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I had been eating mostly Soviet food for six months in 1990 when news broke that McDonald’s was coming to Moscow.
I was excited for a number of reasons — the chance to swap kolbasa for a Big Mac, to see if the Soviets could pull it off and to show a Russian friend of mine at Moscow State University, where I was studying, a piece of America.
Arkady was from Russia’s Far East, Sakhalin Island. He asked if there was fish on the menu.
“Yes,” I told him. “Filet-o-Fish.”
“What kind of fish is it?” he asked.
I paused. I had no idea.
“That’s OK,” he said. “I will be able to tell by the eyes.”
Arkady, like many of the 30,000 who lined up on opening day, was in for a surprise. Color, bright lights, smiling cashiers. Soon Big Macs were being bought and resold, scalped at a nearby subway station. The plastic serving trays and some toilet seats disappeared. Cashiers got married.
And McDonald’s grew. Eight hundred restaurants and 60,000 employees in Russia. Boris Yeltsin stopped by and pushed off the top bun of a plain hamburger to eat it Russian style — buterbrody. McDonald’s Russia was consistent, reliable, delicious, a thrill of sugar and salt in a gray world.
Over the next few years, I saw the Soviet Union fall apart. I saw protestors — ordinary men and women — gain courage and take risks. There were real elections and TV shows that mocked the president and that criticized the conduct of the war in Chechnya. Russia, I thought, was on track for free speech, democracy, a market economy.
I was wrong. All that disappeared. And now, the Big Mac is gone too.
Corporate headquarters said doing business in Russia “was not consistent with McDonald’s values.”
The Russian government had become too disgusting for American fast food.
Some restaurants reopened this weekend with a Russian owner and a new Russian name, “Tasty.”
Unconfirmed reports say the Big Mac is off the menu as the sauce is proprietary, but I doubt sauce infringement will be enforced during war.
The war has also shut down the McDonald’s franchises in Ukraine, collateral damage. I stood outside one in Odesa this morning. I looked at the golden arches and the shining windows. It was empty inside.