Sometimes, you build a business, and it becomes more than a business. Sometimes, it becomes a symbol of something bigger than you could have ever imagined. 

That's what happened with McDonald's--and, especially, the first McDonald's restaurant in Russia, located at Pushkin Square in Moscow. 

It took 14 years to negotiate and build the restaurant, starting with the introduction of a McDonald's executive to some Soviet officials at the Summer Olympics in Montreal in 1976.

Because you couldn't just build an American restaurant in the old Soviet Union. For that matter, you usually couldn't even travel as an American to the old Soviet Union.

If you don't remember the Iron Curtain, it's difficult to describe just how complete the split between the Soviet Union and the Western world was. But time passed. The Cold War thawed.

And when that first McDonald's opened its doors on January 31, 1990, just months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was a huge, symbolic event. The line of people waiting to get in that first day stretched the length of five American football fields.

More than 30,000 ordinary Soviet citizens waited six hours or more. When they first tried a hamburger and French fries--their first taste of America, really--it was a life-changing moment.

I've included video of the opening at the bottom of this column. Here's what some ordinary Russian customers told Western journalists at the time:

  • "We are interested in everything American. We came here because we thought this would be an unforgettable experience," a woman named Lena Kalashova told The Washington Post.
  • "Finding a decent place to eat is one of our biggest problems," said Gena Popov, who stood in line with his wife, Rima. "This place looks different just from the outside. Everything is so clean and bright."
  • "I spilled my milkshake and I thought they'd bawl me out," another customer told a Canadian reporter. "Instead, they gave me another one."

The restaurant continued to be a massive hit--the result of the efforts of a line of American entrepreneurs from the original McDonald brothers to Ray Kroc to George Cohon, who was the head of McDonald's in Canada, and who spearheaded the Russian idea to begin with.

As the decades passed, McDonald's grew and grew in Russia, opening more than 850 restaurants. But meanwhile, Vladimir Putin rose from a Soviet KGB officer to become the president and undisputed strongman of Russia.

Over the past two weeks, of course, everything has changed quickly, after the brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine.

And while the economic challenges of U.S. companies pale in comparison to what people in Ukraine are going through right now, it was still a poignant moment this week when McDonald's CEO, Chris Kempczinski, announced that McDonald's will temporarily close all of its restaurants in Russia as a result:

In Russia, we employ 62,000 people who have poured their heart and soul into our McDonald's brand to serve their communities. We work with hundreds of local, Russian suppliers and partners who produce. [W]e serve millions of Russian customers each day.


At the same time, our values mean we cannot ignore the needless human suffering unfolding in Ukraine. 

It's a necessary step. I think most Americans hope we can avoid an actual shooting war between the United States and Russia, but they also agree that U.S. companies have to stop doing business there.

McDonald's isn't alone in this, of course. Starbucks, Nike, Sony (which isn't American, I know), Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and even Goldman Sachs and many others have all announced they're cutting ties in Russia, one way or another.

But it was McDonald's that opened the door for so many others, and that served as a symbol for something much bigger than fast food, 32 years ago.

We should point out that during this new cold war, Russia has announced that it might not recognize intellectual property owned by companies from "unfriendly" countries. So it's quite possible that a Russian entity might keep some or all of the McDonald's restaurants and other brands' establishments open.

If that does happen, however, the McDonald's in Pushkin Square would become a symbol of something a lot less enamoring. 

As I explore in my free e-book McLessons: 10 Smart Lessons From the Recent History of McDonald's, it's truly a symbol of entrepreneurship. And it's more than a little bit heartbreaking to imagine that after so many years, this chapter might now come to an end.

Here's some of the video of what it all looked like then, and what it meant.