When Mikhail Gorbachev, the Last Soviet Leader, Starred in a Pizza Hut Commercial (1998)

Mikhail Gor­bachev, the 8th and final leader of the Sovi­et Union, died last month at age 91, a news event that trig­gered respons­es rang­ing from “Who?” to “Wow, was he still alive?” The first response reflects poor­ly on the teach­ing of his­to­ry: jour­nal­ists report­ing on Gorbachev’s death have been oblig­ed to explain his sig­nif­i­cance to many Amer­i­can read­ers just a few decades after his name filled U.S. head­lines. But it’s also true that Gor­bachev left a thor­ough­ly ambigu­ous lega­cy that seems to grow only more mud­dled with time.

As his­to­ri­an Richard Sak­wa wrote on the 20th anniver­sary of the short-lived Sovi­et empire’s col­lapse, Gor­bachev is remem­bered in the U.S. — depend­ing on who’s remem­ber­ing — as either a “mag­nif­i­cent fail­ure” or a “trag­ic suc­cess.” Some for­mer Sovi­ets, espe­cial­ly those more par­tial to the author­i­tar­i­an­ism of a Stal­in or Putin, omit any pos­i­tive descrip­tions of Gorbachev’s major achieve­ment – to wit, reform­ing the U.S.S.R. out of exis­tence in the late 1980s with lit­tle need, real­ly, for Rea­gan’s extrav­a­gant nuclear pos­tur­ing.

Putin him­self calls the fall of the U.S.S.R. “the great­est geopo­lit­i­cal cat­a­stro­phe” of the pre­vi­ous cen­tu­ry, an assess­ment shared by many who agree with him on noth­ing else. At the end of the 80s, how­ev­er, an emerg­ing gen­er­a­tion of Rus­sians had no clear sense of what was hap­pen­ing as their coun­try fell apart. “I was 6 when the Sovi­et Union broke up,” Ana­toly Kur­manaev writes at The New York Times. “I had no idea at the time that the per­son most respon­si­ble for the over­whelm­ing changes trans­form­ing my home­town in Siberia was a man called Mikhail Gor­bachev. I remem­ber stand­ing in line for bread in the dying days of Com­mu­nism, but I don’t remem­ber much dis­cus­sion of his ‘per­e­stroi­ka.’ ”

Mixed admi­ra­tion and con­tempt for Gor­bachev trick­led down to a younger gen­er­a­tion a few years lat­er. “The snatch­es of con­ver­sa­tion I could hear were about peo­ple being fed up,” writes Kur­manaev, “not about the man with a dis­tinc­tive birth­mark sit­ting in the Krem­lin…. Iron­i­cal­ly, my first dis­tinct, inde­pen­dent mem­o­ry of Mr. Gor­bachev, as per­haps for many of my gen­er­a­tion, dates to a 1998 com­mer­cial for Piz­za Hut,” an ad made by the U.S. fast-food com­pa­ny to cel­e­brate the open­ing of a restau­rant near Red Square, and made by Gor­bachev because… well, also iron­ic, giv­en the ad’s premise… he need­ed the mon­ey.

Writ­ten by Tom Dar­byshire of ad agency BBDO, the com­mer­cial stages a debate between patrons at the restau­rant before Gor­bachev’s arrival calms things down. “Meant to be tongue-in-cheek,” Maria Luisa Paul writes at The Wash­ing­ton Post, the ad intend­ed to show that “piz­za is one of those foods that brings peo­ple togeth­er and bridges their dif­fer­ences,” says Dar­byshire. In yet anoth­er irony, Gor­bachev him­self — who nego­ti­at­ed for a year before agree­ing to the spot — refused to eat piz­za on cam­era, allow­ing his grand­daugh­ter the hon­or instead.

Though he would­n’t touch the stuff, Gor­bachev defend­ed him­self against crit­ics, includ­ing his own wife, Raisa, by say­ing “piz­za is for every­one. It’s not only con­sump­tion. It’s also social­iz­ing.” What was the talk at Gor­bachev’s local Piz­za Hut on the day he popped in with his grand­child to social­ize? Why, it was talk of Gor­bachev.

“Because of him, we have eco­nom­ic con­fu­sion!” one din­er alleges.

“Because of him, we have oppor­tu­ni­ty!” retorts anoth­er.

“Because of him, we have polit­i­cal insta­bil­i­ty,” the first responds.

An old­er woman breaks the impasse by stat­ing their obvi­ous mutu­al affini­ties for piz­za, to which all reply, “Hail to Gor­bachev!”

Try as they might, not even Piz­za Hut could heal the wounds caused by the coun­try’s eco­nom­ic con­fu­sion and polit­i­cal insta­bil­i­ty.

The ad has cir­cu­lat­ed on social media, and in his­to­ry class­es, before and after Gor­bachev’s death as an exam­ple of mass media that “still reflects his lega­cy,” writes Paul. Gor­bachev may be large­ly for­got­ten — at least in the U.S. — decades after the Piz­za Hut ad aired, but it would­n’t be his last attempt to leave his mark in adver­tis­ing, as we see in the 2007 Louis Vuit­ton ad above, fea­tur­ing a prod­uct much less acces­si­ble than piz­za to the aver­age Russ­ian.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The His­to­ry of Sovi­et Rock: From the 70s Under­ground Rock Scene, to Sovi­et Punk & New Wave in the 1980s

The Sovi­et Union Cre­ates a List of 38 Dan­ger­ous Rock Bands: Kiss, Pink Floyd, Talk­ing Heads, Vil­lage Peo­ple & More (1985)

Long Before Pho­to­shop, the Sovi­ets Mas­tered the Art of Eras­ing Peo­ple from Pho­tographs — and His­to­ry Too

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

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