The year was 1990. A photographer colleague and I had stopped in Moscow for a one-night layover before continuing on to Irkutsk in Siberia.
Our purpose was to assess the prospects for mounting an expedition the next spring to travel the 2,734-mile length of that region’s longest and most magnificent river, and to learn what obstacles we were apt to encounter along the way.
It had been a trying all-day air journey, and we’d arrived in the Russian capital late that September evening. Hoping to find something more palatable than airline food, we left our taxi not far from the Kremlin and struck out on foot.
By happy accident, we soon found ourselves on a street leading to Gorky Park. Other pedestrians were bound in that same direction, so we fell in with the crowd. And soon we spied the attraction — the giant golden arches of one of the city’s newly opened McDonald’s franchises.
The wait was long. A line of prospective diners — more than a hundred it looked to be, many of them families with youngsters — curved and re-curved upon itself before finally reaching the order stations.
At last we were served. And I can truthfully say that never before or since has a burger with fries and a milkshake been so welcome.
When we left to head for our hotel, people still were piling into the line. It was clear the franchise had won the hearts and appetites of the Muscovites. In the months to come, no fewer than 400 golden arches would be raised above the streets of Russian towns.
The situation changed abruptly one recent day when Soviet authorities ordered McDonald’s restaurants in several regions of the country closed because of what were termed “sanitary violations.”
Did the complaint have any basis in fact, or was the decree just a crude retaliation for the sanctions that have been imposed on the Putin regime for its part in the Ukrainian crisis?
The truth of the matter can’t be known. But what’s certain is that a great many Russians must now be suffering Big Mac withdrawal symptoms.
I am thinking especially of our 1991 expedition partner, Volodya Donskoi. During two trying months on the river, he and his two fellow geographers — Victor and Valera — had been wonderfully resourceful companions.
Donskoi even brightened stormy nights with music on his accordion.
We reached the river’s end at the Arctic coast in mid-August and flew back to the U.S. via Moscow and Amsterdam, vowing that somehow we would maintain contact with the men with whom we’d shared that remarkable adventure.
And two years later, with generous help from a Kansas City bank and law firm, we were able to bring them here — their first time ever out of the Soviet Union — and over a period of several weeks show them as much as we could of our country.
One morning, Donskoi went with my wife to a nearby supermarket. He was smitten by the abundance he saw on the shelves.
“This isn’t a grocery,” he said. “It’s a museum.”
Another day, he decided to take an afternoon walk. It was getting on toward evening when he arrived back a bit late for supper. It turned out he’d gone more than 80 blocks round trip on foot to visit a bookstore he remembered seeing the day before.
We told him we’d been more than a little worried.
“I’m a geographer,” he replied. “We geographers measure the world with our footsteps.”
We also thought they should get a look at the Great Plains and the American West. I especially recall Victor’s expression of wonder as he gazed down at the Colorado river from the rim of the Grand Canyon.
“This,” he said, “is now the river of my dreams.”
Each morning, before getting back on the road, the high point for our Russian friends was the hearty breakfast under the golden arches.
I can’t say what opinion the others had of the U.S. lifestyle, but for Donskoi, our country’s virtue was clear.
“In my opinion,” he declared, “McDonald’s is America’s greatest contribution to world culture.”
And now, perhaps because of the friction between Washington and Moscow over Crimea, he and his fellow Russians in affected locations are doomed to do without.
For more of C.W. Gusewelle, go to gusewelle.kansascity.com.