Not Lovin' It: The Rise and Fall of McDonald's Diplomacy

Image Credit: Martin Parr
Image Credit: Martin Parr

On a chilly winter’s morning in January 1990, hundreds of Russians lined up as early as 4am to try a McDonald's hamburger. At 10am, the first McDonald's restaurant in the Soviet Union opened its doors in Moscow's Pushkin Square. 32 years later, McDonald's closed all of its 847 stores in Russia and left for good. It was the end of an era and the death of Hamburger Diplomacy.

The Golden Arches Theory

During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union were locked in a global struggle for political and economic dominance. As part of its efforts to spread American ideals and values around the world, the United States government encouraged the expansion of American businesses into foreign markets.

The arrival of McDonald's in the Soviet Union was seen as a symbol of the superiority of American capitalism and a sign of the West's victory in the Cold War. It also gave rise to the McDonald’s Peace Theory, popularized by The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. The theory suggests that "no two countries that both have McDonald's have fought a war against each other since each obtained its McDonald's." The arrival of McDonald's in the USSR was thought to be one of the most effective forms of Western propaganda during the Cold War.

Image Credit: Rudi Blaha/AP
Image Credit: Rudi Blaha/AP

Soviet Service with a Smile

But, opening the first McDonald's in Russia wasn't easy. It took some 14 years of negotiations with the Soviet state. After receiving approval, there was still the issue of building a dependable supply chain. McDonald's needed a steady supply of patties and potatoes for the thousands of people who would stream into their restaurants each day. McDonald representatives visited local food processing plants and found them insufficient. In the absence of reliable infrastructure, McDonald's decided to create its own supply chain by sourcing directly from farmers and building their own network of distributors.

The first McDonald's in Russia was the largest in the world. It looked like any other McDonald's, apart from the hammer-and-sickle flag beneath the golden arches. A meal could cost half a day’s pay for the average Soviet citizen. Customers were often confused by the friendly staff. One employee told the CBC that when she smiled at people, they asked what was wrong. “They think that I’m laughing at them,” she said. 

The new McDonalds, Vkusno i tochka. Image Credit: Sergei Bobylev/TASS
The new McDonalds, Vkusno i tochka. Image Credit: Sergei Bobylev/TASS

Not Lovin’ It

In the months following Russia’s brutal and unjustified invasion of Ukraine in 2022, McDonald's announced it would close the doors of its Russian restaurants for good. The scenes from the 90s were repeated as Russians lined up outside McDonald restaurants to eat what could be their last-ever Happy Meal. One Russian man even handcuffed himself to the door of a McDonald’s in protest, shouting “Closing down is an act of hostility against me and my fellow citizens!”. He was quickly arrested.

In June 2022, Vkusno i tochka which roughly translates to Delicious, Full Stop opened 65 restaurants in the locations of former McDonald's restaurants. Their menu largely consists of rebranded McDonald's items - the Big Mac became the Big Hit. A month later, the company released a press release citing that some restaurants would stop selling French fries and potato dishes due to a poor harvest the previous year. Once a symbol of Post-Cold War optimism, McDonalds closing its doors in Russia ushers in a new era of isolationism and a less secure world for us all.   

Hordubal | Czechoslovakia | 1979 - Comrade Kiev

Hordubal | Czechoslovakia | 1979

International Ultrasound Exhibition | Lithuania | 1981 - Comrade Kiev

International Ultrasound Exhibition | Lithuania | 1981

12 April - Cosmonauts Day | Russia | 1989 - Comrade Kiev

12 April - Cosmonauts Day | Russia | 1989