McDonald’s leaves Russia after 32 years is the end of an era

Soviet customers stand in line outside the newly opened first McDonald’s in the Soviet Union on January 31, 1990 on Pushkin Square in Moscow.

Vitaly Armand | Afp | Getty Images

It was 4 o’clock and a jet of Russians had already started outside the building in the freezing winter cold, hours before opening time.

When the doors opened, hundreds of hungry, Muscovites gathered their first taste of this alien creation: the Big Mac.

It was January 1990 and McDonalds opened its first restaurant in the Soviet Union, and became one of the few western companies to break through the iron curtain in recent days, as it gradually opened to the world.

At that time, the Russians were hungry. In the literal sense. Stores often ran out of food and missed most of the products that existed in the western world. A meal at McDonald’s costs half a day’s pay, but “it’s unusual … and delicious,” one local woman told a CBC News reporter at the opening after visiting her first burger.

“We are all hungry in this city,” said the woman. “We need more of these places – there is nothing in our shops or restaurants.” The McDonald’s eventually had to stay open for several hours before their official closing time due to high demand, and served a whopping 30,000 customers on their opening day – a record for the iconic American chain.

Of course, Russia has become a capitalist port in the 32 years since, filled with thousands of recognizable Western markets and foreign investment. But in the weeks following the invasion of its neighbor Ukraine by Russian President Vladimir Putin and amid worldwide condemnation, most of these markets have closed their doors, either temporarily closed or left the country completely.

Thus, the scenes from 1990 have almost repeated themselves three decades later, but in a very different context. When McDonald’s announced the temporary closure of its more than 800 restaurants in Russia in early March, ahead of this week’s decision to leave the country permanently, long lines were seen outside its facilities as Russians arrived around their last golden arc. could be. burgers and fries.

One Russian man knocked himself to the door of a Moscow McDonald’s in protest, shouting “Join is an enmity against me and my fellow citizens!” before being arrested.

‘Massive symbolic importance’

For Bakhti Nishanov, a Eurasia specialist who grew up in the Soviet Union, the departure is strangely emotional.

“It’s really weird how this affects me. It’s almost like hope leaving the country,” he told CNBC.

“This has an enormous symbolic significance: McDonald’s arrival in Russia, then part of the Soviet Union, was an implicit signal to the world that Russia is open to business. The company leaving Russia is an explicit signal that the country is no longer a place. you want to be in as a company, “Nishanov said.

People wait in line to enter McDonald’s restaurant in Moscow on March 11, 2022, after the chain announced it would temporarily close its 850 restaurants in Russia, joining other foreign markets operating in Russia stopped after the country’s military campaign in neighboring Ukraine. McDonald’s has since decided to leave Russia permanently.

Vlad Karkov | Sopa Images | Lightrocket | Getty Images

“I first read about the McDonald’s in Russia in a youth magazine called Yunniy Tehnik,” Nishanov said. “I was absolutely fascinated and fascinated by the article and the idea that, for a relatively modest amount of money, one could also be part of the American culture of which McDonald’s was a tangible representation.”

“For a generation of Russians, McDonald’s – commonly referred to as MakDak – was a fascinating phenomenon,” he added. “Clearly connected to American culture, but much of its daily life and, in a way, less foreign than foreign to many other markets.”

Lots of staff and lots of money

Economically, too, the departure is significant – McDonald’s employs 62,000 people in Russia. With the hundreds of other foreign companies that have left the country, the number of jobs lost is estimated at hundreds of thousands.

The civilian chain will now sell its business, which includes about 847 restaurants, saying the “humanitarian crisis caused by the war in Ukraine, and the strikingly unpredictable business environment, have led McDonald’s to conclude that the company’s continued ownership in Russia does not longer lasting, and also inconsistent with McDonald’s values. “

The logo of the closed McDonald’s restaurant in the Aviapark shopping center in Moscow, Russia, March 18, 2022.

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CEO Chris Kempczinski said he was proud of all the company’s workers in Russia and that the decision was “extremely difficult”. He also said that employees will continue to be paid until the company is sold and that “employees have future employment with every potential buyer.”

Shoppers look at closed McDonald’s and KFC restaurants in the Mega Mall, in Khimki, outside Moscow, Russia on March 27, 2022.

Konstantin Zavrazhin | Getty Images

McDonald’s write-off of leaving Russia will be between $ 1.2 billion and $ 1.4 billion, the company said. Just closing their restaurants for the first few weeks in Russia had hit its revenue significantly, costing $ 127 million last quarter. Together with its 108 restaurants in Ukraine, Russian and Ukrainian companies will generate about 9% of McDonald’s revenue by 2021.

‘Crucial soft diplomacy’ during the Cold War

Politics, the golden bows also went a long way, says Tricia Starks, professor of history at the University of Arkansas and author of the forthcoming book “Cigarettes and Soviets.”

“The American way of consuming was a crucial soft diplomatic front in the Cold War … the Soviets’ acquaintance with the material norms of America was another field of battle,” Starks said. A few other brands took on this role in the USSR before McDonald’s did so, namely Pepsi in 1972 and Marlboro in 1976.

A Soviet policeman stands in a queue of people waiting to enter a newly opened McDonald’s in 1990 on Gorky Street in Moscow.

Peter Turnley | Corbis Historic | Getty Images

But McDonalds, as opposed to a can of Pepsi or a pack of Marlboro cigarettes, “was a completely immersive experience of the sensual joys of capitalism,” she said.

“From the moment you stepped in, it was a completely different experience than a Soviet restaurant. You were greeted with smiles and shouts of ‘Can I help you?’ “Products were of consistent quality and always consumable. The burgers were hot!”

This was a culture shock for Soviet residents, many of whom expressed confusion when staff smiled at them. “When I smile, people ask what’s wrong, they think I’m laughing at them,” a Russian employee told a 1990 McDonald’s opening day.

Russian musicians traditionally dressed to perform at the then busiest McDonald’s restaurant in the world on Pushkin Square in Moscow during the 15th anniversary of the opening of their first restaurant in Russia on January 31, 2005.


“When you were ready, a laborer came and threw away the trash, and the showplace on Pushkin Square was kept clean despite the thousands who come through the day – some of them waiting hours for the pay of a full month. to spend on food for a family of four, “Starks described, noting that customer service was simply not a concept in the USSR. “Service was a by-product of a McDonald’s experience.”

‘Thank you for all your sanctions’

Not all Russians feel bad about leaving the golden arches.

“Hello Americans … We want to thank you for all your sanctions, for removing our country Coca Cola, KFC, McDonald’s and all that sh–. Now through the summer we will be healthy, strong and without jam,” influencer and comedian Natasha Krasnova wrote in March in an Instagram post that has been viewed more than 5 million times.

A mobile fast food bus is seen in Moscow, Russia, as people buy alternative fast food after McDonald’s closes its nearly 850 restaurants across the country. March 21, 2022.

Sefa Karacan | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Many Russians have encouraged replacement of Western chains with Russian-made brands, and at this point are perfectly capable of making their own burgers and other fast food products. There has also been a push by some to abandon American-style food as a whole in favor of local dishes, as much of the country rejects Western symbols out of patriotism.

A view of McDonald’s restaurant serving in Murmansk, Russia, the northernmost city in the world, on March 11, 2022, after the chain said it would temporarily close all of its 850 restaurants in Russia in response to the invasion of Ukraine in Ukraine. In May, it announced its permanent withdrawal from Russia.

Semen Vasilyevy | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Many Russians feel bitter about having to deal with the consequences of a war they have not chosen. Those consequences pale in comparison to the horror being dealt with in Ukraine, where thousands of civilians have been killed by Russian bombs and numerous cities laid in ruins.

But as war rages and Russia becomes increasingly isolated by international sanctions, time will tell how many Russians will leave their country in pursuit of the more open world they knew, and how many will choose loyalty to the state, turning against that world .

For Nishanov, it’s not just about McDonald’s, but about something bigger.

“McDonald’s leaving Russia affects many of my generation differently,” he said, “I think because it represented – and I know this sounds dramatic – hope and optimism. The company that leaves confirms that Putin’s Russia a place is without those two things. “

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