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Once a powerful symbol in Russia, McDonald’s is stepping down

Two months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, another powerful symbol has opened its doors in the heart of Moscow: a shiny new McDonald’s.

It was the first American fast food restaurant to enter the Soviet Union, reflecting the new political openness of the time. For Vlad Vexler, who aged 9 stood in a two-hour queue to enter the restaurant near Pushkin Square in Moscow on the day it opened in January 1990, it was a gateway towards the utopia he imagined the West to be.

“We thought life there was magical and there were no problems,” said Vexler, a political philosopher and author who now lives in London.

So it was all the more poignant for Vexler when McDonald’s announced on Monday that it would sell its 850 Russian stores and exit the market in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. McDonald’s said it was the first time in company history that it was exiting a major market.

“The symbolism of McDonald’s leaving, to me, is really that Russia is moving in a direction that’s a dead end, a direction that won’t offer anything to Russia and won’t allow Russia to offer anything. it’s in the world,” Vexler said. .

McDonald’s said it would seek a buyer who would employ its 62,000 Russian workers and continue to pay them until a sale is finalized.

McDonald’s entry into the Soviet Union began with a chance encounter. In 1976, McDonald’s loaned buses to organizers of the 1980 Moscow Olympics who were visiting Olympic venues in Montreal, Canada. George Cohon, then manager of McDonald’s in Canada, took visitors to McDonald’s as part of the tour. That same night, the group began discussing ways to open a McDonald’s in the Soviet Union.

Fourteen years later, after Soviet laws were relaxed and McDonald’s established relationships with local farmers, the first McDonald’s opened in downtown Moscow. It was a feeling.

On the day it opened, the restaurant’s 27 cash registers recorded 30,000 meals. Vexler and his grandmother lined up with thousands of others to enter the 700-seat store, entertained by traditional Russian musicians and costumed characters like Mickey Mouse.

“The feeling was, ‘Let’s go see how the Westerners do things better. Let’s see what a healthy society has to offer,” Vexler said.

Vexler saved money for weeks to buy his first McDonald’s meal: a cheeseburger, fries and a Coke. The food had a “plastic goodness” he had never experienced before, he said.

Karl Qualls, a history professor at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, was a student in Moscow shortly after the first McDonald’s opened and marveled at the long lines outside.

“It would cost an average Russian citizen a day’s salary to have a big meal like that. It was a prestige destination,” he said.

Qualls said McDonald’s also helped raise service standards __ which were notoriously surly __ and food quality in the Soviet Union. McDonald’s has set up its own farms and food production facilities and trained its staff to smile and greet guests.

“It was a real transformation,” he said. “It had a reach far beyond the 850 stores they have today.”

McDonald’s entry into the Soviet Union was so revolutionary that it spawned a political theory. The Golden Arch Theory holds that two countries that both have a McDonald’s will not go to war, as the presence of a McDonald’s is an indicator of the countries’ level of interdependence and alignment with US laws, said Bernd Kaussler, professor of political science at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

That theory held until 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea, Kaussler said.

Now these arches are falling in Russia. McDonald’s said it was removing signage and would not allow the potential buyer to serve its menu. McDonald’s said it would keep its trademarks in Russia and take steps to enforce them if necessary.

Vexler said many Russians __ fed by government propaganda __ think Western businesses won’t really leave or reopen as soon as there’s a ceasefire. It will take time, he says, for the realization of Russia’s isolation to sink in.

“Right now, there is a lot of denial. And a sense of helplessness, that if one were to oppose war, there is nowhere constructive to take that view,” he said.

Still, Vexler says he is optimistic that young Russians will not accept Western isolation and its economic consequences.

In a letter to employees on Monday, McDonald’s President and CEO Chris Kempczinski left open the possibility that McDonald’s might be back one day.

“It’s impossible to predict what the future holds, but I choose to end my post with the same spirit that brought McDonald’s to Russia in the first place: hope,” he said. .’ Instead, let’s say it like they do in Russian: until we meet again.”

The Independent Gt

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