30,000 People Line Up for the First McDonald’s in Moscow, While Grocery Store Shelves Run Empty (1990)

Every­one has wait­ed in a long line — for burg­ers, Broad­way tick­ets, Black Fri­day sales… But few us have the noto­ri­ous queu­ing resilience of the Sovi­ets. “When the first McDonald’s arrived in Moscow in 1990, the city went mad,” Boris Egorov writes at Rus­sia Beyond. “Thou­sands of Mus­covites flocked to the new burg­er joint, form­ing lines sev­er­al kilo­me­ters long in the cen­ter of Moscow on Pushkin­skaya Square.” On its first day, the restau­rant oblit­er­at­ed the pre­vi­ous record for most McDonald’s cus­tomers (9,100 in Budapest), serv­ing over 30,000 peo­ple, a tes­ta­ment to the for­ti­tude of the employ­ees. The CBC news seg­ment on the open­ing above quotes a line from Pushkin to set the scene: “a feast in a time of plague.”

Stereo­types of fast food work­ers as lack­ing in skill and ambi­tion did not find pur­chase here. “The first work­ers,” Egorov notes, “were the crème de la crème of Sovi­et youth: stu­dents from pres­ti­gious uni­ver­si­ties who could speak for­eign lan­guages with bril­liant cus­tomer ser­vice skills.” Their cheer­ful­ness so unnerved some cus­tomers that they were asked to tone it down for Rus­sians “accus­tomed to rude, boor­ish ser­vice.”

Cus­tomers seemed less awed by the iconog­ra­phy than the “sim­ple sight of polite shop work­ers,” wrote an Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist. The restau­rant, once a tourist attrac­tion, notes trav­el site Bridge to Moscow, had “more than 700 seats inside and 200 out­side,” and was once the largest McDonald’s in the world.

The Moscow McDonald’s rep­re­sent­ed more for Rus­sians than an Amer­i­can nov­el­ty. Orig­i­nal cus­tomer Kse­nia Oski­na had nev­er heard of McDonald’s before she vis­it­ed. She lat­er saved her Big Mac box. “I used that Big Mac box for a long time and put my sand­wich in there instead of a lunch­box,” she tells The Wash­ing­ton Post. “I’d clean it, dry it on the heater and then use it again.” It was­n’t about brand recog­ni­tion for many who duti­ful­ly lined up to pay half a day’s wages for a cou­ple “thin slabs of meat and sliced veg­eta­bles between buns of bread.” (Sor­ry… “two all-beef pat­ties, spe­cial sauce, let­tuce, cheese, and a sesame seed bun…..”)

What did Sovi­et Rus­sians, who had not been raised to sing fast food adver­tis­ing jin­gles, see in the new restau­rant? Capitalism’s promis­es of abun­dance. One Sovi­et jour­nal­ist wrote of McDonald’s as “the expres­sion of America’s ratio­nal­ism and prag­ma­tism toward food.” Just months after­ward, the first Piz­za Hut arrived. As the Sovi­et Union dis­solved less than two years lat­er, the coun­try saw the cre­ation of more desire for high-calo­rie, ultra-processed foods with West­ern-style TV ads: most famous­ly a Piz­za Hut spot from 1997 fea­tur­ing the U.S.S.R.’s last pre­mier, Mikhail Gor­bachev. (“Because of him, we have Piz­za Hut!”)

The pol­i­tics may have mat­tered lit­tle to the aver­age Mus­covite McDonald’s cus­tomer in 1990. “Vis­it­ing the restau­rant was less a polit­i­cal state­ment than an oppor­tu­ni­ty to enjoy a small plea­sure in a coun­try still reel­ing from dis­as­trous eco­nom­ic prob­lems and inter­nal polit­i­cal tur­moil,” notes History.com. Large, seem­ing­ly abstract prob­lems had tan­gi­ble effects: the emp­ty gro­cery stores for which the fail­ing empire became famous.

The Moscow McDonald’s was a col­or­ful oasis for its first cus­tomers, who had no sen­ti­men­tal asso­ci­a­tions with burg­ers and fries. Now, those tastes are nos­tal­gic. “I love it,” said Oski­na thir­ty years lat­er. “For some rea­son in Amer­i­ca, it’s not as tasty as it is here.” Insert your own dat­ed Yakov Smirnoff ref­er­ence.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Watch Metal­li­ca Play “Enter Sand­man” Before a Crowd of 1.6 Mil­lion in Moscow, Dur­ing the Final Days of the Sovi­et Union (1991)

Watch Andy Warhol Eat an Entire Burg­er King Whopper–While Wish­ing the Burg­er Came from McDonald’s (1981)

The Beau­ti­ful, Inno­v­a­tive & Some­times Dark World of Ani­mat­ed Sovi­et Pro­pa­gan­da (1925–1984)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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