Journalist’s Notebook: Hope for democracy in Russia was ushered in with the Big Mac, now both are gone

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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 possibility of swapping Kolbasa for a Big Mac, seeing if the Soviets could do it, and showing a Russian friend of mine at Moscow State University, where I was studying, a piece of America.

Arkady was from the Russian Far East, the island of Sakhalin. He asked if there was fish on the menu.

“Yes,” I tell him. ” Fish fillet “.

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“What kind of fish is this?” He asked.

I took a break. I had no idea.

“It’s okay,” he said. “I will be able to tell by my eyes.”

People line up to visit a newly opened fast food restaurant in a former McDonald's store on Bolshaya Bronnaya street in Moscow on Sunday, June 12, 2022.
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People line up to visit a newly opened fast food restaurant in a former McDonald’s store on Bolshaya Bronnaya street in Moscow on Sunday, June 12, 2022.
(AP Photo/Dmitry Serebriakov)

Arkady, like many of the 30,000 who lined up on opening day, was surprised. Colour, bright lights, smiling cashiers. Soon Big Macs were being bought and resold, scalped at a nearby subway station. Plastic serving trays and some toilet seats are gone. The cashiers got married.

And McDonald’s grew. Eight hundred restaurants and 60,000 employees in Russia. Boris Yeltsin stopped and pushed the top of the bun off an ordinary burger to eat it Russian style – buterbrody. McDonald’s Russia was consistent, reliable, delicious, a thrill of sugar and salt in a gray world.

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Over the next few years, I watched the Soviet Union crumble. I saw protesters – ordinary men and women – gaining courage and taking risks. There were real elections and TV shows that mocked the president and criticized the conduct of the war in Chechnya. Russia, I thought, was on the right track for free speech, democracy, a market economy.

Alexander Govor, owner of the new Vkusno and Tochka restaurant chain which opened after McDonald's exited the Russian market, speaks during a news conference in Moscow on June 12, 2022.

Alexander Govor, owner of the new Vkusno and Tochka restaurant chain which opened after McDonald’s exited the Russian market, speaks during a news conference in Moscow on June 12, 2022.
(REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina)

I was wrong. All that has disappeared. And now the Big Mac is gone too.

The head office said doing business in Russia “didn’t align 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”.

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Unconfirmed reports say the Big Mac isn’t on the menu because the sauce is proprietary, but I doubt the sauce violation would be enforced during the war.

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The war also closed McDonald’s franchises in Ukraine, collateral damage. I stood before one in Odessa this morning. I looked at the golden arches and the shiny windows. It was empty inside.

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