McDonald’s, a Surreal Sign of American Soft Power, Is Leaving Russia

After more than three decades, the fast-food giant is leaving Moscow behind.
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McDonald’s, a global symbol of U.S. capitalist hegemony, is leaving Russia behind. McDonald’s Corp announced the closure of its 847 restaurants on Tuesday and cited the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine as well as supply chain issues as the primary reason.

The company believes the closure will be temporary and plans to continue to pay its 62,000 employees in Russia. “At this juncture, it’s impossible to predict when we might be able to reopen our restaurants in Russia,” CEO Chris Kempczinski said in a letter sent to employees and posted on the McDonald’s website. McDonald’s is joining a growing list of companies, including Starbucks and KFC, that are halting business in Russia. 

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The first McDonald’s opened in Moscow at Pushkin Square on January 31, 1990. It was an international news event. Throughout the 1980s, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev pursued reforms aimed at opening up the USSR to the international community and ending decades of opposition with the West. Pepsi, which also recently announced its leaving, began doing business there in 1989, followed by McDonald’s in 1990.

U.S. news reels from the time are a surreal window into a world where the Soviet way of life was collapsing and the American system felt inevitable and righteous. According to ABC News, 30,000 Muscovites lined up to chow down on processed hamburgers and fries that fateful day in January. “Most of them were stunned by the cleanliness, good service, and speed,” ABC News said.

Diane Sawyer, of Primetime Live was actually on the ground in Moscow when the McDonald’s opened. “The Russian language has no H,” Sawyer said standing in front of the Pushkin Square checkout counter. “So you have to order a GAMburger with your chocolate milk cocktail.”

The closing of the Russian McDonald’s is a surreal bookend to a 30 year chapter in U.S. soft power. As the Cold War ended, some Americans believed that if we exported enough blue jeans and fast food around the world, everyone would love us. It gave birth to Thomas Friedman’s McDonald’s Peace Theory. "No two countries that both had McDonald's had fought a war against each other since each got its McDonald's,” Friedman wrote in his 1999 book The Lexus and the Olive Tree.

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The idea didn’t last long. Almost immediately after the book was published, NATO bombed Yugoslavia and protestors in Belgrade destroyed a McDonald’s.

But back in 1990, everything was still possible. Sawyer is interviewing a suited Russian man in the harsh light of the lobby of the Moscow McDonald’s. “What do you think Lenin would have thought of McDonald’s in Moscow?” She then went on to explain that everyone working at McDonald's would earn more selling processed food than a Soviet doctor.

There was a string of surreal and, with the hindsight of memory, humiliating advertisements and stories like this in the 1990s. In 1998, Gorbachev starred in a Pizza Hut commercial. In the ad a young man and older man argue about whether Gorbachev sucks or not while he looms in the background eating pizza. Eventually an older woman in the family brokers peace by pointing out Gorbachev brought them many things…including Pizza Hut. The family stands, holding hot slices of steaming ‘za, and praises Gorbachev.

This was once the leader of the Soviet Union, the ideological and military opposite to the U.S. in a bipolar world. A few years ago, it was not clear which one of these powers would prevail, capitalism or communism. And then Gorbachev was shilling for Pizza Hut himself. Capitalism and the West had clearly won.

Now, Pizza Hut has suspended investment in Russia. McDonald’s is gone. It’s another sign of deteriorating U.S.-Russian relations and also a sign of the hard edge of soft power. As news of the impending closure spread, people lined up to get one last Big Mac in Russia.