MOSCOW - American fast-food icon McDonald's on Friday marked 30 years since it first opened its doors in Moscow, an occasion with deep resonance here since the transition from the communist Soviet Union.
Yet, marring the celebration were city authorities' concerns over an outbreak of the coronavirus in neighboring China.
The restaurant had marketed a day of Soviet-era pricing, with hamburgers costing their original 1990 3 ruble price tag, but canceled the event amid government fears a Soviet-era line would pose a health hazard.
Coupons were issued instead for the thousands who arrived anyway.
Burgers of change
The McDonald’s "Golden Arches" first lit up on Moscow’s Pushkin Square to great fanfare on January 31, 1990.
An estimated 38,000 Soviets lined up for hours for what they might have heard of but never tasted: a McDonald's hamburger.
“All I remember is we waited a long time,” Elena Nikolaevna, 78, a former factory worker who came to attend the 30th anniversary celebrations, said.
“I felt like I was eating America itself,” Andrey, 53, said, recalling his first bite, a month after the initial opening. “The lines were huge.”
The Moscow launch set company records at the time, with the most customers ever served in one day.
The event was intrinsically linked to Russians’ desire for Western-style market reforms under former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of perestroika, or restructuring.
Introduced in 1986, perestroika brought new openness to Soviet society, but provided few quick paths toward repairing the USSR’s deeply flawed command economy.
The scene on Pushkin Square seemed to lay bare those contradictions; while shortages of basic necessities were common in Soviet stores, McDonald's — almost magically — never ran out of food.
The secret was that the company had negotiated to set up a private manufacturing plant within the Soviet Union — unheard of at the time — while importing 80% of whatever else was needed.
It was effective but far from perfect; the company operated at a loss. There were problems from the Soviet customer's point of view, too, as an average meal cost more than a half day’s wages.
There was also an open secret about this symbol of America being introduced into the Soviet Union — it was actually Canadian.
The CEO of McDonald's Canada, American-Canadian citizen George Cohen, first latched onto the idea of opening a McDonald's in the Soviet Union after bringing Soviet representatives to a McDonald's during the 1976 Montreal Olympics.
The Soviets liked the food and, even more, they admired the service.
Moscow was gearing up to host its own 1980 Summer Games and looking for ways to feed foreign tourists something quick, familiar and tasty while maintaining their pride.
“Being a Canadian company was giving a neutral touch to the whole setup,” Marc Carena, the current CEO of McDonald’s Russia, told VOA.
Cold War politics, including the U.S. decision to boycott the 1980 games over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, ultimately scuttled the deal.
Yet, a few years and hundreds of hours of negotiations later, Gorbachev endorsed the Golden Arches as part of his push for change.
"McDonald’s was more than the opening of a simple restaurant,” Carena said, “It came to symbolize the entire opening of the USSR to the West.”
Service with a smile
Watching archival videos, available on YouTube, is like entering a time warp regarding relations between Moscow and Washington then.
“They say the West is bad, but I like this food,” said a young customer interviewed at the 1990 opening.
“We were interested in another life and what it looked like," Georgi, a retired army veteran, told VOA.
“McDonald’s just made the world just feel wider. That’s not the case now,” he said.
In theory, he was referring to the current poor state of U.S.-Russian relations, although in reality, he had just finished a Big Mac.
McDonald’s' most lasting Russian legacy may lie in the Western-style services the company pioneered here.
After placing a single advertisement in the leading Moskovsky Komsomolets daily, the company fielded 30,000 applications. Just over 600 finalists were chosen.
“I remember waiting for the bus and looking at the McDonald’s sign and crying,” said Svetlana Polyakova, who was hired to flip hamburgers.
“I thought I’d made it,” added Polyakova, now the company’s Russia public relations director.
Those chosen were young and energetic, and had little or no experience.
That was the point. McDonald's employees, by design, had none of the bad habits associated with the grim unfriendly service of Soviet cafes, Anna Patrunina, one of the original cashiers but now vice president of operations, said.
"We were asked, 'Can you smile for eight hours straight?' We all said yes, of course,” she told VOA, “but it turns out it’s harder than you think.”
Smiling was a warmth easily extended in Soviet homes but was not part of public life. It was foreign. It was weird. It was American.
New times, new rules
Today, good service in Russia is common, and so, too, is McDonald's.
The company now has more than 700 stores across the country and 98% of the company’s supplies are now sourced locally.
"We're a Russian company and we always were a Russian company," according to Carena, a Swiss national and the only foreigner on staff.
Not everyone is happy, though.
“I don’t like their fast food. I never have,” said Elchin, 58, a businessman who moved to Moscow from Baku, Azerbaijan, 30 years ago, adding he preferred home-cooked meals.
“Ukrainian borscht, Russian dumplings, Armenian barbecue … now that’s food to savor,” he said.
“Nothing against the U.S. but I love the classics,” he said.