What McDonald’s withdrawal means for Russia

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

It was the first American fast food restaurant to enter the Soviet Union, reflecting the new political openness of the era. For Vlad Vexler, when a nine-year-old boy queued for two hours to get into the restaurant near Moscow’s Pushkin Square on its opening day in January 1990, it was the gateway to the unthinkable he had come across. imagine coming to the West.

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

So Vexler was even more poignant when McDonald’s announced it would temporarily close that store and nearly 850 other stores in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“It was a sign of optimism that ultimately failed to materialize,” said Vexler, a political philosopher and author now living in London. “Now that Russia is entering a period of contraction, isolation and impoverishment, you look back at these loopholes and think about what could have been.”

McDonald’s said in a statement that “at this time, it is impossible to predict when we may reopen our restaurants in Russia.” But they are continuing to pay the salaries of 62,500 Russian employees. This week, the company said it expects the closures to cost about $50 million a month.

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

“It was wrong because it was the only affordable place for me where I could eat,” he said.

Just as McDonald’s paved the way for other brands to enter the Soviet market, its departure led to a series of similar announcements from other American brands. Starbucks has closed 130 stores in Russia. Yum Brands has closed 70 company-owned KFC restaurants and is in talks to close 50 franchisees-owned Pizzas.

McDonald’s entry into the Soviet Union began with a chance meeting. In 1976, McDonald’s lent some buses to the Moscow Olympics organizers that were touring the Olympic venues in Montreal, Canada. George Cohon, then head of McDonald’s in Canada, brought guests to McDonald’s as part of a tour. That same night, the group began discussing how to open a McDonald’s in the Soviet Union.

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

On the opening day, the restaurant’s 27 cash registers drew 30,000 meals. Vexler and his grandmother waited in line with thousands of others to enter the 700-seat store, which entertains traditional Russian musicians and characters dressed as Mickey Mouse.

“The feeling is, ` `Let’s go see how Westerners make things better. Let’s go see what a healthy society offers,” Vexler said.

Vexler had been saving money for weeks to buy his first McDonald’s meal: a cheeseburger, fries, and a can of Coca-Cola. The food had a “delicious consistency” he had never experienced before, he said.

Eileen Kane regularly visited the original McDonald’s in 1991 and 1992 when she was an exchange student at Moscow State University. She found this to be a striking contrast to the rest of the country, where there was often a shortage of food when the Soviet Union collapsed.

“McDonald’s is bright and colorful and they never lack for anything. It’s like a party atmosphere,” said Kane, now a history professor at the University of Connecticut in New London, Connecticut.

McDonald’s entry into the Soviet Union was so groundbreaking that it gave rise to a political theory. The Golden Dome theory holds that two countries with McDonald’s will not go to war, because the presence of McDonald’s is an indicator of the countries’ degree of interdependence and their compliance with American law. Ky, Bernd Kaussler said. a professor of political science at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

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

Kaussler said the number of countries now withdrawing from Russia and the speed at which they act is unprecedented. He thinks some – including McDonald’s – – may calculate that reopening is unwise, which would make Russia more isolated and the world less safe.

“As the Russian economy becomes less and less interdependent with the US and Europe, we essentially have less domestic economic factors that can dampen current belligerent policies,” said Kaussler. now on.

Vexler says the admiration for the West that made Russians love 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 children wanted to have one last meal there. But she was nonchalant about its closure, suggesting Russians would be healthier if they stopped eating fast food.

“I think we’ve lived without it before and will live further away,” she said.

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

“It’s sad, but it’s not a big deal. We wouldn’t have survived without McDonald’s,” she said.

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