Editor’s Note: Andrei Kolesnikov is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is the author of several books on the political and social history of Russia, including a biography of the Russian reformer Yegor Gaidar. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion articles on CNN.
Walking through Moscow today, there is an emptiness to places I have passed countless times over the years. The skyscraper on New Arbat Avenue, which until last week housed the independent radio station “Echo of Moscow” is silent. The McDonald’s on Pushkin Square is just as empty.
In one of Moscow’s large shopping malls, a woman sits on the floor of a perfume store, raking up all the goods available to her – from mascara to lipstick. It’s both an act of desperation and a farewell to the Western civilization that came to Russia 30 years ago. Now people are realizing: the Russian economy is as naked as the malls emptied of global brands.
In recent years, Russian society has become a mall society. People spend their weekends in these consumer hubs; heading there for walks, visiting restaurants, watching films, and of course shopping. Russia is a consumers’ paradise – especially after the economic growth of the early 2000s – thanks to high prices for Russian oil and the end of the post-Soviet transitional period.
In these boom times, the general consensus among the middle classes of the big cities has been “yes, we have an authoritarian leader, but why do we need democracy?” Russians, it appeared, were doing just fine without democracy – we’ve learned what kinds of wines we like to drink, we’re picky about cars and holiday resorts abroad. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, foreign businesses, brands, technology, parts and partners have increased employment, expanded competencies. We are still on our own – politically and militarily – but in lifestyle, we are no different from Westerners.
Over the years, McDonald’s has become, in the eyes of Russians, associated with youth and low-level managers. Long forgotten was its symbolism – of the Western world arriving in the USSR. The first McDonald’s in Russia opened in Moscow in January 1990, more than a year before the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991. When McDonald’s shuttered this week, it signaled the end of the West in authoritarian Russia. The days of our merry global consumption were over, and it pointed to darker ones ahead.
Of course, compared to the horror happening in Ukraine, the closure of brands looks insignificant. They are just symbols of the economic collapse in Russia, provoked by the invasion – and subsequent sanctions.
And all because of the autocrat. In Russia and beyond, economic and social systems are collapsing. Perhaps with a little more time, a generation would have grown up that could seriously modernize Russia, even despite the excessive presence of the state. Now, this generation is not just leaving, but fleeing: to Tbilisi, Yerevan, Istanbul, Tel Aviv and elsewhere.
It’s not just a feeling that there’s gigantic unemployment looming, there’s a rolling back of quality of life. Who needs McDonald’s when apparently we can feed on our own pride and false grandeur, with weekly inflation of 2.2%.
In 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea, the middle class lost their jamon and parmiggiano because of Russian counter-sanctions. But Russia supposedly became “great again,” according to Vladimir Putin’s understanding of the situation and the opinion of the majority of Russians. In 2022, Russia’s so-called “military operation” in Ukraine has in the space of two weeks cut it off from the civilized world.
And this is only the beginning. The nation will experience humiliation when it realizes that we don’t have our own cars, diapers, baby food and toys because we produce these based on Western technology and imported materials. There will be shortages of medicines, because of dependence on imports, and perhaps even of basic necessities. Not for nothing Russians have rushed to buy sugar and cereals.
But we assure ourselves that we are great, that everyone fears and hates us, and if we hadn’t struck preemptively, there would have been NATO troops in Crimea and Donbas. And that’s the song many people still sing, though more insecurely these days.
Among some, there is a sense of anger at the world alienating us. And in other instances, the anger is directed at the leader who put us in this position. People with a conscience take to the streets. But there are not many protests, mostly because they are brutally suppressed.
“But that’s how you lived under the Soviet Union,” my friend, a political scientist from Armenia, remarked to me recently. That’s not how it was. At that time, we did not know any other life. We have lived for 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but now we are not moving forward toward a normal market as in the 1990s, but back toward a primitive economy and way of life. It is a journey back in time. Everything we once strived for, we have lost overnight. And by the way, the Soviet Union competed in sporting events under its own flag.
The terrible feeling that haunts those people in my circle – who now wander around Istanbul like Russian emigrants in the 1920s or who, like me, still remain in Moscow, full of its traffic jams and queues at banks – is that our freedom of speech, freedom of movement, freedom to assemble peacefully, have been taken away from us.
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The worst thing for the post-Soviet Russian intelligentsia member is to reach for the “Echo of Moscow” radio icon on the computer and find it empty. Just as no one believed that Putin could seriously invade Ukraine, no one could believe that “Echo of Moscow,” essentially as much a symbol of freedom and belonging to the world as McDonald’s, which arose simultaneously with it, would disappear.
But McDonald’s is also going away, though it says it is temporary, and will pay the salaries of its 62,000 employees for a while. Maybe, indeed, it will come back some day – and this will be a symbol of at least some kind of normalization.