McUSSR – The first McDonald’s in the Soviet Union

On January the 31th, 1990, the first McDonald’s opened in the Soviet Union, less than two years before that country actually ceased to exist. The road to that historic opening had been long, with some people saying that the talks with Soviet officials had started as far back as 1976, almost a quarter of a century.

Many people saw this opening as a sign of distension in the international relations between the USSR and the USA and on both sides of the Ocean, the interest was really high. This was, in fact, going to be the first ever foreign restaurant in the Soviet Union and for McDonald this was, at the time, their largest restaurant ever, a venue with 900 seats. The people’s interest in Moscow was enormous. Suffice to say that an astounding 35,000 people applied for a job (in a country were unemployment did not exist!) in the new restaurant and around 600 were hired. In spite of this early sign, the authorities grossly underestimated the people’s desire for something new in a time when everything that was foreign immediately became exotic (yes, even a Big Mac!). They expected around 1.000 people on the opening day, but over 30.000 showed up (and started a very Soviet, very orderly line to taste American food, staying in line for up to six hours) making this the largest restaurant launch worldwide, ever.

McDonalds Opening Day 1990
The line of people waiting to try American burgers the day the first McDonald’s opened in Moscow, on January 31th 1990. Photo source.

In this historic photo of the opening day you can see a big McDonald’s sign on a white wall to the left of the picture and I just love how the logo seems to “stem from” a Soviet Union flag just underneath the Golden Arches. I took the feature picture of this post in the spring because I was intrigued by the abundance of symbols I could capture within a single frame. The white wall were the logo stood over 25 years ago has been repainted a now a large mural celebrates the Russian victory in World War II. The medal on the left says “Victory” (Победа) at the bottom and sports the famous “CCCP” (USSR) letters over the Kremlin‘s clock tower, surrounded by laurels. On the right you can see a ribbon with the orange and black stripes, a classic and very popular symbol of heroism and heroes, and in the middle, under the fireworks, stands tall the word “Гордимся!”, which translates to “We are proud!“. All that and McDonald’s golden arches, which even seem to have been the inspiration for the Moscow’s jewellery factory,  whose logo appear at the bottom left of the mural, as I suspect they paid for it as advertisement.

In an interview to the New York Times in 1996, Thomas Friedman said that no country with a McDonald’s had gone to war with another. In time this became known as the “Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention” and when McDonalds opened in Moscow the only exception to the Rule (which Friedman does not acknowledge) had been the 1989 United States invasion of Panama. Everyone believe that, even if it was not instrumental in achieving this result, the presence of McDonald’s in Moscow was one of the first symbols of the end of the Cold War.  That is also why it cause some international concern when on August 20, 2014, as tensions between the United States and Russia strained over events in Ukraine, and the resultant U.S. sanctions, the Russian government temporarily shut down four McDonald’s outlets in Moscow, citing sanitary concerns. Three days later the Russian Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich ruled out any government move to ban McDonald’s and dismissed the notion that the temporary closures had anything to do with the sanctions. The restaurants eventually re-opened about three months later and some economic newspaper even wrote that “The re-opening of the restaurant in Moscow will be viewed as a step, all be it small towards progress”.

USA-Russia relationship were not doing so great in 2014 and even a year later you could still see signs like this one outside of cafes, restaurants and other establishments, signalling the owner’s opinion on American sanctions. I took this picture in 2015 in the city of Nizhny Novgorod.


Would you like to take part in a photowalk or a photo tour of Moscow or any other Russian destination with an English (and Italian, Spanish and French) speaking guide (me and my wife) showing you the sights and telling you a bit about Russian history and traditions? If so, do get in touch and we’ll be happy to create an unforgettable, tailor-made experience for you!

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