McDonald’s, once a powerful symbol in Russia, has withdrawn

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Two months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, another powerful symbol opened its doors in the middle 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 9-year-old Vlad Vexler, who waited in line for two hours to enter the restaurant near Moscow’s Pushkin Square in January 1990, it was the gateway to the utopia the West imagined.

“We thought life there was magical and there was no problem,” said Vexler, a political philosopher and writer who now lives in London.

That’s why it was even more poignant for Vexler when McDonald’s announced on Monday that it would sell 850 Russian stores and exit the market in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. McDonald’s said it was the first time in the company’s history to leave a large market.

“For me, the symbolism of McDonald’s leaving is about Russia turning into a dead end, a direction that will offer nothing to Russia and not allow Russia to offer the world anything,” Vexler said. .

McDonald’s said it will seek a buyer to employ 62,000 Russian workers and will continue to pay them until the sale is finalized.

McDonald’s entry into the Soviet Union began with a chance meeting. In 1976, McDonald’s loaned some buses to the organizers of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, which toured the Olympic facilities in Montreal, Canada. George Cohon, the president of McDonald’s in Canada at that time, took the visitors to McDonald’s as part of the tour. That same night, 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 downtown Moscow. It was a sensation.

On opening day, the restaurant’s 27 cash registers stole 30,000 meals. Vexler and her grandmother stood in line with thousands of people to enter the 700-seat store, which was hosted by traditional Russian musicians and costumed characters like Mickey Mouse.

The sentiment was, ‘Let’s go and see how Westerners do things better’. Let’s go see what a healthy society has to offer,” said Vexler.

Vexler saved weeks to buy his first McDonald’s meal: cheeseburgers, fries, and Coca-Cola. He said the food had a “plastic goodness” he had never experienced before.

Karl Qualls, a professor of history 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 the average Russian citizen a day’s wages to eat such a large meal. He became a target of prestige,” he said.

Qualls said McDonald’s also helped raise the notorious __ standards of service and quality of food in the Soviet Union. McDonald’s has built its own farms and food production facilities and trained staff to make its guests smile and welcome.

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

McDonald’s entry into the Soviet Union was so groundbreaking that it spawned a political theory. Bernd Kaussler, The Golden Arch Theory says that two countries that both have McDonald’s won’t go to war because the existence of a McDonald’s is an indicator of the countries’ level of interdependence and compliance with US law. Professor of political science at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

Kaussler said this theory persisted until 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea.

Now, those belts are going down in Russia. McDonald’s said it has removed the signs and will not allow potential buyers to offer their own menu. McDonald’s said it will keep its trademarks in Russia and will take steps to enforce them if necessary.

Vexler said many Russians, fueled by government propaganda, believed that Western companies would not actually leave, or that they would reopen as soon as there was a ceasefire. He says it will take some time to understand Russia’s isolation.

“There is so much denial right now. And there is a sense of helplessness, if someone opposes war, there is no constructive place to accept that view,” he said.

Still, Vexler says he is optimistic that young Russians will not accept the isolation from 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 return.

“It’s impossible to predict what the future will bring, but I choose to end my message in the same spirit that brought McDonald’s to Russia: hope,” he said. .’ Let’s say instead, as they do in Russian: Until we meet again.”