You know the one. Gorbachev walks into a Pizza Hut restaurant, instigating an argument between two patrons about his legacy. “Because of him we have economic confusion,” says a bitter, stodgy-looking man. “Because of him we have opportunity,” says the other, a handsome youngster. The debate mounts until another patron interferes and says, “Because of him, we have Pizza Hut!” Even the man who criticized Gorbachev moments earlier now smirks in approval. The patrons of the restaurant all stand and chant “Hail Gorbachev;” the political debate between the patrons is subsumed by their joy at living in an Americanized Russia.
The commercial, which reappeared in the media following Gorbachev’s death on August 31, perfectly encapsulates the absurdity of Russia in the 1990s. Once the center of the world’s biggest challenge to Western hegemony, it suddenly renounced its empire and dived headfirst into capitalism’s trashiest spoils. Gorbachev, the man who once sat at the helm of America’s nemesis, was selling Pizza Hut. History was over, and the future smelled like greasy, melted cheese.
The ridiculousness of the advertisement has made it an internet cult classic. While it is evident enough that its portrayal of Russia in the 1990s is inaccurate, many in the West don’t know what the country really looked like at this time. By the time the commercial aired, the Western-advised neoliberal reforms that brought pizza to Russia had resulted in the seizure of most property by former Soviet administrators (‘Red Directors’) and entrepreneurs. Meanwhile, the majority of the population descended into poverty. Yeltsin, initially extremely popular in the country, saw his approval ratings dip into the single digits by the end of the decade. Despite the unpopularity of the reforms, they kept going, often pushed through by rigged elections. If the new system initially presented itself as democratic and capitalist, it soon revealed itself willing to sacrifice the former tenet for the latter. It is grimly ironic that Gorbachev himself, initially unwilling to do the advertisement, ultimately agreed to it because his non-profit organization was strapped for funds—good timing, as only a few months later Russia was struck with a financial crisis so severe that the rouble lost two-thirds of its value.
The fact that the commercial stars Gorbachev rather than Yeltsin or another post-Soviet politician represents an ultimate humiliation of Soviet ideology. “We were looking for some way to use Gorbachev… as a source of controversy, and let the pizza bring people together. At least they could agree that he had brought them pizza, and that was a good thing,” said Tom Derbyshire, one of the writers of the advertisement. In fact, Gorbachev had not meant to bring pizza to Russia; he came to power promising to replace Brezhnev’s bureaucratic stagnation with a return to Lenin and to breathe new life into the atrophied dream of socialism. According to Tony Wood, Gorbachev “envisaged an ultimate integration of Russia and the Warsaw Pact countries into a harmonious bloc of broadly social-democratic states, a kind of Greater Scandinavia,” and it was only with the arrival of Yeltsin that the impulse toward convergence transformed into a “project to make Russia into a ‘normal’ liberal democracy, firmly under the tutelage of the US.” But as the advertisement demonstrates, Gorbachev’s initial intentions were irrelevant by the 1990s. Instead, he became the representative of Russia’s transformation, a hero in the eyes of Western politicians, and, for more and more Russians, the fool who promised to fix their country and then sold it.
This disjunction is the source of the commercial’s humor. The juxtaposition between the once-commanding Kremlin and the Pizza Hut along with the debate-turned-rally in a gaudy restaurant represents the inanity of Russian politics in the 1990s. Russian people began to believe that their only two options, in the past and in the future, were chaos and order; as the rising popularity of Putin and the rehabilitation of Stalin has demonstrated, an increasing number chose the latter. It is shocking to us in the West that so many Russians would support an autocratic ruler leading them into a fascist war essentially to preserve his own power. But the last time Russians attempted to escape autocracy, the lavish liberties promised to them were eclipsed by mass poverty and overwhelming corruption. To understand Russians’ support of Putin, one must understand the wide gulf between how Russians experienced their transition to neoliberal capitalism and how Americans thought they experienced it. After all, when we laugh at the Pizza Hut advertisement, who are we really laughing at— fictional Russians finding political commonality in their love of cheap, greasy pizza, or ourselves, for dreaming up such a fiction?