McDonald’s in Russia: departure is about a lot more than burgers

Stung by its honeymoon with westernisation, Putin’s way of restoring Russian relevance has been to tear up global norms

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When the first McDonald’s in Moscow opened 32 years ago, the line of Russians waiting outside was hundreds of metres long, and there were long queues again this week for a last Happy Meal and a slice of history, as the fast-food giant closes its doors in Russia.

The shuttering of 850 McDonald’s franchises around the country is supposed to be temporary, but nothing about the war in Ukraine and the consequent exodus of western companies suggests the rift will be healed any time soon.

McDonald’s’ departure, like its arrival, is about a lot more than burgers. The golden arches of history, that once seemed to be bounding forward, now appear to be turning full circle and threatening to take Russia back in time.

An urban consumer culture built around Visa and Mastercard, Ikea, Nike, Apple, Zara and Netflix has evaporated in a few days.

“There’s just this sickening feeling that they’re going to go back, not to the 1990s, but to the 1970s when you didn’t have access to these things, and when you were living isolated from the rest of the world,” said Prof Angela Stent, a former national intelligence officer for Russia on the National Intelligence Council, now at Georgetown University.

The looped trajectory of the past three decades has been driven by a lot of disparate forces, inside and outside Russia, economic and political, and ultimately very personal: the ambitions, fears and impulses of Vladimir Putin.

When the first McDonald’s opened in Russia, the Soviet Union still existed. “We didn’t know what fast food was,” wrote Mitya Kushelevich, a photographer, in a recollection in the Guardian. “We thought it probably tasted like freedom and we wanted to sample it.”

To many people, it tasted like the end of the cold war, if not the end of history. But while Russians wanted to consume capitalism, they were careful from the start not to be consumed by it.

“People misunderstood: Russians didn’t want to be Americans, and they didn’t want to be like America, but they wanted the same stuff: the jeans, the cigarettes, the chewing gum, the burgers,” said Fiona Hill, who was an exchange student in Russia in the late 1980s and went on to become an intelligence analyst on Russia and then senior director for Europe and Russia in the White House.

Nautilus Pompilius, a Russian rock group, had a hit song at the time called Goodbye America, with lyrics that reflected that scepticism, about being “taught for so long to love your forbidden fruits” but finding that “your ripped jeans have become too small for me”.

The honeymoon with westernisation was short-lived. The shock transition from communism to a market economy, shepherded by a liberal government with western consultants, was a disaster, producing oligarchs, lawlessness and poverty.

When Putin was first elected president in 2000, Russians looked to him to restore order. But even then, the former KGB officer still had aspirations of turning Russia into a strong market economy, albeit with authoritarian governance.

“Putin was saying: ‘I’ll bring you bread and circuses, I’ll bring you Big Macs, Ikea, reality TV like everybody else has, and you leave the politics and the national security to me and everything will be great,’” said Hill, who has co-authored a biography of the Russian president.

In a 2001 speech to the German Bundestag, Putin talked about the two nations “building a common European home”. “As for European integration,” he said, “we not just support these processes, but we are looking to them with hope.”

At the St Petersburg International Economic Forum, Russia vied to be one of the world’s industrial powers. At the same time, Putin’s government provided the US with logistical help in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks.

The disillusion that set in over the ensuing years came from several different directions at once. Putin’s attempt to order a modern economy into being one less reliant on oil and gas faltered in large part because he was not prepared to give up tight central control. Small businesses were given no protection against the oligarchs. And the global financial crash of 2007-08 raised questions over whether the west had a model worth following at all.

“When the financial crisis hits, the Russians are thinking: these guys aren’t that smart,” Hill said. “They’ve just completely and utterly upended not just their own economy, but the global economy.”

At the same time, Putin and his circle had come to see Nato as an offensive alliance and a threat. When its planes bombed Russia’s ally Yugoslavia in 1999, it was not a defensive act, in Moscow’s eyes, as no Nato member had been attacked.

In 2002, George W Bush withdrew the US from the anti-ballistic missile (ABM) treaty with Russia, deepening suspicions about US motives. And the Kremlin was convinced western hands orchestrated the Rose revolution in Georgia in 2003 and the Orange revolution in Ukraine the following year, further undermining Moscow’s sway in what was once the Soviet Union.

The belief that those uprisings were western plots was reinforced by the Nato decision during the alliance’s 2008 summit in Bucharest to open the door to membership to both Ukraine and Georgia.

“Putin thought that in return for cooperating with the US in Afghanistan, the US would recognise that Russia was a great power with a right to a sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space. Instead he got withdrawal from the ABM treaty, he got the colour revolutions and the Iraq war,” Stent said. “I think by 2007, he was thoroughly soured by his experiences with the west, and that’s also when he started harbouring these territorial designs.”

The Nato-led intervention in Libya in 2011 led to another sharp downward turn in Russia’s descent towards isolation. Moscow felt tricked into voting for a UN resolution that approved “all necessary measures” to protect Libyan civilians, a move broadly interpreted by the US and its European allies as a mandate for regime change. Putin is said to have repeatedly watched video footage of the murder of Muammar Gaddafi by a vengeful mob.

Putin’s way of clawing back Russian relevance from a position of weakness has been to tear up global norms, killing defectors in Britain with radioactive substances and nerve agents, and in 2014, swiftly annexing Crimea. The ensuing sanctions served to turn Putin’s Russia even further inward.

“According to people with knowledge of Mr Putin’s conversations with his aides over the past two years, the president has completely lost interest in the present,” Mikhail Zygar, a Russian journalist and author of All the Kremlin’s Men: Inside the Court of Vladimir Putin, wrote in the New York Times. “The economy, social issues, the coronavirus pandemic, these all annoy him … In his mind, Mr Putin finds himself in a unique historical situation in which he can finally recover from the previous years of humiliation.”

The failure to conquer Ukraine with the ease he had expected has added yet more humiliation, to which Putin shows every sign of responding with greater violence, with no end to the murderous cycle in sight. The departure of McDonald’s and all that represents looks destined to be just a speck in the avalanche brought on by Russia’s fall.

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