As fighting between the local military and Russian nationalists intensifies in Eastern Ukraine, the proxy war between the Kremlin and the United States is also heating up. The battlefield? McDonald’s.
Following a food-safety violation lawsuit filed in Russian courts last month, the government is now shutting down McDonald’s locations outright, including the branch that opened on Pushkin Square in 1990, in what was then still the USSR. Four locations have been closed, and dozens of others are being investigated. The reasons for the closures given by the government’s food-safety watchdog have to do with sanitation and food safety. But the move is widely considered to be part of the Kremlin’s ongoing cold skirmish against the business interests of countries that have brought sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine crisis.
One of the first American mega-brands to expand into the post-perestroika Soviet Union, McDonald’s has gone from being a symbol of Western capitalism to one of Western imperialism in the last 24 years. With 438 locations in Russia, including its busiest outpost in the world—the Pushkin Square McDonald’s—the chain is an understandably tempting target. The Golden Arches might as well be the Stars and Stripes. But the symbolism doesn’t bear out when you look at the company’s Russian operations—because while the burgers and fries may seem thoroughly American, the farmers behind the raw ingredients are Russian.
One of the conditions Soviet officials required of the first Moscow McDonald’s was that it work with a local supply chain. In his memoir To Russia With Fries, George Cohon, the Canadian businessman behind the Pushkin Square location, recalls that the Russian suppliers were “the stars of the opening day festivities.”
“Certainly,” he writes, “they were the part of our operation that caught the attention of Mikhail Gorbachev. He understood the ripple effect that our presence would have throughout the Soviet agricultural system.” They may have been growing Russet Burbank potatoes—the long russets McDonald’s prefers for its french fries—instead of more traditional Russian varieties, but it was local Soviet farmers who, in part, made this triumph of capitalism possible.
So part of what makes McDonald’s such a potent symbol in Russia also ties it closely to the Russian ag economy. Quartz points out that many of the companies that were started to supply the Pushkin Square McDonald’s are now big business. The dairy company Wimm-Bill-Dann “was the first Russian consumer goods firm to list on the New York Stock Exchange in 2002,” for example.
Still, it’s hard to see a fried Russian-grown potato served in that telltale red paper bucket as anything other than American. Thus the Russian campaign against McDonald’s continues, even if it’s hurting domestic farmers.