MOSCOW -- A quarter of a century ago, Dmitry Boiko queued for hours to get a taste of cheeseburgers and fries when the first-ever McDonald's opened in the Soviet Union, on downtown Moscow's Pushkin Square.
And he's been a loyal customer ever since. But when Boiko was walking home from work on August 20, he was shocked to see the Pushkin Square McDonald's closed.
"I don't believe it!" Boiko, 46, said, adding that just a few hours earlier he had visited the restaurant during his lunch break for a Filet-O-Fish sandwich.
Rospotrebnadzor, Russia's consumer-health agency, ordered the temporary closure of three McDonald's restaurants in the capital, including the iconic one at Pushkin Square, citing numerous breaches of sanitary guidelines.
However, amid tit-for-tat sanctions between Russia and the West, many regular customers like Boiko see the move as "political" and the latest collateral damage in the worst spell of East-West relations since the Cold War.
"Personally I'm against them closing McDonald's," Boiko said. "This was the first McDonald's. You could put a memorial to it here! This isn't alcohol -- it's part of a sober way of life."
'A Bite Of Freedom'
When it first opened in January 1990, amid much fanfare at the peak of Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika reforms, the Pushkin Square McDonald's was touted by Western commentators as a "bite of freedom" for Soviet citizens.
Since then, McDonald's, which has 115 restaurants in Moscow, has become less of a political symbol. Instead, its place on the market in the pricey Russian capital is similar to it's role in other major cities: a fast and inexpensive dining alternative.
Yulia and Polina say they've been coming to McDonald's for 11 years.
"There's nowhere to eat for cheap around here apart from McDonald's!" complains Nikolai, a 65-year-old pensioner, gesturing toward the expensive eateries on Tverskaya Street, Moscow's glitzy main boulevard. "Our rulers don't understand what it's like," Nikolai said, adding that he survives on a pension of 14,000 rubles (about $385) a month. "Nor do they care!"
On the morning of August 21, Nikolai, who declined to give his last name, sat on the restaurant's terrace as the usual parade of Muscovites arrived to pick up coffee and breakfast on their way to work.
"It's closed!" he shouted, as would-be customers frowned in irritation and disappointment. "It's politics! You need to watch television!"
The McDonald's at Pushkin Square is the chain's most frequented franchise in the world, according to the company website. In 1990, the huge queues snaked around the square and up Tverskaya Street.
Rospotrebnadzor says it now plans to carry out inspections of all 115 McDonald's in Moscow, the daily "Izvestia" reported on August 21.
As the news broke that the authorities were temporarily closing the Pushkin Square McDonald's, Yulia and Polina, both 17 years old, literally ran to the restaurant.
"This is my second home!" said Yulia, whose school is just round the corner and who usually orders a McChicken sandwich and large cola. "Just imagine -- we've been coming here since first grade for the last 11 years, eating and sitting!" Polina said.