In Russia, the lights are going out one by one. Everything one expects from an up-to-date country – cashpoints that work, Apple products, Coca Cola – is vanishing.
On Saturday night, at 3am, I ran down totally empty streets searching for the last cashpoint that would work with my British Mastercard. Bank machine after bank machine sent me away empty-handed, until I found one that obviously hadn’t got the memo. I stood there making withdrawal after withdrawal – snatching each 5,000 rouble note as though it would vanish in front of me – until it told me I’d reached my limit for the day. Being cut off completely from money that you know you have is like being separated from a parent as a child. It’s terrifying.
So much of the normality of living in a Russian city comes from the Western chain-stores. It doesn’t matter if your president’s a psychopath, the city is stuffed with creepy combat-shops or the police are there to frighten you. You can have the same H&M sweater they’re wearing in Zurich, eat the same IKEA meatballs, make the same flatpack gingerbread house as children anywhere.
Numerous times I and my half-Russian daughter wandered round the IKEA on the edge of the city as though it were a museum, letting her plan out the room she’d one day have, the make-up table she’d one day stick her lipsticks, foundations and Clarins ointments on, the bed she’d sleep in when she got a bit older. Now it’s just a blue and yellow zone of nothingness, with the lights turned out.
Good riddance to Starbucks: it was only ever there for impressionable teenagers to bug their parents into buying radically overpriced hot sticky drinks instead of going to Pit Coffee (the Russian equivalent and a thousand times better) just down the road. But McDonald’s. Really? McDonald’s was everywhere in the city, shedding its cheesy warmth over parks, garages and dimly lit side-streets. They were lily-pads you hopped on when the pond life of existence got too much for you. As the waiter brought you your half-pounder in its little cardboard box, you felt the early 21st century wasn’t such a bad time to live.
I remember news about the first one opening in Russia in 1990, on Pushkin Square in Moscow, the queues stretching round the block. That was when you knew the Cold War was really over: that there would be bright colours in Russia other than Communist Red. You can still see the clips on YouTube: the man with handle-bar moustache giving it the thumbs up, the old grandpa in the fur hat declaring it ‘un-Russian’, the girls with frizzy 80s hair and outsized glasses forcing themselves to smile like valley-girls. Over the last three decades, here as elsewhere, McDonald’s has become one of the basic services you could expect from city-life. It was a feature of the world, one of those things that seemed to come along with being born. Now, 32 years later, it is coming to an end.
In the Russian city I’ve lived for several years, there are personal memories too. At this branch near the market I used the internet to hunt for a hotel-room when, hungover and irritable from too much good, cheap vodka, I rowed with my mother-in-law and got kicked out of the house. That one was where my daughter and I huddled under the misting machines they installed during a hot Corona summer, to cool you down when the interior was closed. It was where I bribed her with her first ever Molochni Cocktail (a milkshake) to visit a museum, and where she tried her first Happy Meal. There were two types of children at her kindergarten: those who’d gone to McDonald’s and those who hadn’t, and she’d just graduated to the cool set.
I remember the bleakness of my first Russian New Year, when my solitude went nuclear as I realised that, among the shuttered blini and shawarma restaurants, even McDonald’s was closed. It felt, temporarily like the end of the world. Who knew then that this was just a teaser-trailer for the real thing? One of my students – a junk-food addicted Americaphile who spoke English with a Manhattan accent – fell for her husband when he waited outside her workplace one day with a Big Mac and Coke for her. It was, she said, the moment when her heart melted. No bunch of flowers or necklace in the world compete against a massed produced double-patty with gherkins. This was love and they married soon after.
Now McDonald’s and Coke have gone, and Russia will be forced to home-grow its own substitutes. Look out for restaurants with names like ‘Mig Mag’, ‘Nuggetsi’ and ‘McFlarri’. The Soviet fizzy drinks, Buratino and Baikal, will be brought out of retirement and souped up to look cool and modern once again. And visiting Americans will crassly pity Russians for what they do not have.
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