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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Flip Side of the Arches

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A precocious 4-year-old named Alyona was the star attraction in our compartment on a train back to Moscow not long ago. As articulate as she was appealing, Alyona explained to her fellow passengers that she was actually 4 1/2 now and could write lots of numbers and letters. Her grandmother obligingly produced crayons and paper, and Alyona painstakingly churned out letter after letter to our approving nods. When she made a capital M, however, one passenger objected, "Alyonochka, the loops should be at the bottom of the letter, not the top." The child looked puzzled, but grandma explained the situation: "Oh, she doesn't write 'M' our way. She learned to make it like that at McDonald's."

No one leaped up shouting "Cultural imperialism!" In fact, no one said anything beyond "Oh," and "Uh-huh." McDonald's, I realized, had become part of the landscape.

The question of how a foreign restaurant so quickly became ubiquitous here is no question at all to those who remember Soviet fast food, which was neither. If you had an attack of the munchies in Moscow 20 or 30 years ago, you got suspect doktorskaya sausage on a slab o' white, with an optional swath of sinus-clearing mustard. No one ever remarked, "I'm lovin' it."

Food and its commercial preparation were problems for most of the Soviet period. The famines of the early 1920s and 1930s, induced or exacerbated by the national government, irrevocably linked food supplies with politics in a system bad for both. The service end of the Soviet food chain, as with all consumer-related sectors, remained woefully underdeveloped: Restaurant patrons could generally skip the menu and simply ask the traditionally surly waiter, "What have you got?" The luckiest answer may have been "nothing" judging by one European's description of Soviet restaurant fare of the early 1980s: "This was not food that could be digested or even eaten by normal people."

With this grim reality setting the stage, McDonald's entry into the late Soviet market was practically doomed to success. The chain offered on-demand hot food made of recognizable ingredients served in a clean environment by personnel trained not to despise their customers. This was a revelation to the Soviet public, and one for which it was clearly grateful. During its first months in operation, the McDonald's off Pushkin Square became the busiest in the world and probably the cleanest: All the food wrappers, utensils, and paper cups were taken home by happy customers as souvenirs.

The key to McDonald's continued success in Russia is the same as it is everywhere: The restaurant sells both processed food and the process of eating it. In the United States, home of the pursuit of happiness, this has meant a relentless and successful campaign to get consumers, and especially children, to associate Mickey D's not simply with eating but with fun. A clown is the company symbol, and the Happy Meal its flagship product. In Russia, the "extras" of speed, cleanliness and polite service already represented a cultural breakthrough -- and may even have constituted "fun" to a society with no word for it. That an affordable restaurant would also offer play areas, birthday party catering and giveaway toys was, in Russia, simply off the known social scale and into a new dimension of previously unimaginable consumer bliss.

The other good news from McDonald's prosperity here is that a high McTide has raised other boats. Following the U.S. giant's lead, such step-up foreign competitors as T.G.I. Friday's, Sbarro and Benihana have arrived and prospered, as have Russia's own Yolki-Palki and Mu-Mu. This has benefited both the national economy and local consumers -- except those who overconsume or consume indiscriminately.

This, of course, is the real and present danger of McDonald's and its ilk, to Russians and all of us: Processed food isn't very good for you, and the more ingested, the less good it does. So the success of McDonald's in Russia represents a step in both right and wrong directions at the same time. If the Happy Meal signals an advance in consumer standards, hapless Russians eager to consume too many of them are a danger signal -- this country already suffers from obesity and related health problems.

Producing a Russian version of the cautionary bestseller "Fast Food Nation" should be a priority item for the Public Chamber. And in the meantime, perhaps McDonald's Russia should crown its success by redesigning the company logo so the loops are at the bottom of the M.

Mark H. Teeter teaches English and Russian-American relations in Moscow.