Why McDonald’s Closing All Restaurants In Russia Is ‘Hugely Symbolic’

McDonald’s, an icon of post-Soviet Russia, has said it will temporarily close all its 847 restaurants in the country in a move commentators described as “hugely symbolic.”

The fast-food chain, the latest Western company to shutter operations in the country after its troops invaded Ukraine, said it would go on paying salaries to its 62,000 employees in Russia.

In an open letter to employees, McDonald’s president and CEO Chris Kempckinski said: “Our values mean we cannot ignore the needless human suffering unfolding in Ukraine.”

A Russian woman eats a hamburger at the first McDonald's in the Soviet Union on Jan. 31, 1990.
A Russian woman eats a hamburger at the first McDonald’s in the Soviet Union on Jan. 31, 1990.

via Associated Press

Because of its large size and global reach, the chain is often copied by other companies if it takes a stance on an issue or makes a major operational change.

The Big Mac became available in Russia on Jan. 31, 1990, when the opening of the first McDonald’s in the final months of the Soviet Union drew international attention.

That day over 30,000 people queued around the block for a first taste of U.S. fast food, representing the thawing of Cold War tensions and an increasing appetite among young people for a slice of Americana.

The BBC’s Moscow correspondent, Steve Rosenberg, was among many to comment on the significance of the decision.

He wrote on Twitter: “In 1990 I was in the queue when McDonald’s opened its 1st restaurant in Moscow: when iron curtains were crumbling & Russia was embracing the West. Today McDonald’s announced it is temporarily closing its 850 restaurants in Russia. Hugely symbolic.”

Some cited the “McDonald’s peace theory” – the idea first expounded by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman that no two countries with a McDonald’s will ever go to war.

Pressure has been mounting on McDonald’s and other Western companies that had remained in Russia to pull out.

Following the McDonald’s announcement, other iconic U.S. brands – Coca-Cola and Pepsi – said they would pause operations in the country.

PepsiCo, the soft-drink and snack maker, will suspend all advertising in Russia and stop the sale of its drinks brands, and rival Coca-Cola said it will suspend its business there.

Coffee chain Starbucks also said Tuesday it is suspending all business activity in Russia, including shipment of its products and cafes run by a licensee.

Earlier, Shell stopped buying oil from Russia and said it would cut links to the country entirely while the United States stepped up its campaign to punish Moscow by banning Russian oil and energy imports.

Britain too said it would ban imports of Russian oil but only by gradually phasing them out during 2022 to give businesses time to find alternative sources of supply.

Consumer goods conglomerate Unilever is among the corporations to cease operations. On Tuesday, it said it has suspended all imports and exports of its products into and out of Russia, and that it will not invest any further capital into the country.

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