When I saw signs for Burger King, Subway, KFC, McDonald’s in Russia I thought about how we export the worst of our culture–it contaminates everything. But when I was in St. Petersburg, I read an article by Mitya Kushelevich in the St. Petersburg Times, reprinted from The Calvert Journal. It gave me a different perspective. He was writing about the government’s closure of McDonald’s, allegedly for sanitation reasons, but curiously synchronous with the West’s recent imposition of sanctions. This first McDonald’s in Russia is in a prime Moscow location. I’ll quote from the article at length:
“Everything about this particular branch of the American fast-food giant was iconic for a person born in Soviet Russia. Just as St. Petersburg was once considered our ‘window to Europe,’ this restaurant was our ‘window to the world.’
Opened on the last day of 1990, the last New Year’s Eve of the U.S.S.R.’s existence, for a symbolic yearly rent of one ruble, McDonald’s represented the change that we’d all been waiting for.
Directly above it was a Coca-Cola sign–another first for our country–that would shine in the darkness brighter than the red stars atop the Kremlin towers. On the opposite side of the street stood a bronze of Puskin, the poet, the conscience and soul of Russian culture, watching over as people crossed the line into another world…
Everybody wanted to try it, from the janitor to the professor. The queues were long, forming rings around the square like a gargantuan python trying to squeeze the life out of the trees and fountains within. We didn’t know what fast food was. We thought McDonald’s was a proper restaurant serving American cuisine: it probably tasted like freedom and we wanted to sample it.”
The article goes on to describe Mitya’s first experience of the restaurant and how magical it seemed: “In our excitement, we ordered one of everything, super size, like everyone around us…Everything tasted more intense than anything I’d ever tried before…Now, 23 years later, there are no romantic sentiments towards McDonald’s. Still, the closing of the very first branch is the writing on the wall for a lot of Russians. The message is clear and it’s not aimed at Americans, it’s aimed at us: the window to the world is closing.”
It’s so easy for us to hate what’s bad about fast food franchises–and there’s plenty to hate. I was so against fast food that the main thing my two oldest daughter’s remember about the birth of their next youngest sibling as that they got to eat at McDonald’s.
But in a world of only slow, sit-down-and-wait food, of few options, of limited choices, the availability of fast food is simply freedom of choice. If nutritionally, politically, and in so many ways McDonald’s (or Burger King or KFC or Subway) offends us simply means we can choose not to go there. The reason fast food chains are appearing across the globe is because they offer something people want. It’s only because we have so many options that we can dismiss the fast food world with contempt. The taste of freedom comes from a complex stew of ingredients.
Yesterday, I felt the urge for something hot and fried. I knew that I could find, nearby and without getting out of my car, some crisp, salty french fries at McDonald’s.