This is Pushkin Square in Moscow, one of the central landmarks of the Russian capital, and on one side of it is this McDonald’s restaurant. In 2016 this wouldn’t turn heads at all, but 26 years ago today, on January 31, 1990, when this restaurant opened for the first time it was a really big deal. Few events could have marked the end of the Cold War and the softening of Soviet Communism more forcefully than the penetration of one of the world’s greediest corporations into the heart of the capital from which figures like Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin had once ruled the world’s red empire. I certainly remember when the Moscow McDonald’s opened. News broadcasts featured footage of the hours-long lines stretching back from the doors, mostly of dour-faced Soviet citizens in greatcoats and fur hats, waiting patiently under the gray winter skies for the first Big Macs to tumble down the aluminum shelves, thanks to the glory of capitalist democracy. Or something like that. This photo was taken in 1994, not long after the Soviet Union collapsed, and it still looked very much as it did in 1990. (It’s still there today but has been remodeled).
The Moscow McDonald’s was the brainchild of one George Cohon, an American-Canadian McDonald’s executive who pushed hard to open the franchise in the days after Mikhail Gorbachev’s Glasnost policy opened the Soviet Union to Western businesses. It was a big job. None of the supply chains upon which McDonald’s depends for its ground beef, fries and lung-sucking milkshakes existed in Soviet Russia, so Cohon had to create them basically from scratch. The original restaurant accepted only rubles, no foreign currency. It was thought to be a gourmet restaurant at the time. I don’t know whether McBorscht was on the menu, but if it wasn’t it seems difficult to have resisted.
McDonald’s came in only at the tail end of Soviet history. Within two years the Communist empire had disintegrated, and the course of Russian history since then has taken a markedly different turn. But even in the Putin era one can evidently still get a Big Mac before heading down to Lenin’s Tomb. What a strange world we live in.