The significance of McDonald's golden arches in Russia
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
It was 32 years ago, 1990, when the first golden arches appeared in Russia.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Today we're opening the first McDonald's in Moscow.
KELLY: The Big Macs made a big impact.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Thousands ate at McDonald's today, and the ones I talked with sounded like converts to the faith of fast food.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Hamburgers are rare in the Soviet Union, and today we are told one customer there tried to eat his with a spoon.
KELLY: Thirty thousand people were served on opening day at the original location on Pushkin Square. They had to stay open hours past closing time because so many people were still in line. Well, now that restaurant, along with hundreds more, is shutting down. McDonald's is leaving Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.
Joining us now is Kristy Ironside. She is an economic historian of Russia at McGill University. Professor Ironside, welcome.
KRISTY IRONSIDE: Thanks for having me.
KELLY: Take us back to that moment, 1990, and how big a deal this was or wasn't in Russia.
IRONSIDE: This is a huge deal. They opened this McDonald's to enormous fanfare. In fact, the picture of that line is still one of those kind of iconic images that people associate with Russia's transition to capitalism even though it happened before the Soviet Union collapsed.
KELLY: How did this play in the U.S.? And I know it was McDonald's of Canada that actually brought that first deal together, but what was the American reaction to that moment?
IRONSIDE: It was huge. Every major newspaper covered this. This was absolutely portrayed as an example of the Soviet Union embracing capitalist principles. They were interested in learning how to serve people on a mass scale and in a very efficient and profitable way. And so from the American perspective, this actually indicated that communism was beginning to sort of collapse under its own contradictions.
KELLY: We've been talking about the symbolism of those golden arches showing up. I know there's symbolism in them coming down. And then there's practical impact, too, right? This will affect people's jobs.
IRONSIDE: Absolutely. Thousands of people are going to lose their jobs; not just, you know, people who are making burgers, flipping burgers and serving them but all the people who work on those farms who are producing the potatoes that go into those French fries at McDonald's. But for the more nationalistic types, it's seen as, you know, maybe a positive symbol that it's going down because there were people even in the '90s who were not very happy about the fact that they spread so quickly, that they were, again, sort of proving this capitalist business model.
KELLY: Put this in the context of the many Western companies that are turning their back on Russia over the issue of the war in Ukraine. McDonald's is obviously one of the biggest, most prominent, most symbolic ones but hardly alone.
IRONSIDE: There are dozens if not, at this point, hundreds of firms that have pulled out. It's been dizzying, actually. And one has to wonder if this is a kind of unexpected dimension of all of this from the Russian government's perspective because I imagine they expected the financial sanctions were coming because that's what came after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, but I don't think they were expecting this because this is much less coordinated. It's not a government pushing this, this is companies themselves doing this.
I have to say I'm a little surprised that McDonald's decided to, you know, really pull out because they've always kind of waited out a lot of these crises. But this means that they must have done a very serious cost-benefit analysis of staying in that market and decided it just wasn't worth it.
KELLY: We've been speaking to you because of your expertise in Russian history and Russian economics, but can I ask just personally how you feel as you watch this just milestone?
IRONSIDE: It's really sad on some level. I have to be honest. I don't eat at McDonald's very often. And like many North Americans, McDonald's was kind of a place that I remember going to one of the first times I went to Russia because my Russian wasn't very good then. And I knew how to order a hamburger, and I didn't know how to order other things.
But, you know, I have some memories associated with my own trips to Russia that this is making me kind of reflect on a little bit. But I think it's sad because it also shows that, you know, 30 years of economic integration with the rest of the world is coming to this very abrupt end. It takes a very long time to rebuild those relationships and, as it turns out, not very long to blow them up entirely.
KELLY: Kristy Ironside is assistant professor of Russian history at McGill University. Thanks so much.
IRONSIDE: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.