Not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, a ubiquitous symbol of American capitalism found its way to the streets once ruled by Stalin’s iron fist.
The Golden Arches of McDonald’s opened its first restaurant in Moscow to the cheers of Russians who lived for decades under communist austerity that saw bare shelves and limited food choices.
The arrival of the Big Mac in Russia was as much a symbol of the end of the Cold War as was the lowering of the Hammer and Sickle from the Kremlin. A new era of freedom and optimism had dawned and with it the opening of the closed Soviet society to a world of new products, markets, information and culture that was blocked behind the Iron Curtain.
The announcement this week that the fast-food giant will be selling its locations in Russia will send shockwaves through the country. It might just be a powerful catalyst for the kind of popular uprising that helps bring down dictator Vladimir Putin’s rule.
McDonald’s is one of the world’s most recognizable brands. The company’s 39,000 locations spread across more than 100 countries are a symbol of American ingenuity and the bountiful nature of open, democratic and capitalist societies.
The company indicated it will begin removing its trademark Golden Arches from its restaurants and properties as it looks to offload the businesses at what will likely be a steep discount. It’s making a clean break from Russia.
The closing of 850 McDonald’s restaurants there will be a daily, visual reminder to Russians that their country is taking massive steps backward, toward isolation and authoritarianism.
Russian dictator Putin’s quest to regain Russian imperial glory started nearly two decades ago, but until now Russian society has been largely insulated from the negative effects of this aggression. The slow creep of Mr. Putin’s power on basic freedoms has perhaps not gone unnoticed, but with many of the aspects of the more open, prosperous post-Soviet era intact, Russians have gone about business as usual.
Losing McDonald’s isn’t about losing cheap, subpar burgers. For Russians, it’s about losing a connection with the rest of the world. It’s a reminder that their leadership is making decisions that aren’t elevating Russia or reclaiming the dominance of old empires. Those decisions are turning their nation into a pariah.
In addition to the body count coming out of Ukraine, the loss of the Golden Arches is a tangible reminder to Russians that the creep of Mr. Putin’s power is taking a significant toll. It is changing the character and landscape of the nation.
For 30 years, Russia has enjoyed an exaggerated degree of legitimacy. Russia never deserved to be part of the G8. The West overcompensated following its Cold War victory in an attempt to give democracy a chance to thrive and placate the nation with the world’s largest supply of nuclear weapons.
The West opened its arms and made billions from the new market. The power of consumerism coupled with access to Russian energy resources was the new golden goose for Western investment. Nations jumped at the chance to feed off Russian energy. Wealthy Russians had new playgrounds in places like London and New York.
In retrospect, we were too cozy. We trusted too easily. We turned a blind eye to warning signs of trouble yet to come. But the era of Reagan, Bush and the time following the end of the Cold War seemed like one of limitless possibilities.
McDonald’s departure from Russia is a symbol of the nation’s instability, vulnerability, and insecurity despite the bravado of its leader or the contrived displays of national pride on Red Square.
Just as the British Tea Act once helped motivate popular sentiment for the American Revolution, so too may this corporate retreat make as great an impact in the hearts of the Russian people.
One can hope that the passions of men and women can still be stirred to bring change to nations, even if it is spurred on by the tearing down of a beloved corporate symbol. It may take time, but when the history of this era is written, that odd craving for McDonald’s that we’ve likely all felt at one time or another could be one of the keys to Mr. Putin’s undoing.
Stranger things have happened.
• Tom Basile is the host of “America Right Now” on Newsmax Television, an author and a former Bush administration official.