years, the Soviet Union will collapse.
After this first location opened, McDonald’s expanded its presence in the country. As of last week, about 850 outlets were operating in Russia.
For Goldstein, this moment is just as symbolic, but far less reassuring.
“If the opening of McDonald’s in 1990 symbolized the beginning of a new era in Soviet life, an era of greater freedom, then the current departure of the company represents the closure not only of business, but of society as a whole,” she said.
How McDonald’s got to Moscow
Opening McDonald’s in Russia was no easy task.
George Cohon, who ran the McDonald’s business in Canada from the early 1970s until the 1990s, led the campaign to revive McDonald’s in Moscow. It took 14 years.
“There was very little real understanding on the Soviet side of what was involved in creating or running the McDonald’s chain of restaurants,” he wrote. “For our part, we had to identify suitable locations (the instincts of the Soviets seemed to be to place us behind the elevator shafts in hotels or somewhere on the outskirts of Moscow; our instincts, naturally, were largely opposite).”
Perhaps more important than finding the right location was finding a viable supply chain. McDonald’s needed a steady supply of pies and potatoes for the thousands of people who came every day.
“We had to make sure that raw materials could be obtained in Russia,” he said. Kohon and other team members visited local food processing plants and found that they were in short supply. McDonald’s decided to create their own.
“In the absence of reliable infrastructure, we would have had to build it,” Cohon wrote. “We were going to go straight to the countryside and develop a network of suppliers that didn’t exist before.”
When McDonald’s finally opened its doors in 1990, some were skeptical and thought it would not last long.
“Everything will go downhill. We don’t know how to run a restaurant like this,” Andrey Grushin, an engineer who visited the restaurant on opening day, told the Washington Post at the time.
But McDonald’s efforts paid off.
Service with a smile
One of the defining characteristics of Moscow’s McDonald’s, at least on that first day, was the friendly staff.
“They are always smiling,” the young employee told CNN reporters on opening day. “As you know, in Moscow, not every restaurant can meet smiling people.”
At the time in the Soviet Union, “catering was really terrible,” Goldstein of Williams College said. “It was rough, the places were dirty. Often there was no food that was listed.”
McDonald’s was “an almost magical place where the food always replenished itself and people smiled at you,” she said. “It was more than just a place to get American hamburgers.”
The burgers themselves weren’t all that exciting, at least for some of the customers.
“I don’t like it at all,” one CBC man said of the food, shaking his head. Another said he liked the cuisine but “was expecting more”. The food was expensive. According to the CBC, food can cost half a day’s wages for the average consumer.
Olga Berman, who grew up in Moscow before immigrating to the US in 1993, recalled going to McDonald’s with her family as a child.
“We didn’t actually eat much. So going to restaurants was a huge experience in itself,” she said. She remembers McDonald’s as “the shiny new one,” she said. “It was really bright. It was very clean,” she added. “It was an experience. It was not like the fast food I know today. It was like going to a real restaurant.”
What about food? “I don’t even remember what the food was like,” she said.
Christina Frankopan grew up in London. As a teenager, she went to Moscow for a few weeks to improve her Russian, just in time for the opening of the first McDonald’s restaurant.
In the spring of 1990, she went with friends to check it out.
“I went once or twice and the queue was too long,” she said. “And, and then eventually we went one time and it was doable.”
For Frankopan, McDonald’s didn’t matter much. But her friends were excited—not so much about the food, as far as she could remember, but about the net’s styrofoam containers. “I was surprised that the packaging was actually very desirable,” she said.
Frankopan remembers how people brought the package home and hung it on the wall. They said “it’s an incredibly good insulating material,” she recalls. But “I think it was actually a status symbol to be able to show that I didn’t just have one box of Big Macs, I queued, you know, 15 times to get my boxes of Big Macs.”
She added, “I think it’s hard to overstate the symbolism of this place.”
As CNN reporter Richard Blyston put it, reporting the story 32 years ago, “A Western hamburger shop in Moscow has the intrinsic appeal of an ice cream stand in hell.”
McDonald’s suspends operations in Russia
After years of investment, everything collapsed this week.
“We employ 62,000 people in Russia who have put their heart and soul into the McDonald’s brand to serve their communities. We work with hundreds of local Russian suppliers and partners who produce products for our menu and support our brand. millions of Russian customers count on McDonald’s every day,” McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempchinski said Tuesday.
“For more than thirty years of McDonald’s in Russia, we have become an important part of the 850 communities in which we operate,” he added.
But the current situation makes continued work in the market untenable, according to the chief, at least for now.
“Our values mean we cannot ignore the senseless human suffering going on in Ukraine,” Kempczynski said. In addition, due to the turmoil in the region, McDonald’s is no longer able to reliably provide the necessary supplies. “We are experiencing disruptions in our supply chain along with other operational impacts,” he said.
After 32 years, “McDonald’s has taken the decision to temporarily close all of our restaurants in Russia and suspend all market operations.”
McDonald’s will continue to pay its employees in Russia, the company said.
But it is not yet clear when Russians will again be able to visit the local McDonald’s. “At this stage, it is impossible to predict when we will be able to reopen our restaurants in Russia,” Kempchinski said.