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A Foot in the Door
The Metropol is the most beautiful hotel in Moscow. Designed in 1898 by the British architect William Walcott, it stands in the very centre of the city, a short walk from Red Square and the Kremlin, and across Teatral'naya Square from the Bolshoi Theatre. From the day it opened its doors, the Metropol was a magnet for Moscow society. Its art exhibitions and concerts were legendary, and, in the early years of this century, if you spent a day sitting in its flower-laden, chandelier-hung Art Nouveau lobby, you might well have seen Nijinsky or Rachmaninoff come through the front doors.
In 1917, everything changed. After the Revolution that year, the Metropol was used by the new Bolshevik government as the second House of Soviets. Lenin often delivered speeches from the balcony overlooking the Metropol Restaurant — the same restaurant, by the way, where, half a century later, Julie Christie and Rod Steiger had dinner in one of my favourite movies, David Lean's Dr. Zhivago.
In the 1930s, the Metropol was converted back to a hotel. During the Second World War it became a temporary press centre, housing foreign correspondents from Western newspapers and magazines. After the war, it continued to be a hub for foreign visitors -- the few foreign visitors that there were in those days.
I made my first trip to Moscow in 1976. In view of the upheavals in Russia in the 1990s, 1976 seems like a long, long time ago. Light years have passed since. Today, Russia is still exotic, still exciting, still unique.To the foreign visitor it remains a little strange and unfamiliar, and I never fail to feel a shiver of excitement when I walk into Red Square at night. It is an awesome sight.
But in 1976, Russia was another world. The year before, Andrei Sakharov, the famous dissident, had been denied permission to leave the USSR to accept the Nobel Peace Prize, and two years earlier, the writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn had been expelled for his criticisms of the Soviet Union. Brezhnev was in power and, although this was officially the period of détente, the tensions between the United States and Russia were still considerable. Between 1976 and 1979 I was travelling to Moscow an average of six times a year, which was a little unusual for a Western businessman. I had this crazy idea: I thought we could open a McDonald's there.
Going to the USSR, pre-perestroika, was always fascinating, but it was hard to feel welcome there. It sometimes seemed as if the basics of service, hospitality, and plain old-fashioned friendliness -- the kinds of things that are so important to McDonald's — had been dumped in the Moscow River in 1917. Whenever I arrived at the Moscow airport, I had to wait in a queue for hours to clear customs. Everything was grey and grim. Young soldiers with steely-eyed stares would go through all my luggage, piece by piece. They'd go through everybody's luggage piece by piece. I got the feeling they'd go through their mothers' luggage piece by piece. They would inspect every page of my passport slowly and methodically. I always wondered what they were looking for: Invisible ink? Secret codes?
When they were finally done with me, I would get a cab into the city — a few packages of Marlboros was the usual fare — to the Intourist Hotel, where I would have to line up again.
I'd wait. And I'd wait. Finally, when I'd get to the check-in desk, all too often the woman there would say, "No more rooms." Just like that. No apology. No nothing — even though I had a prepaid voucher for a room, for that specific date, in my hand. Ne znayu, nichego ne mogu podelat'. It was just too bad.
I would be exhausted from the trip. All I'd want was to get some sleep. And I'd be sent to another big dump of a government-run hotel — the Belgrad, or the Rossiya, where my room was not much bigger than my suitcase, where the toilet paper (if there was any) could have sanded down what little paint there was on the window-sills, and where, of course, the telephones didn't work.
It didn't take me long to learn that the McDonald's pins and the twelve-dollar Ronald McDonald watches that I always carried were more useful than the official vouchers when it came to getting a room at the Intourist. I'd produce pins or a watch and suddenly, as if by magic, an empty room would be found. McDonald's pins and watches were my American Express card in Moscow. I never went anywhere without them.
On top of all this, like all Western visitors to the Soviet Union in those days, I constantly felt that I was being watched. We treated this as a bit of a game sometimes — looking under rugs and lampshades for bugs, stepping outside for particularly important discussions with my Moscow team. It was like something out of James Bond. But, in fact, it wasn't a joke. It wasn't uncommon to be tailed by a classic black Volga. The American Embassy actually issued documents to visitors advising them that they should act on the assumption they were under surveillance. We were warned that if we left papers in our rooms they would be looked at, that our telephone calls would be monitored, and that we would always be followed. It was disconcerting, to put it mildly.
After a few visits, I started to find my way around. Gradually, I got to know the ropes. And by 1978 I had shifted from the Intourist Hotel and its long line-ups to the more accommodating, and much more interesting, Metropol. It became my Moscow home. It was, by far, the best hotel in Moscow — even if it did have the fiercest-looking floor-lady I had yet encountered in all my visits. Typically, in Russian hotels, these women sit sternly beside the elevator door on each floor. They boss around the maids. They keep the keys to the rooms. They make certain that order prevails, and they keep a watchful eye on everyone. They are grandmother types, classic Russian babushkas, and nothing happens on their floors — no extra towel is handed out, no message is left, no arrangements for a trans-Atlantic phone call are made, no guests arrive — without their knowledge. They know everything that's going on.
Dounia sat in the Metropol's second-floor corridor like a rock. She was a force to be reckoned with. She wore her steel-grey hair in a bun that looked as if bullets would bounce off it. She had a bulky, shapeless build, as if she were wearing several coats under her dark-blue hotel smock. She looked as if all the hardships of Russia's twentieth century were etched on her wrinkled old face. She glowered at me whenever I got off the elevator. I'd manage a smile, and then hurry into my room.
It was a corner room — Room 2264 — on the second floor, overlooking Teatral'naya Square. It was a suite that, in the fall of 1979, I got to know all too well. It had vast, high ceilings, a massively heavy desk, and a grand piano which, while very elegant, was not a lot of use to me. Perhaps it had been used by Rachmaninoff, Perhaps Bernard Shaw had doodled around on it when he came to the Metropol and met with Stalin. Maybe Van Cliburn had practised on it before winning the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in 1958. Whatever the piano's heritage, I would have happily traded it for a shower that worked, or for enough hot water to shave, or for an extra towel.
The room also had a telephone. It never, ever worked. But, in the worst of all possible worlds, it rang constantly. Day and night. No-one was ever on the line.
And, of course, the room had grim, unyielding Dounia guarding it. I was never sure if she was keeping outsiders out, or guests in. She was always there, sitting in the corridor like Mother Russia.
I spent a lot of time in Room 2264. In fact, in 1979, I stayed there for seventeen days straight. There isn't a hotel room in the world that I know quite as well.
My stay at the Metropol all began with a story I like to tell. A story about a bus.
It was at the time of the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. Some time before the Games, I got a call from the Canadian Department of External Affairs. An official explained that the Government of Canada would be entertaining a group of Soviets who were in charge of the 1980 Olympic Games. The 1980 Olympics were going to be held in Moscow, and a delegation from the USSR would be visiting Montreal. Could I help?
Somehow the Department knew that McDonald's had a custom coach. It was a very nice, very comfortable bus that we used for charity events. We didn't usually let anyone else use it, but I felt that since it was the Government of Canada that was asking, we should do what we could to help.
So the Department of External Affairs got the bus. And, as it happened, my wife, our two sons, Craig and Mark, and I got a chance to go to Montreal that summer to see the Games. (I'm a big Olympics fan; I went to Los Angeles in 1984, Barcelona in 1992, and Atlanta in 1996.) The Montreal Olympics were the Games at which the Canadian high-jumper Greg Joy won the silver medal, and we were there, cheering our heads off, when he did. They were great Olympics, and a great event for Canada to be hosting. It had been less than two years since I had become a Canadian citizen, and that summer, in Montreal, with the eyes of the world on Canada, I felt real pride in the achievements of my adopted country.
Late one afternoon, after a track and field event, Susan and the boys and I were leaving the Olympic Stadium. It was a hot, sunny day. We were dressed in jeans and T-shirts, making our way through the crowd, when I looked across the street, and there was the McDonald's bus. The Soviet delegation was just getting off. On the spur of the moment, I said to Susan, "Let's go meet the Russians."
So we walked over. As we approached, we were stopped by two plain-clothes officers. One was RCMP; the other, KGB. We were stopped a few yards from the bus. Perhaps for fear they might defect, the Soviet delegation was being guarded very closely. The officers stepped in front of us, and I did what I have done many times since in similar situations: I produced my business card.
It is not an ordinary-looking business card. It's shaped like a Big Mac, and it's good for one free Big Mac. This caught the attention of the RCMP officer. Then, once the card's meaning became clear to him, it really sparked the interest of the man from the KGB.
The card did what it almost always does. It broke the ice. Soon we were talking. It might be a hold-over from one of the many part-time jobs I took on when I was a student — I worked for a while as a Fuller Brush salesman — but I know that once you engage people in conversation, the barriers come down soon enough. You establish contact. You make a few jokes. You humanize the situation. And you do what all salesmen are always trying to do: You get your foot in the door. My foot was almost in. We were well on our way, at that point, to talking our way past the two officers, when, hurrying through the crowd toward us, like a grey-suited bundle of worry, came a third obstacle. He was a very officious-looking bureaucrat from Ottawa — all clipboards and protocol and official itineraries. He could see what was going on, and he didn't like it. By this time, a few of the Russians had gathered around, and the Canadian official took it upon himself to intervene.
He told us that he was from External Affairs. He told us that these were very important people, very busy, and couldn't be bothered. He told us that we wouldn't be allowed to get anywhere near them. He cited all kinds of international this and intergovernmental that. And he told me that I would have to go through the Protocol Department of External Affairs to request permission to speak with the visiting delegation from the Soviet Union.
This kind of thing always rubs me the wrong way.
I looked at him straight through his spectacles. "My friend," I said. "The protocol is, I own the bus."
One of the Russians there had worked at the United Nations. He was fluent in English. He heard what I said to the Canadian official, and because Russians had to deal with such extraordinary levels of bureaucracy, because they were always being told they couldn't do this and couldn't do that, he thought that what I had said to the officious man from External Affairs was hilarious. He broke out laughing and immediately told the other Russians, who also found what I had said very funny.
Needless to say, the Canadian bureaucrat wasn't very amused by this. But by then it was too late; the Russians were swarming around us. Soon we were all talking, and they were joking with our young boys. In no time we were all the best of friends, and the Russians, being Russians, decided that they would invite us out to dinner. When a Russian offers you a dinner invitation, proposes a toast, or suggests opening a bottle, it is always difficult and usually impossible to decline.
We agreed to go. But I had an idea. It was a little odd, but it turned out to be a pretty good one. I said, "Let's have a snack first."
Susan looked at me as if I'd lost my mind. "George. We're going out to dinner. They don't want to have a snack before going out to dinner."
But the Soviets were game. When it comes to questions of appetite, Russians usually are.
We drove to the McDonald's at St. Catherine and Atwater, across the street from the old Montreal Forum. Just a few months earlier, Ray Kroc, Fred Turner, and I had cut the ribbon, opening this restaurant — the four thousandth McDonald's in the world.
There was an Olympic final on at the Forum, and there were huge line-ups along the sidewalks and across the streets. One of the Russians asked, "What are the queues for?"
I said, "To make you feel at home."
We went into the McDonald's. Now, when most people go into a McDonald's they don't really think very much about it. It's a McDonald's. It's clean. It's bright. It's lively. They know what to expect. Those of us who work for McDonald's look closely at things, of course. How many customers are there? How fast are the lines moving? How's the communication between the front counter and the grill? Are the crew members neatly turned out? But most customers don't bother with these kinds of details. They just want to get their food quickly and then enjoy it.
It was different with the Soviets we met in Montreal. You have to remember that going into a McDonald's was something absolutely new to these people. To them, a restaurant was either a dark little hole in the wall where, maybe, you could get a sausage sandwich, a boiled potato, and a cup of tea, or else it was a vast, coldly formal dining room that was always out of everything and where the waitresses or waiters seemed physically incapable of smiling. To our new friends from the Soviet Union, the quality, service, and cleanliness of McDonald's was a revelation. They couldn't believe it, and they couldn't believe that so many ordinary Canadians could afford to be there that night, enjoying themselves with friends and family. Such an outing — something we take for granted — was, at that time, unheard-of in their country.
And so, over Big Macs, and french fries, and Cokes and milkshakes, we began to talk about McDonald's and about the Soviet Union. It was a friendly chat, and I asked the delegation a question that would change my life. I asked whether Russians would enjoy going to a McDonald's if there was one, say, in Moscow.
"Konechno, poydyom," they said. "Of course we would."
Looking back, I suppose we all must have thought that at first we were talking hypothetically. After all: McDonald's in the USSR! On the face of it, it seemed a pretty improbable notion.
You'll recall that I described myself as a front counter kind of guy. Spreadsheets and technicalities are not my strong suit. But I'm always at the front counter, in my mind at any rate. It's important to know what people think, and at the front counter you learn quickly enough about what customers like and what they don't like. Executive offices can be very nice, but the front counter is where the rubber meets the road: the point where every aspect of McDonald's — all the company's philosophy, all of its quality control, its service training, its emphasis on standards and friendliness, all of its innovations and its employees' efforts — boil down to a single question: Does it make the customer happy? If you had been at the front counter of the McDonald's at St. Catherine and Atwater on the night of July 23, 1976, you would have met some very, very happy Russian customers.
In the days after our encounter with the Soviet delegates, I found that I couldn't get their enthusiasm for McDonald's out of my mind. I couldn't stop thinking about how much they enjoyed the restaurant and how much they enjoyed their food. I kept hearing them — "khorosho," "otmenno," "vkusno." Good. Delicious. Tasty — and I found myself thinking ahead to the 1980 Olympics, scheduled for Moscow. Who was going to provide food services for the Games? From what I'd heard, the Soviet Union didn't seem very adept at providing food services for its own citizens, much less thousands of hungry visitors. So why couldn't it be McDonald's?
That simple question raised the prospect of many complications — complications that, for a lot of people, might have kept the whole notion of McDonald's in the USSR stuck in the starting gate. Some might have worried more about the demographics of the Soviet population, or the economy, or the political situation. Others might have stalled on the problem of suppliers — with Soviet agriculture in a perpetual state of crisis, where would we find product that would consistently meet our standards? How could we guarantee the volume of supply that we would require? Certainly we weren't going to run the kind of restaurants that Soviets were used to — restaurants that never had half the items on their menu. Telling customers that we were out of Big Macs was just not on.
Some people might have decided that finding cheerful, energetic, and efficient personnel was simply not possible in the Soviet Union. Still others might have worried about how unlikely it was that the USSR would welcome so high-profile a symbol of Western capitalism into Russia.
I was not unaware of these potential problems. But my thinking was much more straightforward.
I thought: There is a huge population in the USSR. People get hungry and they like to eat. Their diet is largely made up of meat, bread, potatoes, and milk, and McDonald's provides meat, bread, potatoes, and milk of the highest quality. At an affordable price. I couldn't forget how taken my Soviet friends in Montreal were with what we at McDonald's call "QSC & V" — Quality, Service, Cleanliness, and Value. It's our mantra at McDonald's — it's something that everyone, from the newest employee to the most senior executive, has to take to heart. The Soviets took one look at QSC & V and they loved it.
Perhaps I was being naive. Certainly, some people thought I was. I remember Victor Bychkov, the deputy minister of internal trade of the USSR, telling me in the early 1980s that the entire notion of McDonald's in the Soviet Union was preposterous. Still, the issue seemed pretty straightforward to me. They want the food. We have the food. So, I thought. Why not?
I like to do things directly. And quickly. I like to strike while the iron's hot. And that may be a key difference between myself and many other people. There are lots of people who might have had the bright idea of, say, McDonald's in the USSR, but for them, an idea like that flits briefly through their minds and then disappears, along with a lot of other unacted-upon ideas. It's not a matter of talent. Ray Kroc used to say, "Nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent." It's a matter of action, of doing, of taking advantage of the moments history offers to us. Catch the wave. Take the plunge. Just do it. These are modern versions of something William Shakespeare wrote four hundred years ago: "There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune."
So I took the tide at the flood. When I got back to Toronto, I picked up the telephone. I called Fred Turner.
Fred Turner was then chairman and CEO of the McDonald's Corporation. Tenacious, intense, detail-oriented, Turner was someone whose advice I often sought.
I told Fred about our chance encounter with the Soviet delegation in Montreal. I told him about their response to McDonald's. I said, "Fred, this may sound crazy, but I'd love to go for it. I'd like to try to get us into the Soviet Union."
People often ask why McDonald's-Canada went into the Soviet Union. They often imagine that it was some kind of dark plot — that the Americans thought that it would be advantageous to use the Canadian company as a smokescreen. People think that somewhere, in some vast McDonald's headquarters, some clever Machiavellian schemer decided that the Soviets would probably feel less threatened by a Canadian operation than an American one. It would make a nice thriller, I suppose. Unfortunately, it isn't true. There was no secret American plan. There was no ultra-sophisticated strategy. There was no Machiavellian scheming. There was just a phone call between Fred Turner and me. And Fred Turner is someone who likes to make decisions as quickly and as firmly as I do. He knows how things work; he started at McDonald's in 1956 as a grillman. He knows McDonald's from the bottom up. He trusts his instincts.
He thought for a minute. Then he said, "Okay. Why don't you go for it, George."
And that changed everything.
It was never my intention only to go after the 1980 Olympics. My goal was to establish McDonald's in the USSR for the long run. In military terms, providing food services for the 1980 Olympic Games was going to be our beach-head. Or, to use a Fuller Brush metaphor, showing the Soviets that we could serve fifteen thousand meals a day near the Luzhniki Stadium was our way of getting our foot in the door.
This approach is absolutely consistent with McDonald's philosophy. Whether a new McDonald's is being opened in Ontario, or Connecticut, or Pushkin Square, managers (if the restaurant is owned by McDonald's) or owner-operators (if it is franchised) are strongly encouraged to become involved in their community. We don't believe that a short-term commitment ever makes sense — which is why there are community bulletin boards on the walls at McDonald's and why you will see a local McDonald's sponsoring a softball team or a kids' soccer league. It's why McDonald's will help out with local fundraisers, and charities, and schools, and community events. Our success has always been based on long-term commitment to the community. And so, the notion of a quick in-and-out in the USSR — set up, do the Olympics, and then blow town — was quite contrary to our way of doing things.
It was understood from the beginning that our bid for the food services at the Olympics would not earn us any profit. In fact, we had to think of it as an elaborate and possibly costly R & D project. It was a chance for us to impress upon the Soviets what McDonald's was and what kind of a contribution we could make. In his foreword to this book, Gorbachev points out that, for the Soviets, it was important that we were "not an exhibition but a real business, operating on the highest international standards." And we wanted to make this clear.
The specific nature of our negotiations was that we would build temporary facilities at each of the sports venues for the Games. "Temporary" was a word that made our approach to the USSR seem pretty innocuous. It was like coming in on tiptoes. But "temporary" was pretty much the last thing we had in mind — particularly when it became apparent that the negotiating process was going to be long, and difficult, and expensive. We began talking in 1976. By 1979, we were still talking, and McDonald's-Canada had already invested millions in our pitch to the USSR. For that reason, we wanted to leave the door open to more than a temporary presence in the USSR.
From our point of view, the potential market in Russia was just too big to pass up. The population of the USSR was 258 million. On its own, Moscow's population was nearly 35 per cent of the entire population of Canada — and by 1979, in Canada, there were more than three hundred McDonald's in operation, all doing extremely well. That year, McDonald's opened in Brazil and Singapore, bringing the company's international presence to a total of twenty-seven countries — a 900 per cent increase over what it had been a decade earlier. Shares in McDonald's were trading, after several splits, for $43.50 U.S., and, also in 1979, McDonald's served its 30 billionth hamburger. "Nobody Can Do It Like McDonald's Can" was our advertising refrain that year, and that catchy little jingle seemed to sum up the way we were approaching the world. We had every confidence in our product and in its market appeal.
Our instincts told us that in time the Soviet Union might prove to be one of the most profitable parts of McDonald's world. It was, at first, little more than a hunch — but a hunch we were willing to pursue. At first, we weren't certain to whom, exactly, we should be talking. And so we decided to talk to anybody who would listen. Here, for instance, is a telegram I sent in 1977 to several officials at the Ministry of Food for the USSR — one of dozens of similar telegrams I sent: "I am heading a top level delegation to Moscow on behalf of McDonald's Restaurants. McDonald's operates 4,500 restaurants around the world serving over 1.9 billion meals annually. We will be in Moscow Sept 26-30 to make a written and a 16mm movie presentation explaining the McDonald's Restaurant system. We would be pleased to have you and your representatives attend our presentation.... Looking forward to meeting you. George A. Cohon, President and Chief Exec. Officer, McDonald's Restaurants of Canada Limited."
Sometimes they came. Sometimes they didn't. And usually, at each of these presentations, we would have to explain to someone what a hamburger was.
The Soviets we'd met in Montreal were members of the organizing committee for the 1980 Olympic Games, and it was that committee with which we did most of our negotiating. The person with whom I dealt most frequently in those days was a fellow named Vladimir Koval. He was friendly and jovial. His emotions were never too far below the surface. He had been a basketball player in his day, and he was now the coach for the Soviet Olympic team.
Although we didn't ever address our long-term goals directly across the negotiating table, Koval and his team understood that a permanent position in the Soviet market was our objective. They knew how high the stakes were for us. I was convinced that the USSR represented one of the largest potential markets for McDonald's in the world. They would have been blind had they not seen what we had in mind.
The negotiations from 1976 to 1979 were extremely difficult. We were working in a vacuum. The two economic systems were so radically different that there was little or no common ground for our discussions. Our basic team consisted of Ron Cohen, executive vice president; John Huhs, our first lawyer; Peter Misikowetz, assistant vice president; and myself. Across the table, we were facing a constantly changing line-up of negotiators and advisors. Koval and the Olympic Organizing Committee were the most consistent players, but the situation was complicated. There were three parties involved in the discussions — the Olympic Organizing Committee, the Main Administration for Public Catering of the Moscow City Executive Committee, and McDonald's Restaurants of Canada. To further complicate matters, the Executive Committee, through its chairman, who was effectively the mayor of Moscow, got its orders from the Kremlin and the Politburo. As a result, there were a lot of people involved in the negotiations on their side. We'd often go off in the morning to Koval's office in Gorky Street and confront a whole new team.
"Where's Ivan?" I'd ask. "And Tanya?"
"They are not here." Which did not exactly come as news.
This sort of manoeuvre often seemed to occur the day after a long, difficult negotiating session in which I had finally given way on a couple of sticky points in order to keep things moving. I remember that once, when it was getting late in the day, I backed off on a boycott protection clause that our lawyer, John Huhs, insisted we include in the agreement. "These are the Olympics," I said. "Who's going to boycott the Olympics?"
Famous last words. This was a major concession (as things turned out, it was almost a disastrous concession), but my hope was that when the next morning's talks began, the Soviets would respond with a concession or two of their own.
That morning, in the boardroom of Koval's office, I found myself facing a table of strangers. "But yesterday ..." I began,
"Yesterday was yesterday. Today is today."
And off, once again, slowly, painstakingly, we would go.
The Soviets were very good at making it seem as if we were making progress. Just enough to keep you from giving up, but never enough actually to get anywhere. We would have meetings that we would think were important, but probably, in the scheme of things, weren't important at all. For instance, we'd have meetings to sign protocols — a protocol being an agreement to meet again to try to reach an agreement. Bureaucrats are very big on protocols. Protocols inspire lots of meetings, produce lots of paper, promote endless discussion — and almost never get down to anything as definite as a result. Which is why bureaucrats like them so much. So here we were, a handful of pretty unbureaucratic guys from Toronto finding their way through the tangles of what Mikhail Gorbachev calls the USSR's "bureaucratic jungle."
So we met. And met again. And we agreed to continue to discuss mutually advantageous ideas. In the initial protocol between McDonald's-Canada and the organizing committee of the 1980 Olympics, we agreed to work toward "establishing a fast food service restaurant on the territory of Luzhniki stadium." That was the easy part. Under discussion — and sometimes under heated discussion — were such items as a $100,000 fee we would have to pay to the organizing committee, the cost of the transportation and housing of our personnel, and the requisite licences and clearances to import the product we needed.
Still, there were lots of things on which we agreed — not that our various agreements ever meant very much. We agreed on cooperation, on exchanges of information, on established dialogue. We agreed to strive for this and work toward that. There was one meeting at the offices of the Olympic Organizing Committee at which we couldn't quite understand what the interpreter was saying. We kept looking at one another in bewilderment. It seemed extremely complicated and we kept asking for clarification. Eventually we realized that we were being asked to agree to keep trying to agree.
And so, after we stopped laughing — we agreed.
And all of these agreements were signed with typically Russian ceremony.
Part of the process of signing protocols is responding to toasts, proposing toasts, drinking toasts — vodka, of course. Clear, cold, liquid dynamite. We drank toasts to East-West co-operation, to world peace, to international co-operation. And I proposed a few — a few thousand. I'm not a big drinker — certainly not a big vodka drinker — but I realized very quickly that this was the way the Soviets do things. So, when in Rome....
You name it, we toasted it. Before long I got the nickname Pop-up. At the slightest provocation, I'd jump to my feet. "Tovarishchi — Comrades," I'd say. "To General Secretary Brezhnev." "To international co-operation." "To a good harvest."
There was sometimes something almost dream-like about those first four years of negotiations. Something unreal. For instance, I used to like to begin meetings with something that would catch the Soviets' attention. I would say, "I'm a capitalist. I believe in free enterprise. Competition and profit are not dirty words."
This was a kind of cocky thing to say back then. It was a little provocative. I didn't want to get into a big ideological debate with the people with whom we were negotiating, but I didn't want them to get the impression that I was in some way in sympathy with their system, either. My own personal politics generally hover somewhere between Liberal and Conservative on the Canadian spectrum, and the way I vote depends on the qualifications of individual candidates.
Thinking now of the way events unfolded in the Soviet Union over the succeeding fifteen years, I suppose that when I stood up and said, "I believe in free enterprise and in pay based on performance," I must have been hitting a responsive chord in many of the people with whom we were talking — much more responsive than I could have imagined, or that they could have let on, at the time. The communist system was about to enter the decade of its collapse, and the seeds of its eventual failure had long been sown. The fact that the system was breaking down was apparent everywhere: in the broken-down buses and trucks at the sides of the highways, in the empty, gloomy stores, in the line-ups that would immediately collect at a street corner whenever word got out that somebody was bringing a truckload of food in from the country. The break-down was apparent, yes; openly discussed, no. And in the late 1970s, stating my belief in capitalism so bluntly was more bravado than anything else. Or so I thought. It was a way of catching people's attention, of pulling their chain a little, of waking up a sleepy table of Soviet bureaucrats who didn't know a Big Mac from a peanut butter sandwich. That I could speak frankly during our business negotiations sometimes lulled me into a false sense of security about how tolerant the system was. But then something would happen to remind me of the true nature of the state.
I remember once attending the Bolshoi Ballet. The famous theatre is across Teatral'naya Square from the Metropol, and I attended performances there whenever I could. The Bolshoi was built in 1824, and the greatest dancers in the world have appeared there over the years. One night, a father and daughter shared a box with me. They were from Riga in Latvia. The daughter was a medical student, twenty-three or twenty-four years old. They both spoke English very well, and during the intermission we struck up a conversation. He was a distinguished-looking gentleman; she was a classic Eastern European beauty. After the ballet, I invited them back to the hotel for a drink.
As we walked into the hotel, the daughter was stopped by security police. They asked for her papers. She'd left them at her hotel, but the police were not going to let her off the hook. The father started to get angry. The police identified themselves — KGB -- and threatened to take him to the station. By this time, the daughter was terrified. So I tried to intervene.
I said, "Look. She's a medical student. I'm a Canadian businessman and they are my guests. We met at the ballet. I invited them here for a drink ..."
"Spokoino, ne nado shum podnimat," they said. Which, in rough translation, means "Shut your trap, buddy!" They said that if I didn't, I'd end up in trouble, too. The way they said "trouble" had a particularly ominous ring. I got the distinct impression that, in this situation, a Ronald McDonald watch was not going to help. The one who spoke to me had eyes with all the friendliness and charm of a pair of ball bearings. And that's when I started to get frightened. I realized that these bastards weren't fooling around.
They took the girl away. I remember the sheer terror on her face. They wouldn't let her father go with her. It seemed completely unreasonable — especially to a foreigner. Unreasonable and unnecessary. The helplessness and the fear that I felt knocked me out of the secure world of the tourist and visiting businessman. I caught a sudden and very disturbing glimpse of a reality of Soviet life.
They threw her in the back of their Volga, and about two hours later, they brought her back. She was petrified. The father and I had sat in the lobby, waiting. He was beside himself. And when, at last, the police returned her to the hotel, they made no apology. They just dumped her off. I couldn't believe their attitude. They seemed interested in nothing other than throwing their weight around, exerting their influence, making sure that we knew who was the boss.
Unreal. That's the word that kept passing through my mind. Something else that struck me as unreal during our early negotiations was how differently we were received, depending on who was receiving us. McDonald's, by then, was a household word throughout much of the world. There were two hundred McDonald's in Japan by 1979, one hundred in Germany, and we had just opened in Portugal. Everyone had heard of McDonald's — everyone, it seemed, except the officials of the Soviet Union with whom we were negotiating.
|A Word about the Author by Mikhail Gorbachev||vii|
|1 A Foot in the Door||8|
|2 Born in the U.S.A||37|
|3 Moscow Nights||62|
|4 Green and Growing||90|
|5 Burger Diplomacy||115|
|6 O Canada||146|
|7 Doves of Perestroika||175|
|8 Roots and Wings||224|
|9 Encounters with Greatness||268|
|10 Fathers and Sons||307|
Posted July 21, 2005
George Cohon describes how he turned McDonald¿s into a Russian institution by marketing meat, bread, potatoes and milk in a culture where such fare had long constituted the traditional diet. The lesson here is that when global companies market products that local consumers can readily identify with, the companies are perceived to be of local origin.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.