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Even McDonald’s couldn’t save Russia Its departure signals the start of a new cold war

The age of the Big Mac is over (Peter Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

The age of the Big Mac is over (Peter Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)


May 17, 2022   4 mins

The arrival of Big Macs, skinny fries and those absurdly-thick shakes in Moscow 32 years ago heralded a moment of hope that the world was entering an era of peace and prosperity after the Cold War. This was at a time of Western triumphalism, when optimists proclaimed that rampant capitalism was benevolent and history was ending amid the unstoppable ascent of liberal democracy.

Now, though, McDonalds is pulling out of Russia — a move laden with heavy symbolism. The hamburger giant was among more than 1,000 Western companies to close down operations following Putin’s Ukrainian invasion. Most swiftly saw the potential collateral damage to their brand if they stayed in the Russian market. Yet the fast food firm has moved beyond its initial suspension of sales to announce that it is selling its 850-strong chain in the country to a local buyer.

“It is impossible to imagine the Golden Arches representing the same hope and promise that led us to enter the Russian market 32 years ago,” Chief executive Chris Kempczinski told staff and suppliers as he announced that the company was to permanently withdraw from the country.

Hundreds of Russians were waiting outside when the first branch — a 900 seater in Pushkin Square — opened its doors in January 1990, a moment that presaged the end of the Soviet Union with its infamous consumer shortages. Some excited citizens dressed in Disney costumes to mark their admiration for America and a record 34,000 burgers sold on the first day alone. Later the firm imported special potatoes to Russia and flew in foreign experts to help develop special baking and cattle-rearing systems. Now there are 62,000 staff and branches in 11 different time zones.

Michael Gorbachev, then general secretary of the Communist Party, won the Nobel Peace Prize in the year McDonald’s arrived and later went on to star in a Pizza Hut commercial. But he was banned from Ukraine after backing Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea and later spoke about his admiration for Putin. “The manual control of authoritarianism was needed to overcome the situation that our friends, our former friends and allies, created for Russia by pushing us out of geopolitics,” he told Time, echoing the President’s own distorted narrative that has led to this shocking war in Europe.

I ended up eating chips smothered in alleged cheese and mayo in a Ukraine McDonalds a couple of weeks before the conflict kicked off —  the only place open late in Kharkiv. Now the streets of the country’s former capital are in ruins, the city devastated by Putin’s bombs, while the burger chain has temporarily departed Ukraine. It is paying staff and giving assistance to refugees — but it would be far more helpful if such Western brands re-opened their branches to show support for the country in places away from the frontline. Walking around Kyiv yesterday, it was noticeable how many foreign-owned stores remain closed.

Before Kharkiv, my previous McDonalds was in Belarus, where I was reporting on pro-democracy protests two years ago. I was chased in to a Minsk branch by paramilitary thugs, who grabbed a few demonstrators for their torture chambers as we scanned the menu hastily trying to look like customers. Such is the firm’s ubiquity. The significance of its place in global capitalism led The Economist to invent an index using the cost of a Big Mac to assess purchasing power in nations. There was also another theory that no two countries containing franchises of the firm would go to war, intended to show how rising wealth led to falling violence, but this hubristic idea was quickly crushed by conflict in the Balkans.

Removal of the Golden Arches from Moscow spotlights the arrival of another Cold War between democracy and dictatorship. For the moment, it is focused on Russia after Putin’s atrocities in Ukraine. But his allies in China are looking hungrily at Taiwan as they watch this war play out — another reason why this fight is so important. The retrenchment by McDonalds comes after the pandemic focused corporate minds on the pitfalls of long supply chains while exposing how Beijing’s rulers could not be trusted after a global battle broke out against a mysterious new disease that emerged within its borders. Even now, they resist global efforts to discover the truth about Covid’s origins.

Russia was already cutting itself off from the West — like China — with a war on foreign media and technology firms to protect the ruling circle of thieves even before the imposition of wartime sanctions and exodus of foreign firms. Now McDonalds is the perfect illustration of how how Ukraine’s existential struggle for survival is accelerating the divide between autocracies and liberal democracies. The economic fallout from this war with rising energy and food prices is being felt around the world — and I suspect there are more explosions still to come as the shock waves ripple around the planet.

Since the success of McDonald’s is largely down to marketing rather than culinary finesse, the gap it leaves in the Russian market will be rapidly filled. Already firms are filing applications to trademark names and logos that look suspiciously familiar. When the burger behemoth  pulled out of Donetsk after the Russian-backed separatist takeover in 2014, its branch in the city was replaced by ‘Donmac’, complete with a Golden Arches logo and little red boxes for fries.

But while Russians continue to enjoy their burgers and fries, the rest of the world — which has become wealthier through co-operation, consumerism, democracy and globalisation — is becoming more fissured, more fractious and far more suspicious. Ultimately, we may all end up as losers from these turbulent events.


Ian Birrell is an award-winning foreign reporter and columnist. He is also the founder, with Damon Albarn, of Africa Express.

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Todd Kreigh
Todd Kreigh
2 years ago

Irregardless of the political symbolism and the overreaching impllications of the loss of foreign investment .. the loss of Clown Burger is hardly a death-knell for Russia. It does mean there will be fewer cases of indegestion after eathing the swill they call food. But perhaps I’m biased, since I live in the heartland of the USA (where everyone is fat) and we have great alternatives to MickeyD’s – Sonic, Whataburger, Wendys .. even Burger King. If I want slop-chute fare, I’ll pick one of those. When a McDonald’s burns down arond here, we build a Taco Bell in its place.

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
2 years ago

Excellent essay thanks – McD may be a litmus test for stability as well as comparative purchasing power. Maybe a new cold war will focus folk’s mind on things a little more important than whether one’s sexual fetishes receive due respect etc etc etc. The West obviously needs something to help it maintain perspective lest it starts to disappear into its own navel (or worse !).

Chauncey Gardiner
Chauncey Gardiner
2 years ago
Reply to  chris sullivan

In the United States, Waffle House is a recognized test for stability. After any given natural disaster — or terrorist event (“man-made disaster” in Obama-speak) — it’s the first to get up and running.
Waffle House makes for a cultural experience. The ingredients are really cheap. It caters to folks living on the edge.
I’ve been in one. Once. “Waffle House.” It sounded so promising. But, good thing for those folks for showing up and doing what they do.

Paul O
Paul O
2 years ago

I am sure entrepreneurial Russians will step in to replace all of the profitable McDonald’s outlets. And if it isn’t Russians it will be Indians or entrepreneurs from another country.

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
2 years ago

It seems a silly choice. As the author said, each of those restaurants will be operating again very soon.

David Simpson
David Simpson
2 years ago

If macd was the best we had to offer Russia, is Putin really so surprising?

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  David Simpson

You, like me and most of the chatterati, Right or Left, are extremely sniffy about McDonalds, but many ordinary people like them, including the Russians.

Chauncey Gardiner
Chauncey Gardiner
2 years ago

There’s always Puzata Hata (ĐŸŃƒĐ·Đ°Ń‚Đ° Xата, spelling?) in Ukraine. It’s really very nice cafeteria food served by very cheery, matronly ladies. And the lines, always long, move efficiently.

Susan Cullom
Susan Cullom
2 years ago

Shwarma (russian version of Gyros, kinda) has an upside down golden arches implying healthier version of fast food

William Fulton
William Fulton
2 years ago

 “the ruling circle of thieves” – an exquisite description of Russia today.
Seized Russian Central Bank assets cannot be used to rebuild Ukraine, says International Law. Rule of law also says you cannot obliterate thousands of civilians with artillery / airstrikes.
Rough justice: rebuild Ukraine using seized Russian assets. A US / international one time referendum would preserve “rule of law” vs these murderous thieves, and perhaps deter a reprise.

 

Last edited 2 years ago by William Fulton
Victoria Cooper
Victoria Cooper
2 years ago

Nothing to stop them re-opening when Putin is gone. Which will be in a matter of months.

Roger le Clercq
Roger le Clercq
2 years ago

It seems this is part of the despairing efforts to break through the awful reality that Putin propaganda has succeeded in retaining his supporters. How is the truth to be RAMMED home to Russian residents. Probably not by withholding the cheeseburger.

Vladimir Makarenko
Vladimir Makarenko
2 years ago

Sometimes it shocks me how far apart is Western idea what Russians are after and what the reality is. I am not going to blame “Western Propaganda” or whatever – I am not looking for “who’s the guilt”, I just puzzled – again and again all the forecasts of your “experts” what will happen next to Russia turn wrong.
Maybe it is time to sit down and think? Because as it is now – as I see it – the distance to the nuclear war is shrinking fast. Russia has everything to response militarily. I do not know HOW STUPID, HOW DUMB are the Western political elite and American in particular, when in December 2021 Russians over the head of EU sent the US a letter which explicitly warned about “technical military response” if Russia’s security is not taken into account. Now we have what we have: Death and Destruction, what the West is celebrating, – why not – it’s me who drains my savings to help my friends and relatives in Ukraine…You meanwhile announce $40 Billion “help”, – aha, out which is a half is going to the US companies but it is the Ukraine who will pay for this funny “lend lease”.
What I can say – you know how to make money on other people blood.
And at last so that there is no cheap crap about “russkie” – my father was born off Center West Ukraine.
I do not think that you are evil, you just want to feel good at cheap, while like a politically correct soccer moms, you care so much about fast food because this is how you live, – food, information, feelings: everything has a quick cheap fix – McDonalds, CNN, Pills to feel good. For the poor drugs are on the street corner, for the those with money – at CVS on prescription.
My best. My dog is a most tender creature in the world, he is a 12 year old pitbull. Picked up on a highway 11 years ago. Amstaff, for those who know.
Good luck to everybody.

William Adams
William Adams
2 years ago

What a rant and as for “Russian security”, how about Ukranian security and the security of the numerous other countries Russia has invaded over the past century?