October 02, 2023
The First Modern Landmark in Moscow

I was expecting to be led into a lavish cafe, my mind picturing all Russian cafes to be like New York’s Russian Tea Room.

By Maggie Owsley

Sergey had been sitting across from me on the red velour train seats for over seven hours. I woke up to him looking out the window. He immediately reminded me of a mall Santa. I unsure if it was comforting to have his company, or disconcerting.

His graying beard supported his round cheeks, and the wrinkles in the corners of his eyes seemed like he spent a lot of his life crying or laughing. He was wearing ironed black trousers, and newly-polished black shoes, but his coat looked like he’d been working in mines, and duct tape was holding part of the collar in place.

I don’t remember why we started talking, although surely he made the first gesture of conversation when we were about an hour outside of Moscow. When he spoke I turned my head slightly to avoid the wave of his breath, which smelled like moldy library books and grape juice.

We skipped over the common questions you ask people you meet during your travels — the “where are you going,” “where do you live?” didn’t seem relevant for out inevitability short-term relationship.
Although he had a serious gaze and hadn’t smiled, his mannerism seemed grandfatherly and subdued. He was keen on asking questions, but seemed to be answering mine with more questions, in a philosophical way that you can only do when talking to strangers.

I told him I would just be in Moscow for half a day or so until my next train boarded. He insisted that I must have a cup of authentic Russian coffee before I leave.

I agreed, and decided to cautiously follow him on the metro towards Pushkin Square, a popular and tourist filled spot not far from Red Square and the Kremlin.

I was expecting to be led into a lavish cafe, my mind picturing all cafes in Russia to be like New York’s Russian Tea Room.

“Here we are!”

Sergey finally cracked a smile, and winked as he threw up his hands and pointed to the large Golden Arches of McDonald’s.

The wrinkles on the side of his eyes came even more sharply to life. It was unclear if his gestures were a mark of humor, at the idea of bringing an American tourist to the iconic sign of Americanism, or if he was genuinely excited to be getting me a cup of excellent Russian coffee.

Fried Food and Cigarette Butts

The smell of fried food against the cold air was startling, and there were as many cigarettes littered between the slabs of concrete as McDonald’s straw wrappers. Pigeons poked at dirty French fries.

“This is the first modern historical landmark in Moscow!” he declared.

Still, thinking I’d perhaps been unable to pick up on his wicked humor, I asked, “Huh?”

I actually was in front of a historical monument that represented a huge shift in the Soviet Union. It was only 18 months after this McDonald’s opened in 1990 that the Soviet Union ceased to exist, as Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as leader of the country, and various Soviet republics proclaimed their independence.
In January of 1990 there was line around the corner to step inside what must have only then existed as the idea of The United States (although McDonalds Canada actually handled the Moscow opening).

The manifestation of neatly-packaged food was a sure sign that capitalism was on its way, but more to the point, the enthusiastic reception of McDonald’s from the Russian people signaled a strong desire to leave economic hardship, and move on from political controversy.

Perhaps more than wanting to see the new McDonalds, joining the long lines was a political statement for change. Or maybe the long lines were still a commonplace Communist activity.

I gestured that I would wait outside as Sergey went in to get coffee. A few feet away a McDonald’s employee was having a cigarette break, with long exhales and deep coughs. Her short dirty blonde hair was tied behind a visor that made the circles under her eyes more menacing than her small frame suggested. Her arm was hugging her waist, until the pop song that was her ringtone played, and she yelled, “Hello!” into her phone.

I peered in the tinted glass to see about 20 more cashiers similar to the ageless smoker, attending to the crowds. Tourists? Young Russians? I couldn’t tell the difference, nor could I spot Sergey among the people fighting for seats.

After Sergey bought my coffee we stood outside, both looking onto the square now punctuated with new glass buildings and other imported Western chains.  In the silence I sensed neither of us felt a part of this place. I wanted to ask him if he was in this very place 20 years ago, but as he pulled a flask from his jacket and tapped the contents into his paper cup, I knew he would only answer my question with another question.

Guessing how he would have answered me, I silently asked myself whether I would have been here that day.

The last thing I said to Sergey as he clasped my hand with both of his to say goodbye, was, “Thanks again for the Russian coffee.”

Maggie Owsley writes and photographs from New York City. See more of her work at www.andthenphotos.com.

One comment about “The First Modern Landmark in Moscow”

  1. polandia says:

    This is amazing. Ms. Owsley is both an inspiring photographer and writer. Thanks for posting this!!! Mushkapapa

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