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After an initial period of honeymoon with the West, Russian President Vladimir Putin then soured on it. He reclaimed Russia’s relevance by tearing up global standards, writes the Guardian’s global affairs editor Julian Borger.

When Moscow’s first McDonald’s opened 32 years ago, the line of Russians waiting outside was hundreds of meters long, and there were still long lines this week for a final Happy Meal and a slice of history, as the fast food giant closes its doors in Russia.

The closure of 850 McDonald’s franchises across the country is meant to be temporary, but nothing about the war in Ukraine and the ensuing exodus of Western businesses suggests the divide will soon be healed.

The departure of McDonald’s, like its arrival, is much more than burgers. The golden arcs of history, which once seemed to leap forward, now seem to be spinning in circles and threatening to take Russia back in time.

An urban consumer culture built around Visa and Mastercard, Ikea, Nike, Apple, Zara and Netflix evaporated in days.




Russians line up outside a McDonald’s fast food restaurant in Moscow, 1990. Photograph: Anonymous/AP

“There’s just this sickening feeling that they’re going to go back, not to the 1990s, but to the 1970s, when you didn’t have access to these things and you lived in isolation from the rest of the world,” Prof Angela said. Stent, former national intelligence officer for Russia at the National Intelligence Council, now at Georgetown University.

The looping trajectory of the past three decades has been driven by many disparate forces, inside and outside Russia, economic and political, and ultimately very personal: Vladimir Putin’s ambitions, fears and impulses .

When the first McDonald’s opened in Russia, the Soviet Union still existed. “We didn’t know what fast food was,” Mitya Kushelevich, a photographer, wrote in a recollection for The Guardian. “We thought it probably tasted like freedom and we wanted to taste it.”

For many people, it felt like the end of the Cold War, if not the end of history. But while the Russians wanted to consume capitalism, they were careful from the start not to be consumed by it.

“People misunderstood: Russians didn’t want to be Americans, and they didn’t want to be like America, but they wanted the same things: jeans, cigarettes, chewing gum, hamburgers,” he said. Fiona Hill, who was an exchange student in Russia in the late 1980s and became a Russian intelligence analyst, then senior director for Europe and Russia at the White House.

Nautilus Pompilius, a Russian rock band, had a hit song at the time called Goodbye America, with lyrics that reflected this skepticism, about having “learned for so long to love your forbidden fruits” but finding that “your ripped jeans have become too small for me”.

The honeymoon with Westernization was short-lived. The shock transition from communism to a market economy, led by a liberal government with Western consultants, was a disaster, producing oligarchs, anarchy and poverty.

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