They called it “five minutes in the West” – a meal at McDonald’s. In 1990, that dream became a reality for countless Russians, when the nation’s first McDonald’s opened in Moscow’s Pushkin Square. The line snaked for blocks, and by the end of Day One, 30,000 people had been served.
I was the Monitor’s Moscow correspondent then, and still have my souvenir sweatshirt featuring the golden arches juxtaposed against the onion domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral. And what a day it was: Musicians and actors performed. Speeches were delivered. Once inside, customers shoved their way to one of 27 cash registers – all for the privilege of overspending on a “Beeg Mek.” This video captures the excitement.
Perhaps most remarkable were the legions of cheerful young Russian employees taking orders and wishing everyone a nice day – a far cry from the usual surly Soviet “customer service.”
The food itself was a hit, tastier than the U.S. version, it seemed. Russians said, of course their McDonald’s was better, because their ingredients were locally sourced and not “full of chemicals” – the party line on American food.
But that day wasn’t even about the food. It was about being part of the wider world, about the lowering of the Iron Curtain that would soon disappear.
McDonald’s has now suspended operations in Russia – shuttering 847 restaurants – as have many other Western companies, in protest of Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine.
Will this form of sanction make a difference? Some observers are hopeful.
“Millions of Russians have very personal memories about that first McDonald’s, and the others that opened later,” says an American friend who lived there in the 1990s. “The symbolism of this closure is resonating deep in Russian society. The closing will have more of an impact than the opening, just watch.”