I’m Lovin’ It? Nyet.
In 1974, Mikhail Baryshnikov defected from soviet Russia to Canada for greater opportunities in dance. Misha steadily made his way to New York and became one of THE greatest ballet dancers of all time. In the '70s and '80s, PBS’s “Live from Lincoln Center” and “Great Performances” gave millions of Americans an intimate experience of Baryshnikov as a world-class dancer, choreographer and artistic director of ABT (American Ballet Theater), America’s oldest and best ballet company. Aspiring young dancers, like myself, were amazed by the flawless beauty and grace of his technique and his convincing dramatic performances, such as the Prodigal Son, translated into a ballet by the great George Balanchine. Misha was the Michael Jordan of the ballet world, even performing an incredible 11 pirouettes in the 1985 movie “White Nights”.
Growing up in America, my sister Mary and I may not have lived in the midst of onion-domed churches, opulent palaces, and the red brick walls of the Kremlin, but we spent many hours a week training our bodies to look like Russian ballet dancers. In 1989, Nadya Zubkov, left Moscow, I suppose for the same reasons as Misha left St. Petersburg, and joined the faculty of the Phoenix School of Ballet, unleashing a new regime of serious and unrelenting demands and perfectionistic repetitions, superimposing a ruskie polish upon our Pas de Valze and Tour Jetés. Whether in pointe shoes or Russian character heels, my sister and I worked very hard to please our teachers and master a foreign aesthetic. Finally, in the summer of 1990, the two of us took turns donning the traditional kokoshnik headdress and sarafan (peasant pinafore dress) and, with handkerchief in hand, performed a solo from one of the Russian character dances in Act III of the Bolshoi’s version of Swan Lake. For that brief moment in our lives, the Severance girls represented just a small part of Russian culture, before a small audience on a tiny stage in downtown Phoenix, and I hope we were all the better for it.
On the other side of the world, the contemplative-looking statue of Aleksandr Pushkin, Russia’s greatest poet, stared stoically across Gorky street and the square named after him at thousands of his beloved countrymen filing into the first McDonald’s in the mother country on its opening day. At dawn, on January 31, 1990, more than five thousand Russians, who had never been to America, were already lined up for miles, with several days’ wages in their pockets, and waiting for hours to be among the first Soviet citizens to say Ya hochu gamburger, “I want a hamburger.” At that time, the Iron Curtain was falling between the U.S.S.R. and the rest of the world and Russians, having heard so little about America, went crazy for the chance to experience it, touch it, taste it for themselves. What they hadn’t anticipated was that the Soviet teenagers behind the counter served their Bolshoi Macs and cawbbawge peyes with a side of forced smiles, friendliness and direct eye contact. McDonald’s even had a smile on its menu with the price listed as “free”.
The concept of service-with-a-smile is utterly counter cultural for Russians. A Russian travel brochure might provide the following helpful hints for Westerners about public displays of cheerfulness:
It is not acceptable to smile at strangers: Smiling, properly performed in Russia, is an intimate act signaling sympathy, not politeness, with someone you know. It is an expression of authentic feelings of happiness between family, friends and familiar acquaintances only. Shop owners only smile at customers they know well.
Smiling all the time, coined a “servant’s smile” or a “duty smile,” is associated with bad character: It is demonstrative of insincerity, secretiveness, and an unwillingness to reveal your true feelings.
There is a vein in Russian culture, harkening back to the Orthodox Church’s imprisonment of street entertainers in medieval times, which associates constant smiling and laughing with fools and madmen.
Russians laugh the way Americans smile: Consequently, a big smile can even be confused for a laugh.
It is vulgar to smile like a horse: Even when Russians smile, it is contrary to every fiber of their being to show all their teeth like Americans do, perhaps just the upper row.
For decades, Soviet Russians were programmed to think that the American smile is just for show, whether taught in school or as part of public propaganda campaigns — PR to Americans — involving revolutionary posters depicting American capitalists with evil-looking smiles as dishonest tricksters who manipulate the masses. Making eye contact with others, although the symbol of American respect, normally signals the non-verbal initiation of conflict and fighting in Russian culture. Rudeness in the service industry was the norm at the time—supply shortages resulted in waiters wielding their power to refuse your business if they didn’t like who you were or what you were wearing. McDonald’s first Russian employees had to learn to say utterly unnatural phrases in “Hamburger University” training like: “May I help you?” and “Can I get you anything else?” and “Have a nice day!”.
Despite their cultural prohibitions, Russians in Moscow seemed to warm up to this aspect of American emotional culture. Customers even acted friendlier inside a McDonald’s than outside. McDonald’s became like a light in the Soviet darkness, a place to escape the gloominess of life, where you could hang out and be yourself for hours without anyone telling you to leave. It has been almost 26 years since McDonald’s exported its American service culture to Russia and now that culture is utterly pervasive within Russian service culture. The 2015 Smiling Report, compiled by the Mystery Shopping Providers Association, revealed that Russian customer service workers smiled and greeted customers 86% percent of the time, ranking them 15th out of 69 participating countries. Nevertheless, some question whether it has been a good thing for Russians. Organizational psychologist Alicia Grandey calls service-with-a-smile unhealthy emotional labor. She has found that this type of work environment results in a dissonance between the internal and external state of the employee, whose job it is to hold in his true feelings as he must always appear happy and cheerful. Experiencing internal tension and conflict over extended work shifts and over years is correlated with workplace errors and disease.
Before the Soviet Union collapsed, this type of dissonance was already the norm. Out of fear of imprisonment or worse, everyone in Russia said yes to the party line, but, privately, many knew it was all lies. In the '90s, it is plausible that Russians frequented McDonald’s for the emotional culture. In that sense, you could say that McDonald’s has uplifted many Russians, but, ironically, they have just replaced one form of lies with another. The joint venture between McDonald’s Canada and the Soviet government to open the first McDonald’s in Moscow was really a bold business decision involving intense political maneuvering and risky negotiations with fickle Russian government officials to get into an untapped fast food industry market: It was not a humanitarian effort; it was about the opportunity for all parties involved to make a lot of rubles by opening the largest McDonald’s that the world had ever seen in a fast food market with tremendous potential and little competition. A decade or more of prior persistence and frustratingly difficult negotiations on McDonald’s of Canada’s part to enter the Russian marketplace was finally realized as the country fell into a deep economic depression due to its 1998 financial crisis. Because the McDonald’s business model depends upon high volume of sales in order to manufacture their products more cheaply, so that they can charge less for their products and, in turn, sell more of their products, the Canadian subsidiary promised to create its own supply chain in Russia using local products as much as possible in order to operate successfully within a closed communist economy. Everyone gained financially from McDonald’s coming to Russia: from the Canadian franchise owners, to the Russian government who had a new source of income via taxation, to the Russian farmers who seized the opportunity to grow large quantities of McProduce, to the Russian McFactory workers making McDonald’s products, to the Russian construction workers who built the 100,000-square-foot McProcessing-food-plant, Russian truck drivers and distribution workers, to the to the unskilled gamburgerr flippers making the same salary as Soviet doctors, etc…
An American McDonald’s commercial from the 1990s uses the slogan, “You get what you want at McDonald’s.” Did Russians in Moscow really want unhealthy food and free smiles? Isn’t it more likely that McDonald’s got what it wanted in Russia—that is, Russians buying their fatty food and converting to their foreign emotional culture so that the brand could continue to expand in Russia and to the ends of the earth, tapping into other new markets, serving billions and billions more, increasing their profits and power over the known universe? Okay, maybe I’m intentionally exaggerating the imperialism of McDonald’s just a little. But, if McDonald’s stands behind its unhealthy food and employee practices, then the company can’t possibly be doing all of this out of benevolent care and concern for the health and happiness of both its customers and employees. Rather than changing the world for the better, isn’t McDonald’s just following a shrewd business plan? There are currently almost 500 McDonald’s locations across Russia’s vast forested landscape. Even though the McDonald’s in Moscow competes for business with several other fast food chains now, like (Chinese-owned) KFC and Sbarros, there soon will be another bulldog in this food fight: A new home-ground and state-funded alternative to Western fast food called “Eat at Home” is opening up along the country’s major highways. The Russians want a larger piece of the meat pie.
The rapid increase in Western fast-food joints over the past 26 years has consequently made Russians into connoisseurs of fast food, but many now find, like most American consumers, that those golden arches are plated with mere fool’s gold. In general, McFood is viewed critically by Russians, tasty and cheap, addictive, and essentially crappy. My children’s Russian music teacher was a little girl back in the heady early days of Mickey-Dski’s, and she remembers taking home her first ice cream cone, putting it in the freezer and savoring it for days, nibble by awed nibble; now, she lives in Phoenix and laughs at the thought of how romantic and silly this was.
By employing thousands of people, McDonald’s has made Russians more dependent upon the fast-food industry for their livelihoods. U.S. opposition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 resulted in a Putinesque retaliation and temporary closure of several McDonald’s locations, including Moscow’s flagship store, for so-called “food and safety violations”, putting hundreds of Russians temporarily out of work. (It’s a good thing the American government NEVER abuses the enforcement of arcane regulations for political purposes, nyet?)
On one level, McDonald’s gives Russians what they want: jobs, a quick meal, a good value, and a nice environment with free wifi. Are they really better off? Should we be proud that Mother Russia is speckled with our exported McDonald’s, from Pushkin Square to Vladivostok? Is the inane smile of Ronald McDonald different in kind or merely in degree from the leering grin of the fat, sinister American capitalist of the old propaganda posters?