McDonald’s, once a powerful symbol in Russia, is withdrawing

Two months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, another powerful symbol opened in the middle 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 era. For Vlad Vexler, who stood in line for two hours on opening day in January 1990 as a 9-year-old to enter the restaurant near Pushkin Square in Moscow, it was a gateway to the utopia he imagined the West. .

“We thought life there was magical and there were no problems,” says Vexler, a political philosopher and author who now lives in London.

So it was all the more poignant for Vexler when McDonald’s announced Monday that it will sell its 850 Russian stores and exit the market in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. McDonald’s said it was the first time in the company’s history to exit a major market.

“The symbolism of McDonald’s departure to me is really about Russia turning in a direction that is a dead end, a direction that will not offer Russia anything and will not allow Russia to offer anything to the world,” Vexler said. †

McDonald’s said it will look for a buyer who will hire its 62,000 Russian employees and continue to pay them until a sale is completed.

McDonald’s entry into the Soviet Union began with a chance meeting. In 1976, McDonald’s loaned out some buses to the organizers of the 1980 Moscow Olympics who were touring the Olympic venues in Montreal, Canada. George Cohon, then head of McDonald’s in Canada, took visitors to McDonald’s as part of the tour. That same evening, 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 central Moscow. It was a sensation.

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

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

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

Karl Qualls, a history professor at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, was a student in Moscow shortly after the first McDonald’s opened and marveled at the long lines outside.

‘It would cost an average Russian citizen a day’s wages to eat such a large meal. It was a prestigious destination,” he said.

Qualls said McDonald’s also helped raise standards for service __ which was notoriously surly __ and food quality in the Soviet Union. McDonald’s has set up its own farms and food production facilities and trained staff to smile and welcome guests.

“It was a real transformation,” he said. “It had a reach well beyond the 850 stores they have today.”

McDonald’s entry into the Soviet Union was so groundbreaking that a political theory emerged. The Golden Arches theory states that two countries that both have McDonald’s in them won’t go to war, because the presence of a McDonald’s is an indicator of the countries’ degree of interdependence and their alignment with U.S. laws, Bernd Kaussler said. , a political science professor at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

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

Now, those arches are coming down in Russia. McDonald’s said it is removing the signage and not allowing the potential buyer to serve its menu. McDonald’s said it will keep its trademarks in Russia and take steps to enforce them if necessary.

Vexler said many Russians __ fueled by government propaganda __ believe Western companies won’t actually leave, or reopen once there is a ceasefire. It will take some time, he says, for awareness of Russia’s isolation to sink in.

“Right now there is a lot of denial. And a sense of helplessness that if one were to oppose the war, there is nowhere constructive to accept that view,” he said.

Still, Vexler says he is optimistic that younger Russians will not accept the isolation of the West and its economic consequences.

In a letter to employees Monday, McDonald’s president and CEO Chris Kempczinski left open the possibility that McDonald’s could one day come back.

“It’s impossible to predict what the future will bring, but I decide to end my message with the same spirit that brought McDonald’s to Russia in the first place: hope,” he said. “So let’s not end up saying, ‘Goodbye.’ Instead, let’s say as they do in Russian: until we meet again.”

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