Putin’s War on McDonald’s


Russian health inspectors have shut down the Moscow McDonald’s at 29 Bolshaya Bronnaya Street. That isn’t just any hamburger joint: I stood in line for three hours just to get into it back in 1990.

When the McDonald’s opened on Jan. 31 that year, it was the first in the Soviet Union and served 30,000 people, a one-day record for the company. Opening the restaurant had required years of negotiations, and McDonald’s 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 Muscovites, though, the new establishment 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 to be had but big glass jars of sweetened birch sap. We didn’t wait in that McDonald’s 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.”

It was cold in February, when I joined the line. Someone had brought a tape recorder that was blaring “Lambada,” and people were dancing to keep warm. Once I got inside and pushed through to the register, I got a strawberry milkshake. I 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 regulator 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 are always health-related.

The McDonald’s closure is no exception. According to a Rospotrebnadzor document quoted by state-owned news service RIA Novosti, the premises of the McDonald’s on Bolshaya Bronnaya “do not match the volume and variety of products made and do not allow for compliance with sanitary norms and rules.” It isn’t clear why that would be any different now than 24 years ago.

McDonald’s also 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. The company said this month 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 pressure in China, under pretexts ranging from corruption to antitrust concerns.

As in 1990, McDonald’s is a symbol of America’s global influence. Wherever anti-American sentiment grows, mobs break McDonald’s windows. I once saw that happen during 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 Chinese leader Xi Jinping are no hamburger-throwing anarchists, but they, recognize the importance of symbols. McDonald’s position became precarious when sanctions prompted the company to close 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, Coke may not be safe. In the Sverdlovsk Region in the Ural Mountains, the local branch of Rospotrebnadzor recently banned the sale of Jack Daniels and Jim Beam bourbon: These venerable American products contain chemical compounds “not typical of whisky,” according to the service’s verdict.

It isn’t 1990 anymore. Moscow’s romance with the world “out there” is at an end.


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