Analysis

Cold serving, Russia supersizes its beef with McDonald's

Hold the freedom fries! The re-brewed Cold War is mashing another food icon as Russian regulators try to take some of the gleam off the golden arches. Former Canadian ambassador Jeremy Kinsman looks at this sudden souring of fast-food diplomacy.

Regulator finds 'inappropriate physical-chemical parameters' with popular U.S. chain

The McDonald's at Moscow's Pushkin Square opened on Feb. 1, 1990 and has been one of the highest grossing restaurants in the entire chain. (Ivan Sekretarev / Associated Press)

The image of Russia has had its ups and downs since Boris Yeltsin and partner Leonid Kravchuk of Ukraine broke up the old Soviet Union in 1991.

Current leader Vladimir Putin has veered from being Time magazine's Person of the Year in 2007 to the "West's public enemy number one," as Newsweek labels him in the current cover story titled "The pariah."

For Russia watchers, it makes you wonder if what we're seeing today is now emphatically Putin's Russia? Or is he Russia's Putin, just channeling his country's accumulated sense of grievance and patriotism, which he, of course, has deliberately stirred?

Even at a time when the unexpected seems normal, one recent news story was startling for anyone who lived in Moscow in Yeltsin's time:

The Russian Consumer Protection Agency sought a court ruling to make McDonald's 400 Russian outlets remove from their menus several items including Cheeseburgers, Filet-o-Fish and Chicken Burgers because of "inappropriate physical-chemical parameters."

Say again?

Anna Popova, head of the agency, explained to Interfax: "We have identified violations, which put the product quality and safety of the entire McDonald's chain in doubt."

To Russia with fries

If that is really the case, Russian standards have soared since the former president of McDonald's Canada, George Cohon, opened the first Russian McDonald's back in 1990.

Ray Kroc, the founder of the ubiquitous chain was a fierce anti-Commie American of the old school, and wouldn't go near the Soviet Union.

But he OK'd Cohon to deploy his softer (back then, anyway) Canadian touch to open up the Russian market his way.

George A. Cohon, the American-born, Canadian founder of McDonald's in Russia probably did more to create a supply chain of Russian food products than all of Canada's aid programs, a former ambassador says. (Ivan Sekretarev / Associated Press)

No one contends that a Big Mac and Coke are the high points of Western civilization, but billions have lined up for a reason, and Cohon's book, To Russia with Fries, conveys his conviction that Russians would be no exception (whatever spin Putin might like to put today on the notion of Russian exceptionalism).

It took Cohon a decade to get permits from Soviet authorities. And he still had to face the reality that his earnings would not be convertible into hard currency (until Brian Mulroney brought it up with Gorbachev at a summit).

Unable to import fixings for the menu, which had to meet brand standards, Cohon built a self-sufficient Russian supply chain, with the help of Canadian aid programs.

Soviet cattle proved to be too lean for the fat content of a Big Mac, so Canadian vets figured out how to fatten up Russian beef. The famous Russian potato was too soft for fries, so a seed-potato program was launched.

The plan still needed motivated farmers and ranchers, and Cohon had to coax them from the dead hand of collective farms, and then knit up a reliable delivery network.

In the end, Cohon probably did more practical good for Russia's transition to a more modern state than all our aid programs combined.

Clean loos, too

The jewel in the production crown was the immaculate food processing facility Cohon built in the Moscow suburbs, a facility where the "physical-chemical parameters" were so unusually pristine and bright that the new hires dressed up to come to work.

For those of us who saw this first-hand, it was sad to watch trained lab researchers and beauticians working on the bun-making or patty-packing lines. But for them it was also a welcome real wage, and the employees seemed proud to be part of a successful show.

As for the restaurants, their cleanliness was as much a draw for the thousands who made the inaugural McDonald's on Pushkinskaya Square the global chain's top seller, as was the experience of American fast food itself.

Hundreds of Russians lined up around the first McDonald's restaurant in the Soviet Union, at Moscow's Pushkin Square, on its opening day in February 1990. ( Associated Press)

Having myself been jarred by a few visits to local hospitals, including one where a learned professor poured molten silver in my ear (with a severed human head, which I hoped was for teaching purposes, lying on the table next to him), I left standing orders with Canadian embassy colleagues that if ever I was hit by the proverbial tram, I wanted the surgery done on the floor of a Russian McDonald's.

Expats who cherished their long Saturday marches through Moscow's neighbourhoods eagerly included Pushkinskaya on the route to be sure at least of timely access to a loo that wasn't straight from hell.

The lineups for washrooms rivalled those for Big Macs; warm and spotlessly clean private cubicles being in those days a Wonder of the Outside World.

Customers came with a weekend's reading.

Free those fries

Ah, well, that was then. Russia has made astounding progress in many ways. Today there are lots of public toilets acceptable to the most delicate of users.

I hadn't realized restaurant kitchens were super-clean though. It must have only been very recently that the arch standards of an Anna Popova have become de rigueur.

Or might what we have here be selective punishment of a visible symbol of Americana? Perhaps in response to McDonald's having closed its three restaurants in Russia-captured Crimea?

In Putin's Russia, the "laws" have many uses.

Today, a protest leader like Sergei Udaltsov gets four and a half years in prison for organizing "riots" — according to the law, if not to any evidence.

Alex Navalny, the Moscow-based regime critic who has challenged the ruling "party of crooks and thieves," has been prosecuted according to the law for crimes of fraud that are wholly manufactured.

And aid and human rights organizations are audited and closed for offences against tax law, though authorities assert (like the Canada Revenue Agency) "there's nothing political about it."

Meanwhile the drumbeat of militaristic patriotism gets louder. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a dinosaur of the populist nationalist right, has championed closing the 400 McDonald's in Russia and replacing them with "traditional Russian fare."

A poll claims 67 per cent of Russians agree.

Nutty, right?

But is it nuttier than renaming french fries "Freedom Fries" in the U.S. Congress restaurant, or watching members of Congress pouring good Bordeaux down D.C. gutters, for the cameras, because France (and Canada) wasn't about to back the manufactured, hubris-driven invasion of Iraq in 2003?

Russia doesn't have a monopoly on militaristic exceptionalism. In ball parks across America, military honour guards raise Old Glory before the game and the crowds now rise for the seventh-inning stretch to sing "God Bless America" rather than "Take me out to the ball game."

The first casualty in a mood of war is always the truth, especially when obsessive patriotism is in play.

About the Author

Jeremy Kinsman

Diplomatically speaking

Jeremy Kinsman is a former Canadian ambassador who served as High Commissioner to the U.K., and as ambassador to the Russian Federation and the European Union. He is co-author of the Diplomat's Handbook for Democracy Development Support by CIGI.

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