On a snowy day, Mikhail Gorbachev and a young girl enter the Pizza Hut fast food restaurant in Moscow, with the playful spiers of the Kremlin rising in Red Square in the background. Inside, a Russian family sits together at a table. The father recognizes Gorbachev immediately: “That’s Gorbachev!” Everyone turns around, his older son replies: “That’s Gorbachev.”
The father immediately gets angry, complaining that “there is chaos in the economy because of him”. The son sees it differently: “Thanks to him we now have new opportunities.” An exchange of blows begins: “But because of him there is now political instability.” – “Thanks to Gorbachev we now live in freedom!” – “Complete chaos!” – “Perspective” – “Political instability!”
Finally, the mother intervened: “Because of him…there is Pizza Hut.” Everyone now raises a toast to the controversial statesman: “To Gorbachev!”
It was never broadcast in Russia – and yet the commercial for the American fast-food chain Pizza Hut symbolizes how Mikhail Gorbachev’s life’s work was received in Russia. For some, he was the gravedigger of the Soviet Union, the cause of chaos and instability. For the others, Gorbachev was a beacon of hope, promising a better, freer life.
For Gorbachev’s death on Tuesday evening, the advertising video from 1998 went viral again – also because the course that Gorbachev took as the last president of the then Soviet Union is diametrically opposed to that of today’s head of the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin. For Putin, the collapse of the Soviet Union is “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.”
And it’s ironic indeed: Pizza Hut opened branches in Moscow in 1990, a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall – just a few months after the first McDonald’s restaurants opened in Russia.
Few other brands are more symbolic of American capitalism than these two fast food chains. This new development was made possible by Gorbachev’s opening to the West, the “perestroika” policy.
In October 1998 – the year the Gorbachev commercial was broadcast – Pizza Hut closed its branches in Moscow again. But the chain continued to have a presence in other parts of Russia. Pizza Hut only closed its remaining 50 branches in the country after the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine in February 2022.
But even at the time of its creation, the spot was not without a certain irony: After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia was suffering from a severe economic crisis – which also affected Gorbachev personally.
His self-founded foundation, with which he wanted to continue to advance his vision of a liberal Russia, began to falter. In short: he needed money. How much Gorbachev got for the Pizza Hut commercial has never been made public. But according to the New York Times, the ex-president is said to have received up to one million US dollars for his appearance.
At the time, he told the US broadcaster CNN that his fee would go to his foundation, with which he wanted to set up a library and a “perestroika” archive. “And this project requires certain funds. Perestroika gave new impetus to Russia and the whole world. It is very important that everything that happened is preserved in these two centers,” Gorbachev said.
It’s not just about consumption, but also about sociability. If he hadn’t seen that “it’s beneficial for people,” he wouldn’t have agreed to the ad deal, Gorbachev said.
In 2010, the commercial was named in Time magazine’s “Top 10 Most Embarrassing Celebrity Commercials.” Twelve years later, the film appears in a different light: in the form of the son who takes on his father, it is reminiscent of Russia’s “Generation P”: The generation that grew up in the Soviet Union, albeit a positive one at the turn of the century development saw.
The term was coined by the Russian author Viktor Pelevin with his eponymous novel from 1999. “P” probably stands for “Pepsi”, which spread in the Soviet Union before “Coca Cola”. Today, however, a Generation Z is growing up in Russia, which is experiencing a policy of isolation, repression and warmongering.
Generation Z in Russia not only stands for the postmillennials born after 1997. But also for a generation that partly supports the Russian war of aggression and grew up in a media propaganda bubble. This is symbolized by the “Z”, the Russian war symbol.