McDonald's closes Russia restaurants 32 years after launch in Moscow
9th March 2022

The end of an era: How the closure of McDonald’s 850 restaurants in Russia 32 years after it first launched in Moscow marks the end of the west’s engagement with post-Soviet Russia

  • McDonald’s yesterday announced the closure of 850 restaurants in Russia over the ongoing war in Ukraine
  • Decision comes just over 32 years after US fast-food chain opened its first store in the then-USSR run Moscow
  • Stunning photos shows 30,000 Russians waiting patiently in line for their first Big Mac on January 31, 1990
  • Some who were presented at historic opening as the Iron Curtain fell called the closures ‘hugely symbolic’

When it first opened its doors in January 1990, 30,000 Russians who had lived under the iron fist of Soviet rule queued patiently to get their first taste of McDonald’s Big Mac. 

The fast-food giant’s first outlet in Russia opened in Moscow’s Pushkin Square, and caused such excitement that some people joined the queue without knowing what it was for.

By the end of the day the store had set a new opening-day record for the company and more than 27,000 people applied for waiter jobs. Only 600 were hired.

The famous Golden Arches, which were iconic in almost every corner of the globe, had finally reached beyond the Iron Curtain and soon became a symbol of Soviet acceptance of American capitalism.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall months before and the vast Soviet Union beginning to crumble away, the McDonald’s store had became an unlikely cultural touchstone that would represent a thawing relations with the end of the Cold War.

McDonald’s announced yesterday that it is temporarily closing all of its outlets in Russia – including its famous original outlet following Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Their move followed similar withdrawals made by Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Starbucks, plunging Russia further into international isolation – after three decades of engagement with the West.

The BBC’s Steve Rosenberg, who was in the queue at the Moscow McDonald’s when it opened said its closure was ‘hugely symbolic’.

The announcement by McDonald’s yesterday of the temporary closure of 850 restaurants comes just over 32 years after the US fast-food giant opened its first store in the then-Soviet Union capital Moscow. Pictured: Customers stand in line on January 31, 1990 for the first McDonald’s to open

McDonald’s announced yesterday that it is temporarily closing all of its outlets in Russia – including its famous original outlet following Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Pictured: Queues on opening day of the Pushkin Square McDonald’s

The famous Golden Arches, which were iconic in almost every corner of the globe, had finally reached beyond the Iron Curtain and soon became a symbol of the power of American capitalism as the Soviet Union collapsed. Pictured: An elderly Soviet woman eats a hamburger at the Pushkin Square restaurant on opening day

Journalist Yuliya Chernova, who was a young child when Russia’s first McDonald’s outlet opened, recalled yesterday the ‘deliciousness’ of a milkshake when she tried it for the first time.

The Pushkin Square McDonald’s opened on January 31, 1990, around 18 months before the Soviet Union collapsed. It was American giant’s 11,201st store.

Pictured: A Daily Mail Comment piece from the time about the battle to bring ‘Big Mac to the Muscovites’

It had taken 13 years of negotiations before the Soviet authorities allowed the venue to open. The discussions began in 1976 and were led by George A. Cohon, the president of McDonald’s Canada.

It then cost $50million to get the operation up and running.

The restaurant chain’s most famous burger – the Big Mac – was known in Russia as the Bolshoi Mak, with bolshoi meaning ‘big’ in Russian.

The Daily Mail’s original reporting of the Pushin Square venue’s opening described how some Russians arrived before dawn in the hope of getting their hands on burgers and fries.

Such was its popularity, the queue to get in the venue ended up being more than 90 minutes long.

McDonald’s Mr Cohen said of the outlet’s opening, ‘It’s been a long, long road. It’s also been worth every drop of sweat.

‘Today is the most exciting day of my life, and I salute all those who have come along this path with me.’

One 18-year-old customer told the Daily Mail at the time: ‘I’ve seen places like this in American films but I wondered if I would ever be in one.

‘For months I’ve watched this building being prepared.’

Another added: ‘I’ll be here every week. It is already my favourite food.

Other amazed customers told the New York Times that the ‘Bolshoi Mak’ was ‘something like you’ve never tasted before.’

‘You take a bun, a very tasty bun, and you cut it in half. Then you add some grilled meat, top quality meat, mind you, not like the meat we get here,’ they said.

‘Then some cheese, then very many vitamins and then you add some spinach. And that, comrades, is the Bolshoi Mak.’

It was not only the customers who were scrambling to get through the restaurant’s doors. Of the 600 jobs that were advertised, around 27,000 applications were received.

When the venue opened, restaurants in Russia were known for their terrible hygiene, lack of menu options and poor service.

It had taken 13 years of negotiations before the Soviet authorities allowed the venue to open. The discussions began in 1976 and were led by George A. Cohon, the president of McDonald’s Canada

Such was its popularity, the queue to get in the venue ended up being more than 90 minutes long. Some passersby coming across the excitement joined the queue without even knowing what it was for 

The feelings about the lack of choice were made clear by another customer, who told The Washington Post that ‘finding a decent place to eat is one of our biggest problems’.

‘This place looks different just from the outside. Everything is so clean and bright,’ they added.

However, because of the low wages of nearly all people in Russia, eating in a McDonald’s venue was a luxury, rather than the cheap option it offered in Western nations.

One customer said: ‘We certainly could not afford to eat here every day. This is a high-class restaurant by our standards.’

The Pushkin Square restaurant was welcoming to all however, with a brass sign outside declaring ‘For Soviet rubles only’ in a dig at other restaurants nearby that would cater to westerners with more easily convertible dollars or pounds.

The Pushkin Square restaurant was welcoming to all, with a brass sign outside declaring ‘For Soviet rubles only’ in a dig at other restaurants nearby that would cater to westerners with more easily convertible dollars or pounds

The famous Golden Arches, which were iconic in almost every corner of the globe, had finally reached beyond the Iron Curtain and soon became a symbol of the power of American capitalism as the Soviet Union collapsed

As the years progressed and Russia embraced capitalism, hundreds more McDonald’s outlets opened, along with those from rival fast food chains such as Pizza Hut (a few months later in 1990) and KFC (1995). Rival Burger King trailed behind with its first restaurant in 2010.

Even its ruling class welcomed their arrival, with former Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev famously appearing in a 1998 advertisement for Pizza Hut.

But in the space of a few days the slow arrival of western brands has been dramatically undone.

Led by oil giant such as BP and Shell who faced boycotts if they didn’t end their Russian partnerships, the last week has seen a wave of companies from Apple and Ikea to Volvo and Visa suspend or pull their operations.

The latest set of brands to stop services included Starbucks, Coca-Cola and Pepsi, all coming swiftly after McDonald’s.

Western sanctions and the encouragement of brands to temporarily leave Russia will make it clear to regular Russians that the Ukrainian invasion comes with a high price, even if the true cost is somewhat hidden by state media.

McDonald’s has pledged to continue supporting its 62,000 staff in Russia with full salaries, and have said the lights on the golden arches will only be going off ‘temporarily’. 

‘For 66 years, we have operated with the belief that communities are made better when there’s a McDonald’s nearby,’ McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski said in a statement.

Now for millions in Russia, it is unclear for how long this will not be the case.

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