MOSCOW — Ksenia Oskina was starving by the time she got to the front of the hours-long line for the cool new American restaurant. She’d never heard of the place before, so she peered through its glass windows to see what people were eating, hoping for a hint at what to order.
Oskina curiously observed the thin slabs of meat and sliced vegetables between buns of bread. When it was her turn, she nervously asked the cashier for a Big Mac because she wanted the fabulous box it came in. She saved that carton and her drink cup and brought it to work the next day to show her co-workers, telling them stories about how the employees were smiling and wiped tables after guests left.
“I used that Big Mac box for a long time and put my sandwich in there instead of a lunchbox,” Oskina said. “I’d clean it, dry it on the heater and then use it again.”
Oskina was one of the more than 30,000 to attend the Russian debut of McDonald’s 30 years ago Friday. As seminal a moment it was in her life, it was an even bigger one for the Soviet Union, opening a new window to Western civilization through fast food.
The Berlin Wall fell nearly three months earlier, and on Jan. 31, 1990, the height of President Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika economic reforms, the arrival of the golden arches on downtown Moscow’s Pushkin Square signaled that the communist Soviet Union was inching toward capitalism and open for business to Western brands. The Soviet Union dissolved less than two years later.
The Pizza Hut chain came to the Soviet Union a few months after McDonald’s in 1990, and Gorbachev appeared in a commercial for Pizza Hut in 1997. In the 60-second spot, Gorbachev is eating at the restaurant as a Russian family a table away argues about his legacy — freedom and opportunity versus political and economic instability. They finally agree to toast him when the matriarch says, “Because of him, we have Pizza Hut.”
McDonald’s and Pizza Hut “changed the restaurant industry in Russia,” said Mikhail Kostin, a Moscow-based food critic. “That’s when burgers and pizza were introduced to the Soviet people.”
The McDonald’s on Pushkin Square planned to commemorate its 30th birthday by offering some menu items at the same cost they were in 1990 — three rubles, which is the equivalent of a nickel. But with Russia concerned about a possible coronavirus outbreak, the promotion was canceled, at the suggestion of Moscow’s government, to keep a large crowd from gathering in one place.
The location was still busier than usual at lunchtime Friday as people paused to take photos in front of two ice sculptures commissioned for the occasion. The line wasn’t well out the door like it was 30 years ago, but customers were rewarded with coupons to buy a Big Mac for the Soviet price of three rubles at a later date.
One Russian, Dennis, who ate at McDonald’s the first day it opened its doors in 1990 wrote Thursday on Facebook that he tried Sprite for the first time that day. Clutching a coupon for a Big Mac that his father gave him, Kostin waited in a two-hour line that stretched around the square across the street on the second day it was in business.
U.S. food chains are now a common sight throughout Russia — KFC is arguably the most popular today — but McDonald’s customer service made it feel like a gourmet restaurant at the time. The burger’s popularity grew and became a local specialty. As imported food items got pricier, especially after Western sanctions in 2014, burgers were an item that could still be made with local products. Many restaurants now offer burgers with buns made out of Russia’s traditional black rye.
A significant chapter for Russia’s burger scene came in 2015 and 2016, when competing Russian beef producers — Miratorg and Zarechnoye — decided to extend their brand to burger joints. Miratorg was first with Farsh, and renowned chef Arkady Novikov was the face of the moist, juicy burgers. Zarechnoye followed suit a year later, also partnering with a celebrity — popular rapper Timati.
His Black Star Burger chain promised cheaper and soppier burgers, so much so that the restaurant suggested eating them with opaque black latex gloves as Timati himself does. Other restaurants copied that staple, and gloves are now commonly offered to diners who order a burger.
“The idea they had at that time was that it was okay to eat a burger with your hands, even if you were a girl, and not get any sauce or food on your fingers,” Kostin said.
Critics debate the quality of the Black Star Burger, but it’s the mere association with Timati that has led some Russian liberals to boycott the establishment because of his strong support for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Even with all of the dining options that now exist in Russia, the novelty of McDonald’s hasn’t worn off for Oskina.
“I love it,” she said. “For some reason in America, it’s not as tasty as it is here.”