The Peculiar Truth
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The Peculiar Truth

The Peculiar Truth about Russian Pizza

  • Mikhail Gorbachev took power in the former Soviet Union in 1985. He ushered in a new era of economic reform called perestroika.
  • In one early act of change, a joint Soviet/American business venture began in Moscow.
  • It was called Astro Pizza. The small business served American-style pizza from a food truck in Red Square.
  • Soviet citizens had known about the Italian dish, but it was uncommon in their country. Russian-made pizzas had toppings like fish, eggs, pickles, and mayonnaise.
  • American pizza was a hit. But the enterprise shuttered after a mere six months.
  • Then, in 1990, along came Pizza Hut.
  • The American company opened two Moscow locations, which became enormously successful. Demand was overwhelming despite the high prices.
  • The Pepsi corporation owned Pizza Hut, and they had an odd payment arrangement with the Soviets. According to rumors, instead of offering rubles, the Soviets paid in vodka. Later, they supposedly paid PepsiCo with old oil tankers.
  • On December 25, 1991 — Christmas Day — Gorbachev broke up the Soviet Union and immediately resigned. The satellite states — Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus, etc. — became independent nations.
  • Pizza Hut had a nightmare paying customs fees to get cheese and other ingredients across new international borders.
  • Then the Russian economy tanked.
  • Boris Yeltsin took over and would lead Russia throughout the 1990s.
  • In 1997, Pizza Hut began negotiations with former Soviet leader Gorbachev to appear in one of their commercials. He made money on the international speakers’ circuit but his foundation was nearly broke, so Gorbachev agreed.
  • Rumors spread that he received the largest celebrity endorsement payout in history up to that point, possibly $1 million.
  • But Gorbachev had one ironclad contract stipulation: he would not be filmed eating pizza. That nearly scuttled the deal.
  • Then a compromise was reached. Gorbachev’s young granddaughter would appear in the ad, and she would take a bite of pizza.
  • By that time, Gorbachev was a polarizing figure throughout Russia. Old-timers hated him for what he had done to their country. Younger people admired him… somewhat.
  • That dynamic played out in the commercial as father and son, played by two Russian actors, argued about Gorbachev’s legacy. But then the mother in the commercial found common ground when she stated that at least he brought them Pizza Hut.
  • The ad ends with a chorus of people shouting, “Hail Gorbachev!” (in Russian).
  • In truth, the former leader was deeply unpopular in his own country. Few Russians would have chanted his name without epithets.
  • The commercial aired internationally in January 1998.
  • It ran everywhere but Russia.

Dan is the author of over a dozen novels. His latest is Tight Five.

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Dan Spencer

Dan Spencer

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Author of over a dozen novels, including Tight Five. I publish The Peculiar Truth every Tuesday. https://medium.com/the-peculiar-truth