The first McDonald’s restaurant in Russia opened its doors in Moscow in 1990. Although technically, the country was still under Soviet rule, certain regulations were being relaxed and it’s fair to say that the chain has almost mirrored the progress of Russian in the 21 years that have ensued.
Making its mark.
The very first McDonald’s to be opened on Russian soil, served its first meals on the 31st of January 1990. It opened in Moscow’s Pushkin Square and the queues that formed to greet it are said to have gone on for many miles.
Although 1990 marked the official opening, the firm had been involved in lengthy negotiations with the ruling Communist party and these had first taken place in the mid 1970’s, when McDonald’s were starting to open outlets across Western Europe.
One of the McDonald’s team from those early negotiations back in 1976, George Cohon, recalls the resistance to the proposal,
“We just said [to the Soviet government]: trust us, we’re here for a long time, we’re going to come in and go out right away, we’re going to build, we’re going to grow with Russians. It took a few years, but over a period of time we delivered on what we promised: great food, great surroundings and a price people can afford.”
Symbols of Freedom
In the 14 years between those first talks and the final opening in Moscow’s Pushkin Square, the political climate had changed dramatically and the opening of the famous restaurant was quite literally a symbol of freedom for many Soviet people.
Viktor Loshak, an editor for Ogonyok magazine summed up the feelings of the time,
“McDonald’s was not so much a fast-food chain but rather a symbol of freedom”, says Loshak. “A symbol of Western values coming to Russia. No wonder the Communist Party objected so fiercely, but at the end it didn’t have a choice.“
The wait ends
While McDonald’s may have been an entirely new phenomenon in the death throes of the Communist regime, the queues that greeted it certainly weren’t.
Hundreds of people waited for hours in sub zero temperatures on that most bitter of January mornings but nobody seemed to regret a moment of it.
Aside from its symbolic values, the food served at the restaurant was said to offer delicacies the like of which had never been seen before – you have to remember that major overseas food and drink manufacturers that are household names to anyone in the west, were unheard of in Russia at the time.
McDonalds Theory of War
Russia and McDonalds also have another claim to fame. The Russia-Georgia war of 2008 is said to have seen the first breach of the infamous McDonalds Theory of War. Rather like the theory that two democracies had never gone to war against each other, some wags had noted that two countries with a McDonalds had never gone to war, either. Until 2008.
Since those early beginnings, McDonald’s has enjoyed steady and impressive expansion in Russia to the point where, by 2011, it had around 250 restaurants in 60 Russian cities.
It has recently been in the news by challenging a Russian tax ruling and declaring itself as a supermarket rather than a restaurant. With the authorities in agreement, the chain was allowed to pay the much lower tax rate of 10 per cent, thus ensuring that its expansion can only continue.
The opening of the first McDonalds in Russia was a historic time for a country that knew it could fight western outlets no more. It is clear that this famous chain has played a symbolic part in the political change of the largest country in the world.