Among all the minor side-effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the decision of McDonald’s to suspend its operations in Russia (sensible and inevitable as it was) truly stood out for its symbolism.
Opening a single McDonald’s in Moscow during the Cold War took 14 years of back channel negotiations, dating to the Montreal Olympics in 1976. Then, for 32 years, as the chain grew to 800 McDonald’s outlets across Russia, the memory of the first impression endured.
Perhaps it’s hard to understand if you don’t remember those days. But, I think even just watching briefly the news coverage at the time (video embedded below), you’ll see part of what it was like — and how Soviet citizens, who had been largely cut off from half of the world for decades, reacted to the idea of being able to buy an American hamburger from an iconic American restaurant.
It was epic. And that’s why when McDonald’s announced earlier this year that it was suspending operations in Russia, I think a lot of us hoped that it would merely be that: a temporary suspension.
Even as someone who only rarely eats at McDonald’s, and who has never been to Russia and probably never will, the suspension announcement was a bit heartbreaking.
But, then McDonald’s made another announcement just week. It’s going ahead with a sale of all its restaurants to a Russian business leader, who will rebrand the entire chain and vanish the Golden Arches from the country.
And that new announcement was even harder to bear. Here’s the official announcement:
McDonald’s Corporation announced today that it has entered into a sale and purchase agreement with its existing licensee Alexander Govor. Under this agreement, Mr. Govor will acquire McDonald’s entire restaurant portfolio and operate the restaurants under a new brand.
Since 2015, Mr. Govor has served as a McDonald’s licensee and has operated 25 restaurants in Siberia.
Neither McDonald’s nor Govor’s company, GiD LLC, revealed terms of the sale. Besides coming up with a new name and expanding his restaurant stake from 25 to more than 800 outlets, Govor promised to retain soon-to-be-former McDonald’s employees in Russia for at least two years.
Separately, Russia’s Ministry of Industry & Trade started soliciting ideas for a new name for the massive franchise, with Russians suggesting things like:
- “McAlex” (named for the new owner, I suppose),
- “McDuck” (which is apparently a slang Russian expression for McDonald’s, sort of like calling the chain “Mickey-Ds” in the U.S.), or
- “ZBurger” (which seems a trolling reference to the anti-friendly-fire recognition letters pained on Russian tanks as they invaded Ukraine).
Anyway, when McDonald’s first announced its suspension of operations, and later when it announced it would try to find a buyer, CEO Christopher Kempczinski ended his message to the “Global McFamily” of McDonald’s owner/operators, employees and suppliers, with a hopeful message:
It’s impossible to predict what the future may hold, but I choose to end my message with the same spirit that brought McDonald’s to Russia in the first place: hope.
Thus, let us not end by saying, “goodbye.” Instead, let us say as they do in Russian … “Until we meet again.”
But, fast-forward just a short time, and with the actual sale and rebranding apparently going forward, Kempczinski’s closing message of hope seems less and less likely.
The only silver lining I can see to the end of the Golden Arches in Russia? It’s an inspirational one.
If you’re running a business, remember the McDonald’s in Moscow. May whatever you’re building come to symbolize something as hopeful and powerful, and may you never have to walk away.
For the last time, perhaps, here’s what it looked like on the day the first McDonald’s opened in Moscow: