Putin's War on McDonald's
Russian health inspectors have shut down the McDonald's at 29 Bolshaya Bronnaya. It's not just any hamburger joint: I stood in line for three hours just to get into it back in February, 1990.
On Jan. 31, 1990, its first day of work, the McDonald's, the very first one in the Soviet Union, served 30,000 people, a worldwide record for the company. Opening the restaurant required years of negotiations, and the U.S. fast food chain had to use its Canadian subsidiary to form a joint venture with the Moscow government because the U.S. was still perceived by the rotting Communist hierarchy as the Cold War enemy. To ordinary folks in Moscow, however, the establishment on Bolshaya Bronnaya, just off Pushkin Square, was a symbol of our country's opening up to the world. We were used to lining up for food back then, and there was often nothing in the stores but big glass jars of sweetened birch sap, but we didn't wait in that McDonalds' line because we were hungry. We did it because few of us had been outside the Soviet Union, and we wanted to see what it was like "out there".
Moscow is cold in February. Someone had brought a tape recorder, it was blaring the lambada and people were dancing to keep warm. Once I got into the chock-full McDonald's and pushed through to the register, I got a strawberry milkshake. I didn't -- and still don't -- eat meat.
Now, after operating continuously for more than 24 years, the fast food joint, and three other McDonald's restaurants in Moscow, have fallen afoul of Rospotrebnadzor, the body that President Vladimir Putin's government has often used to punish countries seen as unfriendly toward the Kremlin. In 2006, it banned wine imports from Georgia and Moldova. Late last year, dairy products from Lithuania were deemed unsafe. Last month, before Putin responded to Western sanctions against Russia with a food embargo, it banned Polish apples. The official reasons were always health-related.
The McDonald's closure is no exception. According to a Rospotrebnadzor document quoted by state-owned news service RIA Novosti, the Bolshaya Bronnaya establishment's "premises do not match the volume and variety of products made and do not allow for compliance with sanitary norms and rules."
Moscow is not being original.McDonald's recently suffered a setback in China after the health authorities there said it had been buying expired meat from a U.S.-owned supplier in Shanghai. Earlier this month, the company said it would miss sales forecasts for China, where it has had to stop selling hamburgers and chicken nuggets. This may just be a coincidence, but Western companies in general have recently come under increased pressure in China under pretexts ranging from corruption to antitrust concerns.
Just like in 1990, McDonald's is a symbol of America's global influence. It's ubiquitous, and the food tastes the same -- and equally foreign -- everywhere. Wherever anti-American sentiment grows, mobs break McDonalds' windows. I once saw that happen ding an anti-globalist protest in London. Activists tossed half-made hamburgers and plastic chairs into the street until riot police chased them away.
Putin and China's leader Xi Jinping are no hamburger-throwing anarchists, but they, too, realize the importance of symbols. McDonald's position became precarious when the company closed its Crimea restaurants in the wake of the peninsula's annexation by Russia. In April, ultranationalist lawmaker Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who often presages official moves, called for the closure of all McDonald's restaurants in Russia. "And then we'll go to work on Coca Cola," he said.
Indeed, how do we know Coke is safe? In the Sverdlovsk Region in the Ural Mountains, the local branch of Rospotrebnadzor has just banned the sale of Jack Daniels and Jim Beam bourbon: They, according to the service's verdict, contain chemical compounds "not typical of whisky."
It's open season in Russia on everything American. As for me, I will always remember my first time at McDonald's -- and the last time I visited the Bolshaya Bronnaya shop with my 11-year-old stepdaughter, after we'd been to a rally protesting the Crimea annexation. "If Putin is such a villain, why don't people just kick him out?" she asked loudly. People lining up to the registers next to us -- the place was still doing brisk business -- recoiled instinctively.
It was not 1990 anymore, and Moscow's romance with the world "out there" was at an end.
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Leonid Bershidsky at email@example.com