The American brand has announced that it is leaving Russian territory to protest against the war in Ukraine after 32 years of presence. A look back at a controversial but successful arrival in the Soviet Union where the brand has become an attraction.
This time it’s over. In May, McDonald’s confirmed its withdrawal from Russia by announcing the sale of its 850 restaurants in the country. And to better prepare for the transition, the American company has registered a series of possible company names for the future buyer(s): “Fun And Tasty” or even “The Same One” are among the registered trademarks.
A way not to destroy what has been achieved because the presence of McDonald’s in Russia is one of the biggest successes of the giant fast food.
Back to the late 1980s. Eastern Europe is fracturing: the Berlin Wall collapses on November 9, 1989, Romania executes Nicolae Ceaușescu a few weeks later. In the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev does not know it yet, but he is living his last months at the head of the socialist federation. Well aware of the social and political unrest, he began several years ago to open up his country to the world and in particular to the American enemy. To the point of welcoming one of the most famous symbols of the United States, with the opening of the first restaurant in Moscow on January 31, 1990.
In reality, the negotiations are much older. In the midst of Cold War “détente” – that is to say during the 1970s – the boss of McDonald’s Canada tried his luck by inviting Soviet representatives to lunch during the 1976 Montreal Olympics.
The food, but especially the service, impressed the leaders of the USSR. Precisely, Moscow must in turn host the Olympic Games in 1980 and the central power seeks to feed foreign tourists with fast and familiar dishes. But the new tensions, linked to the entry into the war of the Soviets in Afghanistan, provoked the boycott of the Olympic Games by the United States. The McDo file is closed.
It is therefore necessary to wait ten more years for the American dream to materialize. And it’s quite a culture shock. Installed on Moscow’s Pushkin Square, the restaurant sports its garish yellow arches causing a rare frenzy.
The smile, a small revolution
You have to wait hours in the cold to hope to enter while more than 30,000 people hope to enjoy the inauguration. Behind the counter, the employees were handpicked. “We were asked, ‘Can you smile for eight hours straight?’ We all said ‘yes, of course'” tells the VOA site Anna Patrunina, one of the first to work there and later became vice-president of operations.
Smiling is not a habit in Soviet public life, renowned for its coldness. The employees are also well educated and master foreign languages because the first McDo quickly becomes an unmissable tourist attraction.
But for Soviet patrons, it’s mostly a glimpse of life behind the Iron Curtain. “They say the West is bad, but I like this food,” says a customer at the opening.
The other side of the coin, the American dream costs a fortune: a meal was worth the equivalent of half a day’s work. Moreover, when local restaurants were sorely lacking in products, McDonald’s continued to supply its kitchens at full capacity. The trick? The company imported virtually everything and operated at a loss.
But the company got a foot in the door. The fall of the USSR did not prevent the development of the brand in Russia. On the contrary, in 1993, the new Russian President Boris Yeltsin came to inaugurate in person the second Moscow restaurant.