The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How McDonald’s went from hero to zero in Russia

Customers eat their meals at a McDonald's restaurant in Moscow on Feb. 15, 2010. (Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr/ Bloomberg News)

Following the news that McDonald's would pull out of Crimea, now de-facto a part of Russia, there's been a considerable amount of spite directed to the American fast food restaurant in Russia.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the Liberal Democrat Party, has said Russia should close down all locations of the chain in the country, and apparently many Russians support him: According to a recent poll conducted by SuperJob's Research Center, 62 percent of respondents support the closure of all McDonald's in Russia. Last week, Russian media reported that anti-McDonald's activists had appeared in several Russian cities. “Down with American Fast Food!” activists in Bryansk reportedly said.

It's a sad state of affairs for the burger chain, whose first restaurant in Russia opened in happier times more than two decades ago in Moscow. The apparent success of the "golden arches" in the country was taken by many as a barometer of Russian westernization.

The historic arrival of McDonald's in Russia had been a long time coming. After 14 years of negotiations, an agreement was reached in 1988, the same year that McDonald's opened a restaurant in Belgrade, its first in the Communist world. "The McDonald's golden arches will be appearing on the Moscow horizon," George Cohon, a McDonald's official, said at the time. "A Big Mac will taste the same in Moscow as it does in New York, Tokyo, Toronto or Rio."

Moscow, back then referred to as the "slow food" capital of the world by The Post's David Remnick, apparently couldn't wait for the fast food. To meet a demand they were describing as "infinite," McDonald's announced plans for their biggest restaurant yet. The restaurant opened on Jan. 31, 1990, on Moscow's Pushkin Square, advertised with the slogan "If you can't go to America, come to McDonald's in Moscow." There were reports of huge lines, despite the five ruble cost of a meal (at the time, around half a days wages for an average Soviet worker).

For some Westerners, the sight of the Golden Arches in Moscow represented something more than just business. The Times's Tom Friedman wrote his now famous "McDonald's theory" in 1996, arguing that no two countries that both had McDonald's restaurants had ever gone to war. But as Joshua Keating of Slate has pointed out, that theory hasn't really stood the test of time: the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia are two recent examples of its failure.

Still, McDonald's success was startling. The restaurant that started it all is still open, reportedly serving 130 million customers in its first two decades. The chain expanded rapidly, with more than 400 restaurants in 22 cities, and recent plans to expand into Siberia.

Its success marked the changing nature of the Russian economy – When it first opened, it was forced to import many ingredients and produce some itself at a propriety factory near Moscow called the McComplex, as there were no private businesses in the country that could do so. In 2010, the New York Times noted, the final part of the burger to be produced in the factory (the bun) was out-sourced to a private Russian company, and almost 80 percent of McDonald's food then came from Russia.

McDonald's success has survived some hiccups. In 2012, Russia's Chief Sanitary Inspector Gennady Onishchenko said that his countrymen should stick to "patriotic" Russian foods and avoid exotic foods like McDonald's. "I remind our citizens that burgers, even without worms, aren't a sensible dietary choice for the population of Moscow and Russia," Onishchenko reportedly said. "This is not our food."

The closure of three restaurants in Crimea seems to coincide with a broader wave of anti-Westernism in Russia, however, and McDonald's, perhaps the most American of all restaurants, could well be a target: During 2008's anti-U.S. protests in Serbia, a McDonald's in Belgrade was broken in to and defaced.

Still, American fast food remains a draw in Russia, where doughnut giant Krispy Kreme, and high-end burger restaurant Shake Shack recently opened restaurants to great fanfare. Anecdotal evidence at least suggests the McDonald's might be okay. Our correspondent Kathy Lally assures me that though the 1990-style lines have disappeared from Moscow's McDonald's restaurants, they seem to be always packed.

Anyway, to remember McDonald's glory days in Moscow, take a look at this footage, which shows the truly enormous lines from 1990: