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The Week In Russia: Big Mac Memories And Long-Held Grievances

A phalanx of young, crisp-uniformed employees at the counter of Russia's first McDonald's restaurant on Pushkin Square in 1990.

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Fast food it wasn't.

When McDonald's opened in Moscow 30 years ago today, the line wound all the way around Pushkin Square every day for many months. Unless you paid some enterprising young people to get you a spot closer to the door, damaging your pocketbook and your moral standing and risking the ire of fellow future diners, it took hours to get inside.

And being inside was no guarantee that you would bite into your Big Mac very soon: There was still the crush before the counter, manned by a phalanx of young, crisp-uniformed employees, and a fair amount of time could elapse before you were facing one signaling readiness to take an order with a cry of "svobodnaya kassa" -- free cash register.

This part could be more stressful than some of the lines Soviet citizens stood on frequently for food, goods, and what might be called services but more often was some bureaucratic hurdle that was more like the opposite of a service: the need to get a new "internal passport," say, or pay a gas bill.

Those lines were often long but in many cases were orderly, sometimes with lists -- I once found myself waiting for bedsheets at Moscow's Central Universal Store (TsUM) with a high three-digit number scrawled on my hand -- or even a self-appointed curator to keep track of everyone's place.

In front of the long McDonald's counter in 1990, there was little of the polite, customary line lingo -- "Who's last?" or "Yes, the woman in the red coat is in front of me, and the man in the hat in front of her" -- just a sense that if you were not quite assertive enough you might never get your McNuggets.

So, you've finally got your tray -- but now you need a table. At what was then the world's biggest McDonald's, with 900 seats, there was almost always a wait for a spot where you could sit down and eat -- and it required being proactive, roaming the restaurant with a keeping a sharp eye out for people putting on coats or showing other signs that they were preparing – about time! -- to leave.

Whether it was worth the wait is, of course, a matter of opinion. For some who stood in line, that opinion may have been colored by actual hunger, or at least the prospect of a meal made from something other than the limited ingredients available in the stores.

Frozen Fish And Cans

It may be hard to imagine in today's Moscow, where the multiple McDonald's outlets are just one of countless choices – among them Burger King, Dunkin' Donuts, Krispy Kreme, Starbucks, and a host of homegrown fast-food places, not to mention the myriad hipster dining spots and so forth.

But in terms of food supplies, among other things, 1990 was a tough time. when I arrived there in the late summer of that year and took a look at the southern-Moscow neighborhood where I was going to live, one of the grocery stores had exactly two items for sale: blocks of fused-together frozen fish and cans -- many cans -- of lentils.

With that kind of limitation as a backdrop, there is no denying that the opening of the Moscow McDonalds was an event as thick as a shake with symbolism and actual significance -- a nail in the coffin of communism at the start of a year that served up major setbacks for the Soviet Union, with the command economy and many of the Soviet Union's 15 republics, including Russia, declaring sovereignty.

In addition to Big Macs, big crowds, and big hair, photographs from the first few years of the restaurant's operations bring back memories of a time when hopes for warmer ties between Moscow and the West were getting higher.

Even then, nobody knew that the Soviet Union would cease to exist less than two years later. But the Berlin Wall had fallen the month before, and Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost had relaxed tight restrictions that had silenced citizens' voices for decades.

And, as the emergence of an iconic U.S. eatery attested (though the outlet on Pushkin Square was a joint venture between McDonalds of Canada and the Moscow City Council), the failing command economy was becoming a thing of the past -- in part due to popular demand for imports from the outside world, and particularly the West.

Putin's NATO Narrative

One thing that the new warmth between Moscow and the West did not produce was a promise that NATO would not expand to take in states that were coming out from under decades of dominance from Moscow. There has been much debate about this, but Gorbachev has said clearly that there was no such pledge -- and not much discussion, if any, of whether or not the Western military alliance should encompass any country east of Germany, which was reunified before 1990 was out.

Nonetheless, the "supposed violation of a pledge not to enlarge NATO has long figured as a key element in [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's narrative about (and against) the Alliance," as Steven Pifer, a longtime former U.S. diplomat and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, put it in 2014.

The idea of such a promise is also part of Putin's broader narrative about the West, a litany of grievances he has repeated several times since a landmark speech at the Munich Security Conference in February 2007.

Former Soviet leader MIkhail Gorbachev (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2004.
Former Soviet leader MIkhail Gorbachev (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2004.

As Pifer pointed out, one of those times was in a March 18, 2014 speech in which he sought to justify Russia's seizure of Crimea from Ukraine -- sealed that week after Moscow sent its forces to the Black Sea peninsula, secured control of key buildings, and staged a referendum considered illegitimate by at least 100 countries -- by raising the prospect that, if it had not, and Ukraine eventually joined NATO, the alliance's naval forces could be housed in Sevastopol, long the base of the Russian Black Sea Fleet.

The West has "lied to us many times, made decisions behind our backs, placed us before an accomplished fact," Putin said. "This happened with NATO's expansion to the East, as well as the deployment of military infrastructure at our borders."

Putin has repeated this narrative since 2014, as well, but it all goes back to conversations between Soviet and Western officials in 1990 -- including one between Gorbachev and U.S. Secretary of State James Baker on February 9, nine days after McDonald's opened in Moscow.

"The topic of 'NATO expansion' was not discussed at all, and it wasn't brought up in those years. I say this with full responsibility," Gorbachev said in a 2014 interview with Russia Behind The Headlines.

"So, don't portray Gorbachev and the then-Soviet authorities as naive people who were wrapped around the West's finger," he said. "If there was naivete, it was later, when the issue arose. Russia at first did not object."

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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