Jen Gerson: On Big Macs and empires

Old truisms about the liberal world order, and the nature of war itself are challenged as McDonald’s stops operations in Moscow.

Jen Gerson is a Canadian journalist who has contributed to the CBC, the National Post, Maclean’s, Walrus, the Washington Post, and the New York Times. 

If you happen to be seeking a slice of optimistic post-Cold War nostalgia, may I recommend the following clip from the CBC’s archives. Dated 1990, and featuring a young-ish Peter Mansbridge, it features the opening of the first McDonald’s in Moscow, a cultural milestone, and the beginning of the end of the Soviet era and its Communist dystopia. 

In an era in which having McDonalds come to your small town was a big deal, it’s hard to describe how monumental this event was. The opening of the franchise was covered by most major news outlets at the time. The Iron Curtain was thinning and for many at the time, this is what peace would look like — a line of thousands of hungry Muscovites paying half-a-day’s wages for a Big Mac and fries. 

Anyone nursing nostalgia for the Soviet system ought to listen to these broadcasts twice; McDonald’s had to overcome logistics hurdles to create a functioning restaurant that now seem entirely alien. It took the president of McDonald’s Canada 14 years to negotiate a legitimate restaurant in Russia. The supply of beef was so unreliable that the restaurant had to run its own cattle farm; Russian potatoes were so small that McDonald’s had to operate a potato farm with Russets large enough to meet its regimented french fry standards. McDonald’s even established its own food processing plant in order to supply its restaurant, which it expected to feed 15,000 customers per day. For 600 coveted jobs, more than 28,000 applicants applied, and the successful servers had to be trained to smile and be polite. Even though the young McDonald’s fry cooks and counter girls earned the equivalent of only $.50 per hour, they made more than Russian doctors, according to the reports. 

Reviews on opening day were mixed. Some enjoyed this Western delicacy; others found it unusual. Some were simply hungry, and several were genuinely astonished by the prospect of a restaurant that would never run out of beef and bread. 

But by all accounts, Russians went wild for McDonald’s — as did much of the world — and hundreds have since opened, including one within walking distance of the Red Square. Nothing could better symbolize the end of the bad, old Soviet era than this. A Russia that is peaceful, prosperous and at least a little open to the West was one in which a worker from the Kremlin could grab an American hamburger at lunch. 

At least, they once could.

McDonald’s this week was one of several Western companies to announce that it was temporarily halting operations in Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine. Coca-Cola, Starbucks, KFC, Pizza Hut, Ikea, Shell, BP, Exxon, credit card companies, accounting firms, even airline companies are cutting Russia off, to greater or lesser extents. 

I pick on McDonald’s because that chain became so ubiquitous that it has served as a kind of foreign policy truism: For a generation, it was said that no two countries that possessed a McDonald’s had ever gone to war. And so, it was assumed, this would likely remain the case. We’re not talking about skirmishes or civil wars, or local incursions or proxy wars, mind you. But the general theory largely held: as economies globalized and became more interdependent, the costs of one country truly going to war with another would grow so insurmountable that it would soon be unthinkable. Shared prosperity would reduce the need for wars of resources; meanwhile, the more economically interdependent nations became, the more self-defeating and even suicidal the prospect would grow. Economic liberalization and globalization would therefore undoubtedly bolster the long peace. For a generation this has, mostly, held true. 

It is this same logic that has underpinned Europe’s growing dependence on Russia’s oil market, for example. After all, no one would risk — well — what Russia is now risking. It is certainly not in that country’s best interest to retreat into a hermit kingdom, to suffer incredible privations, and to revert to a quality of life akin to what its people knew in the ’50s. And for what? Glory? Honour? Territorial expansion? What, does Russia need more land? 

This is why the war in Ukraine has caught Westerners off guard, and shook countries that once existed in the Soviet sphere of influence. 

History was supposed to be over, when the Western democracies reached their ideal end-state of civilizational evolution. War — true, grand, civilizational war — was far too costly to seriously contemplate. So we allowed our military capacity to atrophy and our strategic dependencies on hostile nations grew. 

With hindsight we can see the glaring flaw in the logic adopted by some of the world’s most powerful people. Those wingnuts and lunatics who warned about the danger of making ourselves more dependent on Putin proved correct. Note how quickly Canada’s safe, reliable, democratic oil supply is enjoying a rebrand. Shared prosperity is no panacea to war. 

We humans like our stuff, our cheap food and goods. They will placate us — to a point. But after a generation of peace and wealth, we can see in our own societies and in our individual lives the perils of over-abundance. Once our material needs are met, further acquisition fails to provide lasting contentment. Beyond a certain degree of wealth, we trap ourselves on a frustrating “hedonic treadmill” — pursuing pleasure without meaning or purpose and then wondering why we are left unsatisfied and unfulfilled. 

In a secular society, moored only by consumerism and status seeking, prosperity decays into joyless decadence. As living conditions improve and homes get larger, individuals grow more atomized. As entertainment becomes more plentiful and solitary, group activities decline. As near-infinite streams of media become available to us, we sink into self-selected informational bubbles, and our trust in “official” sources and institutions declines. Social cohesion and group identity begin to fray. 

With peace, prosperity and full tummies, we have more time to contemplate the apex of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and find that our material requirements have been met at the expense of the spiritual ones. Is it any wonder we’ve grown so susceptible to fads and conspiracy theories? Don’t be surprised to see a surge in new religious movements and moral panics, either. It’s just a sign of the times; people casting about in the search for purpose and tribe.  

And into this toxic vacuum, we also see state actors pursue their own agendas. Russia is particularly notorious for seeding social media feeds with news and information designed to polarize and divide Western nations. What’s less studied is the underlying ideology that is motivating its actions

It’s not Communism, but rather an imperial Tsarist revival that combines totalitarianism, military conquest and orthodox Christianity — all of it subverted to the autocratic government’s will. 

This is what makes Ukraine a big deal — in contrast to conflict in Syria, or to proxy wars in other former Soviet states and the Middle East. This war undermines the West’s deepest, most fundamental assumptions about the geopolitical world order since the Cold War.

History is not over. 

Our historically anomalous prosperity and interdependence has not transcended tribalism, culture or ideology. If anything, our material wealth has only increased our desire for all these old longings, discarded in this evolved and modern era like so much ancestral baggage. 

Herein we find what will become the great challenge of the future; not just how to keep people fed, clothed and entertained, but also how to provide them with a sense of meaning and purpose in something more useful and transcendent than nationalism, violence and conquest. 

By the way, I visited that first Moscow McDonald’s once, more than 10 years ago. I loved the country, and even dreamed of staying there and reporting for a while (a foolish and romantic notion even then.) I couldn’t help but note how little English I could see on anything; most countries that welcomed tourists provide English translations at major sites and crossings under the logic that just about everyone speaks a little. Not Russia. We had to travel in a group with a native Russian speaker, and while we were tolerated, I’m not sure we were welcomed by anyone other than those who saw us for easy marks (and showed us a good time for it). 

Russia was clearly content to be itself, to welcome their own, the rest of the world be damned, in a way I had not seen before or since. 

The McDonald’s was fine, I suppose, and I enjoyed the novelty and comfort of eating there. But as any North American will have to admit, the food actually isn’t very good once you get used to it. As one customer from 1990 put it in that CBC clip above, it’s just not Russian. 

Don’t get me wrong, I’ll take a Big Mac over starvation and food shortages, sure. But I can see how and why the novelty of McDonald’s might wear off for a people with thwarted ambitions to become one of the great nations of the Earth. 

Would you rather have a hamburger, or an empire?