How on Earth did it come to this? Mikhail Gorbachev, last premier of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, leader of what remained of the socialist world, reduced to an advert for pizza. From an American pizza chain no less! How the hell did that happen!? Well, we’ll need to cast our eyes back and find out, won’t we?
The year Is 1997. Gorbachev is strapped for cash and his pension is worth fuck all due to inflation. His foundation, the ‘Gorbachev Foundation’ appropriately enough, is hanging by a thread and a fast injection of cash seems pretty far away, what with the whole country hating his guts and all. …Okay, shit, we need to explain how that happened first. So let’s got back a little further. And, if you’ll excuse me, lets linger there for quite a while so we can really get a grasp on how this madness came to be.
The year is 1985 and Gorbachev is the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Things have been stagnant in the economy for quite a while, owing to quite a lot of factors, but probably not helping is that two successive leaders have been elected and kicked the bucket since 1982, so things are looking a little embarrassing. The era prior to them was ruled by one Leonid Brezhnev, who is rapidly becoming synonymous with stagnation on the whole. Something needs to change!
What is the solution? Glasnost and perestroika! Glasnost meaning ‘openness’ and perestroika meaning ‘restructuring’, as in to open the country up and to restructure its economy. The idea was ambitious! The Soviet economy was a planned one and restructuring towards pro-capitalist reforms had only seemed the briefest of experiments at the start of the 20s and even more tentatively during the Khrushchev era before being rolled back under Brezhnev. But surely, it can’t go that badly ri—
Okay, so, yeah. It can go that badly. Jesus Christ did it go badly. For the first few years, things didn’t seem that bad! As you can see there, the economy actually started to grow a bit between 1985 and 1989, a result of a massive pumping in of foreign currency. This was all an illusion though. While, yes, GDP was growing, living standards were tanking right through the second half of the 80s. Even as western restaurants were opening on Moscow’s streets, bread lines were forming as the newly restructured economy went to war with what parts were still centrally planned. Profit was nearly impossible to maintain with price fixing, so countless businesses were being bailed out by Moscow. Even worse, the black market had flourished and faith in the system entirely went down the tubes.
What’s more, the eastern bloc collapsed in 1989. Like… All of it. Next year, the Baltic states of the USSR were gone, swiftly followed by parts of the Caucasus. In 1991, Gorbachev was seeing protests all across the USSR and faith in him was going down the tubes. This all culminated in a desperate, blind panic in August when a bunch of party hardliners staged a coup, putting Gorbachev under house arrest. Lacking the public support they thought they’d get, the attempted coup collapsed after three days, draining Gorbachev’s prestige with it.
Three days after this fiasco, Ukraine declared its independence and the Central Committee of the CPSU was dissolved, swiftly followed by a suspension of the CPSU’s activity altogether, ending communist control of the country. By December, the USSR itself had essentially collapsed, with the Belavezha Accords, signed in secret by the leaders of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, without Gorbachev’s knowledge, stating unambiguously that the USSR now ceased to exist. On Christmas Day of 1991, the flag was lowered, the anthem was played, Gorbachev stepped down and none were to rise again.
So… With that history dump out of the way… We still have more to get through. I’m sorry, I know you all just want to hear about the pizza ad, but you have to work for it! Or… Scroll down I guess, I’m not the boss of you here. Anyway, Gorbachev became a beloved icon in the west for overseeing a ‘mostly’ peaceful transition to free-market economics and an end to the USSR and Cold War as a whole. Within Russia, this sentiment was very much not shared. The economy was in utter ruins and falling faster seemingly by the day. A country that had once been a confederation of many was now standing alone, all the weaker for it with hefty import prices from countries that had a mere year before been one and the same. The blame for it all, whether earned or not, fell at the feet of Mikhail Gorbachev.
As stated already, his ‘Gorbachev Foundation’ became a major charitable and political venture to which much of his remaining assets were devoted. The foundation was frankly fucked from the get-go, with new Russian leader Boris Yeltsin having it out for Gorbachev something fierce. After initially giving the ex-leader the Institute of Social Sciences, in October of 1992, the workspace was reduced from 54,000 square feet to 7,500 as a result of Yeltsin’s anger at Gorbachev’s return to political life. With cards firmly on the table, Gorbachev took it up a notch and decided to get involved in the 1996 Russian election.
This was the first election since the collapse of the USSR. The economy was in complete fucking ruins and initial polls put Yeltsin at a pathetic 8%. Leading the polls at the time was Gennady Zyuganov, head of the reformed Communist Party of the Russian Federation. It looked a lot like the communists would win, and as a truly shit excuse for a Soviet leader, Gorbachev couldn’t stomach the thought. He threw his hat into the ring, got a million signatures for the nomination aaaand… He got 386,000 votes. Or 0.5%. Then Yeltsin won, in a shock reversal that was seen as a mixture of massive western backing, media bias and outright voter fraud.
So that is where Gorbachev was in 1997, having just been told by 99.5% of the country to fuck off, while his main political rival was allowed to continue his ravaging of the country. Broke and short of friends, he was approached in the winter of that year by none other than Pizza Hut, wanting to put out an advert. He accepted.
Pizza Hut had actually been in the Soviet Union during its dying days, emerging in 1990 as a desperate last-ditch effort to rescue the struggling economy. It failed, naturally, but the Pizza Huts remained well into the independent age and the knowledge of their arrival in the USSR would at least make Gorbachev’s presence make some kind of sense. Given Gorbachev’s enduring popularity in the west, it made a lot of sense! …And given his lack of popularity at home, it also makes sense that the ad never aired in Russia, only abroad, despite being set in Russia and featuring Russian language with subtitles.
It opens simply enough. Gorbachev and his daughter walk through a snowy Red Square in Moscow, arriving at a waiting Pizza Hut. He sits at the table and a nearby family spot him, the father announcing in Russian “It’s Gorbachev!”. Sinister music swells as he bitterly announces that this is the man who gave them economic confusion. A more triumphant sting as his younger son chimes in, stating that they have opportunity. The dad retorts with charges of political instability and the son invokes freedom! All the while, a thoroughly disinterested child just tries to eat his fucking pizza in peace. “Chaos!” “Hope!” “Political instabil—” Wait, you already used that one. Fucks sake, so much for this ad. But before the conversation could come to blows, the mother pipes in with her thoroughly centrist take that “Because of him, we have lots of things – Like Pizza Hut.”
The father and son share a shrug of acknowledgement, as opposed to the far more logical synchronised shout of “Shut up, idiot.” That really should have followed. Even more stupidly, the father, not the son, stands up and raises a slice of pizza, crying “Hail Gorbachev!” Suddenly, everyone in the restaurant is standing… Except for the fucking son, which almost offended me when I first noticed it, since it demonstrates how thoroughly worthless the ensuing argument was in the first place.
An American voice cuts through and claims that pizza brings people together, with Gorbachev himself having failed to utter a single syllable this whole time. The crowd of people crying ‘Gorbachev!’ carries out of the building and baffles and elderly babushka before fading to the Pizza Hut logo, officially ending the ad. Again, with Gorbachev having failed to say so much as a word, but his appearance having quite possibly said more than his entire career up to that point about his thoughts of socialism. The word ‘sellout’ really doesn’t even begin to cover it, does it?
So, for the sake of the Gorbachev Foundation’s temporary fortunes, this creature was cobbled together. Did it work? Well, this is a pizza ad from the 90s that I’m talking about now, so it definitely raised some eyebrows. Whether that translated into pizza sales, I really can’t say. For Gorbachev, it really did fuck all. 2017 opinion polls in Russia of the still-living Gorbachev put his ‘Respect’ level at a paltry 7%, while outright hatred stood at 13%. Anger and indifference were a draw at 30%, so it’s safe to say he’s far more reviled than he is loved. On the plus side, Yeltsin is little better, with hatred towards him standing at 15% and respect at 8%. It’s nearly identical, but Gorbachev stands to be ever so slightly more popular. Incidentally, Lenin’s level of respect stood at 26% in the same poll.
What have we learned from this tale? Nothing, really. It’s one of those historical curios that’s so perfectly awful that it demands attention while being utterly undeserving of it. I’m not the first and certainly not the last to bring it up. With the added historical context, it’s the sad tale of a man who’s fuck-up near singlehandedly destroyed a superpower and who, hated by everyone at home, was reduced to hawking cheese on bread to keep his charity in the green. I’d feel bad for him if he weren’t… Well, Gorbachev. Tune in next time here we’ll be hearing about Gorbachev’s album, which yes, is also a real thing that exists.