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How Gorbachev’s Pizza Hut ad came to be — and why it still reflects his legacy

The minute-long commercial from the 1990s resurfaced after the death of the Soviet Union’s last leader

Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, appeared in this 1997 ad for Pizza Hut with his granddaughter. (Video: Pizza Hut)

The commercial opens with a snowy view of Moscow’s Red Square, where a man and his granddaughter are en route to Pizza Hut. Once inside, other diners gape as Mikhail Gorbachev — the last leader of the Soviet Union, who helped end the Cold War — sits down for a slice.

Arguments ensue. In the minute-long, 25-year-old Pizza Hut ad — which resurfaced Tuesday after Russian news agencies announced that Gorbachev had died at 91 — fellow diners are divided on his legacy.

“Because of him, we have economic confusion!” an older man says. “Because of him, we have opportunity!” a younger man responds.

The 1997 ad was meant to be tongue-in-cheek, Tom Darbyshire, who wrote the commercial for the advertising agency BBDO, told The Washington Post. By tapping into the debate about Gorbachev’s legacy — a man seen as a hero abroad and a villain in Russia — the commercial sought to show that “pizza is one of those foods that brings people together and bridges their differences,” Darbyshire said.

But the commercial that made Pizza Hut trend on Twitter on Tuesday almost didn’t happen — and it didn’t even air in Russia. It took a year of negotiations to get Gorbachev to agree to it. He refused to eat pizza on camera — enlisting his granddaughter to do that instead. That bitter-cold morning they were set to shoot, he arrived late, Darbyshire recalled.

“We weren’t sure he was going to show up,” he said. “He was about an hour late, negotiations had been a little tense, and I think he was only doing it because he needed the money.”

The value of Gorbachev’s pension plummeted after the fall of the Soviet Union, Foreign Policy reported. Eliot Borenstein, a Russian and Slavic studies professor at New York University, said it’s “sad and ironic” that the former leader was so strapped for cash that he had to make the commercial — and that the only way Gorbachev got praise from Russians was through paid actors.

Despite the initial challenges, Darbyshire said, filming day was filled with touching moments. They filmed on Thanksgiving, and as the crew ate pizza instead of turkey, Gorbachev stood up and insisted on serving the slices, he recalled.

“On a day that we give thanks for all that we have in America, our freedoms and our plenty, for him to be making that symbolic gesture realizing that he was keeping us away from our families … was something I’ll never forget,” he said.

The final product reflects Gorbachev’s complicated legacy, said Jenny Kaminer, a professor of Russian at the University of California at Davis. The ad “lines up with how the different generations experienced the collapse of the Soviet Union,” she told The Post in an email.

For some, Gorbachev’s dual policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) brought the promise of economic freedom. For others “who couldn’t adapt to the rapid transition to a market economy, it meant abject poverty, insecurity, and a humiliating loss of dignity,” Kaminer said. That division is similar to how Westerners view Gorbachev vs. Russians’ view of him, she added.

“More Russians, I would say, agree with the verdict of the older man [in the ad] who blames Gorbachev for creating chaos and instability, while Westerners cheer him for upholding our supposedly sacred liberal values of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy,’ ” Kaminer said.

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University of Arizona professor Pat Willerton agrees.

“Russians saw somebody whose efforts led to the country’s collapse,” Willerton, a scholar of Russian politics, told The Post. “They saw somebody whose efforts accelerated an already deteriorating domestic, political, and socioeconomic situation. They saw a leader who was naive in the way he engaged the West. They feel that the West took full advantage of the efforts that he made and that they got themselves into an inferior power position.”

The diners in the Pizza Hut ad eventually come together when an elderly woman cuts through the bickering to interject: “Because of him we have many things like Pizza Hut!” Soon everyone’s raising a slice to chants of “Hail to Gorbachev!”

In reality, though, not everyone finds that common ground.

As The Post’s David E. Hoffman wrote, “The Soviet collapse was not Mr. Gorbachev’s goal, but it may be his greatest legacy. It brought to an end a seven-decade experiment born of Utopian idealism that led to some of the bloodiest human suffering of the century.” Still, Gorbachev’s daring moves proved to be a double-edged sword in a country that has historically valued strongmen.

Abroad, he induced “Gorbymania” — drawing big crowds that showered him with praise for easing what had been nerve-racking nuclear tensions. But at home, he became a persona non grata, consistently ranking among Russia’s most disliked leaders — even below Joseph Stalin, who ordered executions and forced people into labor camps.

“The diametrically opposed views are a reflection of the world we’re in,” Willerton said. “We’re in a completely divided world.”

A 2017 Pew Research Center poll found that more than two-thirds of Russians surveyed said the Soviet Union’s collapse was a bad thing. That number jumped among older Russians, according to the poll. In the same survey, 58 percent of Russians polled rated Stalin positively, while 22 percent rated Gorbachev positively.

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“In Russia, greatness has nothing to do with being nice; it has to do with being strong,” Willerton said. “That’s why a contemporary Russian seeing the ad would most probably think ‘Thank God we have [President Vladimir] Putin now after the mess Gorbachev left.’ ”

Stars Coffee opened its first location in Moscow on Aug. 18. The restaurant is nearly identical to Seattle-based Starbucks, which exited the country in May. (Video: Jackson Barton/The Washington Post)

Gorbachev was aware of the negative views from Russians. Initially, concerns about his legacy led him to decline starring in the ad, the Financial Times’s Madison Darbyshire wrote in 2019. He finally agreed when “after a spat with his successor, Boris Yeltsin, he suddenly needed new office real estate for his foundation,” according to Darbyshire, whose father is Tom Darbyshire.

That need for funds also led Gorbachev into agreeing to another now-viral-moment: a 2007 Louis Vuitton campaign shot by Annie Leibovitz. In it, the former statesman is featured in the back seat of a car with the Berlin Wall’s remains in the background.

Tuesday wasn’t the first time Gorbachev’s Pizza Hut ad made the rounds. The commercial has periodically found new audiences online even though it aired before the age of social media. It was shared widely earlier this year, amid talks about Pizza Hut’s leaving Russia over the country’s invasion of Ukraine.

Seeing the commercial resurface this week unlocked another memory for Darbyshire: the process of translating the script from English to Russian. After reading it, a Russian speaker told him, “We don’t really have a word for freedom in the way you think of freedom in America,’ ” Darbyshire said.

“That was an interesting idea, that freedom as we think of it is not even a word that they had a term for, because this is a country that perhaps was rushed into trying out democracy without putting all of the institutions in place,” he said.

Gorbachev would later see some of the freedoms celebrated in that commercial reversed under Putin. The pizza memes live on, though.