McDonald’s in Russia: 20 years of “loving it”

McDonald’s came to the USSR as a first sign of freedom two decades ago.

Long lines for fast food. And a taste of freedom in a locked country. When McDonald’s opened its first restaurant in Moscow twenty years ago, the Soviet Union was waning but still standing. The borders were closed, the choice was dismal. So to many Soviet people, French fries tasted more like Freedom fries.

“Back then, in order to travel to a foreign country one needed to get all sorts of permissions,” says Viktor Loshak, an editor for the Ogonyok magazine. “So for many, walking through McDonald’s door was like crossing the border control. It was like another world for us…”

Natalya Kolesnikova was among those who endured hours in subzero temperatures to try her first Big Mac. And while she is no fan of junk food, she says, in 1990 the McDonald’s menu offered a host of delicacies.

“It was like going to a major premiere,” she says. “People were coming here from all around Moscow. Some had even driven from beyond the city. When guests came to visit, taking them to McDonald’s was just as important as showing them around the Kremlin.”

It took McDonald’s 14 years of intense negotiations with Communist Party bosses to open its first outlet. But once the Golden Arches appeared in Moscow, it meant far more than just business expansion.

“McDonald’s was not so much a fast-food chain but rather a symbol of freedom”, says Loshak. “A symbol of Western values coming to Russia. No wonder the Communist Party objected so fiercely, but at the end it didn’t have a choice.“

With more than 230 outlets across Russia, McDonald’s now controls about two thirds of Russia’s quick service restaurant market – all thanks to its first-come, first-serve strategy.

And while McDonald’s in Russia has long stopped being a cultural phenomenon and became what it is throughout the world – a fast food-chain – it still delivers what it promised two decades ago. Food, folks and fun.

It all started in 1976, in the heart of the Cold War, and it took 14 years to bring McDonald’s to Moscow, remembers George Cohon, one of the team that brought McDonalds in the USSR.

“We just said [to the Soviet government]: trust us, we’re here for a long time, we’re going to come in and go out right away, we’re going to build, we’re going to grow with Russians. It took a few years, but over a period of time we delivered on what we promised: great food, great surroundings and a price people can afford.”

Full interview with George Cohon