It was 1990, and the Soviet Union's penultimate summer. The only splashes of colour in the uniformly grey cityscape of Moscow were sun-bleached red flags that hung limply from facades, garish Soviet propaganda murals painted on the sides of apartment buildings — and the bright yellow golden arches of McDonald's in Pushkin Square.
The newly built restaurant looked like an alien spaceship had landed in the heart of the socialist capital. Thousands of Soviet citizens waited for up to two hours in a queue that snaked down Tverskoy Boulevard for a taste of the West. For them, stepping through the glass doors of McDonald's was like taking a trip abroad — or perhaps into their own future.
This week McDonald's announced that, after 32 years in Russia, it was going to "de-arch" — the company's amusing jargon for selling off — its 871 restaurants. According to chief executive Chris Kempczinski, the opening of the chain's first restaurant in the USSR on January 31, 1990 "embodied the very notion of Glasnost" — Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev's drive to open up Soviet society.
Now, said Kempczinski in a letter to McDonald's 62,000 Russian employees: "It is impossible to ignore the humanitarian crisis caused by the war in Ukraine ... our commitment to our values means that we can no longer keep the Arches shining. It is impossible to imagine the golden arches representing the same hope and promise that led us to enter the Russian market."
So the circle of history has made a complete turn. I later worked as Newsweek's Moscow bureau chief but, when I first visited McDonald's in Moscow in July 1990, I was working as a summer intern at the British Embassy. We had been sent a sheaf of free Big Mac vouchers and a couple of colleagues from the consular section persuaded the British ambassador's driver to run us over to Pushkin Square in the Embassy's brown Rolls-Royce.
Brandishing our vouchers and obvious foreignness, we jumped the queue — but had an interminable wait inside behind a line of Soviet customers for whom fast food was an entirely alien concept. The middle-aged man in front of me stumped the cashier by asking what kind of fish was in the Fillet O'Fish. Nobody knew. I still don't.
Eventually we emerged with half a dozen paper bags filled with enough burgers, fries and cola for the whole office and raced back to the pre-revolutionary palace across from the Kremlin that then housed the British Embassy.
The elderly doorman sniffed contemptuously at his Big Mac. "This is what the Americans call civilisation?" he said. My young Soviet friends, by contrast, were fascinated. "Describe the taste to us," they begged — an impossible task.
Infatuation with everything Western among the young, contempt from the old. The metaphor sounds too trite, but McDonald's was a pretty accurate bellwether for how Soviet society viewed the coming triumph of capitalism and Western-style consumerism.
For many years McDonald's became a benchmark for Russia's increasing sophistication and prosperity. In 1990, a Big Mac meal cost a quarter of a Moscow student's monthly stipend. But, in time, as Russia bumped along the rocky path to capitalism, eating at McDonald's went from luxury to a normal treat to becoming cheap food for the masses, just like in the West.
Now, as Western companies abandon Russia in the wake of Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine, McDonald's has once again become a symbol of an unattainable, foreign world.
The same goes for dozens of international brands which millions of middle-class Russians took for granted — Ikea, H&M, Zara, Starbucks, Le Pain Quotidien, Nike, Adidas, Apple, L'Occitane and many others. The vast shopping centres that had come to symbolise the prosperity and plenty of modern Moscow stand half-empty with rows of shops closed and dark. Shoppers, though, seem indifferent — or at most, mildly irritated. "They will all come back soon," says Maria, a young mother who was shopping for children's clothes in the Evropeisky Mall near Moscow's Kievskaya station last week. "Everything will blow over and things will be the same as before."
Viktor, a thick-set, middle-aged security guard, was less sanguine. "Screw them. We don't need all this stuff. We have our own. And if we don't have it, we'll make it."
The USSR tried to prove that it could keep up with Western technology by producing clunky local versions — often directly ripped off from the originals — of Japanese tape decks, Levi's jeans and even the Sony Walkman. With Western sanctions biting, Russia is once again scrambling to create its own home-grown substitutes for missing imports. The Ochakovo drinks company last week announced a new line of black, orange and clear soft drinks called CoolCola (fake Coca-Cola), Fancy (Fanta) and Street (Sprite).
A consortium backed by the Government of Moscow has plans to take over McDonald's restaurants and rebrand them Dyadya (Uncle) Vanya. The new trademark will look suspiciously familiar, with the yellow McDonald's "M" turned on its side to make a "B" — the first letter of "Vanya" in the Cyrillic alphabet.
Renault, the biggest producers of cars in Russia, last week announced that it would be selling off its Kaluga plant at a €1.4 million loss to a local group, again led by the Government of Moscow, that plans to produce a new version of the Moskvich, a legendarily unreliable Soviet-era budget car.
Other throwbacks to the USSR are less amusing.
At the beginning of the war, the Kremlin blocked access to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, as well as the BBC, the opposition Meduza news site and many other independent news outlets. To access them, Russians need to install a virtual private network, or VPN, on their laptops and mobiles to get around the Russian ban. Just as Soviet citizens would illegally tune in to the banned Voice of America, Radio Liberty or the BBC Russian Service on crackly short-wave radios, modern Russians have to break the law to get non-Kremlin sanctioned news.
More seriously, the war has re-created two Soviet-era classes of enemies of the state — dissidents and political exiles.
Before Putin's February 24 invasion, opposition independent news outlets such as Radio Ekho Moskvy, TV Dozhd (Rain), Novaya Gazeta and the New Times were under pressure, but tolerated. A week into the war the Duma passed a draconian law making distribution of "fake" information about the war — or even calling it a war at all, rather than the official designation of "special military operation" — punishable by up to 15 years in jail.
To date over 550 people have been charged under the new law and up to 250,000 journalists, bloggers, opposition activists and other professionals have fled Russia. Others have left because they fear their draft-age sons being called up and sent to fight in Ukraine.
There are — so far — no restrictions on leaving from the Russian side, though some activists and journalists have reported long questioning at the border with federal security service officers checking phones for incriminating social media posts. But, after two years of being banned from travelling to Europe for tourism due to Covid, few middle-class Russians have current visas to the West. As a result, the few countries that allow Russians to enter visa-free — Armenia, Georgia, Turkey and Israel — have been swamped with exiles.
So far, there are few external signs that Moscow is the capital of a country at war. The large "Z" signs that have become symbols of support for the invasion have quietly disappeared from awnings and shop fronts. In two weeks I did not spot a single car in central Moscow with a "Z" in the window. And, though prices have jumped by up to 30 per cent, the bars, clubs, theatres and restaurants remain packed.
"This whole city is in denial," says Daria Martynova, 44, a make-up artist. "Those who can afford to leave have left. The rest are either in shock or just try to ignore what's happening."
And what about life without McDonald's? "I can live without Big Macs. I haven't eaten one for 15 years. McDonald's is a symbol that we're no longer part of the world. We're just Russia again. On our own."