Cult of the Mac displaces old order of Lenin

Click to follow
Few religions and no political creed I've encountered, including the dogmas of Chinese and Russian Communism, win converts quite as zealous as Alexander Garagaty, a 34-year-old Muscovite who parades his new faith each day, dressed in the uniform of the initiated - a spotless white coat, hairnet and coloured paper hat.

His highly disciplined sect runs branches around the world, about 14,000 in 79 countries. "Our concept is universal," Mr Garagaty gushed. "The standards are the same for every country. There is no difference no matter where you are or who you are."

Such uniformity does, he admits, lead to a few drop-outs. About 3 per cent of new recruits fall by the wayside each month: "Some people who join us have an erroneous conception of our work. They expect an easy life and lots of money."

Mr Garagaty is a fast-food fundamentalist. I have met no one so dedicated to a cause. He used to work for a Moscow wine firm. Then, he found McDonald's: "This is thousands of light years away from everything I knew before."

Moscow has three McDonald's restaurants, including the busiest in the world, on Pushkin Square. This outlet has served almost 18 million Big Macs and more than 32 million orders of French fries since it opened five years ago, after a dozen years of painful negotiations.

The heart of the cult is a 10,000sq metre compound, surrounded by a high chain-link fence, patrolled by a security force and dotted with television cameras. This is the Moscow-McDonald's Food Processing and Distribution Centre. The faithful call it the McComplex. Unbelievers mock it as the McGulag.

"I can't tell you that," replies Svetlana Polyakova, the firm's marketing manager, when asked whether guards carry guns. "It is not appropriate to reveal our security arrangements."

Apart from its address, on Novoorlovskaya Street, in the southern Moscow district of Solntsevo, it is a place out of space and time. The walls are decorated with pictures of visiting dignitaries, among them Newt Gingrich, and a portrait of Ray Kroc, fast food guru until his death in 1984 and founder of the first McDonald's in Oak Brook, Illinois, now home to the Hamburger University.

"Today is a very special day," intones Mr Garagaty, the production manager, as he guides visitors into a small room scrubbed so clean it would shame most Russian operating theatres, "Today is the day we make the Big Mac sauce."

We are invited to inspect large vats filled with orange goo, part of a supply needed for half a million Big Macs a month. A laboratory upstairs, staffed by chemical engineers, tests the orange gunge to ensure it meets eight separate criteria to guarantee world-wide uniformity.

In a country teetering towards anarchy, McDonald's mania for control offers a reassuring fixed point. It is one that, but for its American origins, ought to please nostalgic champions of the strict, lost order of the Soviet Union.

As with any ideology, there is much talk of re-education. "You see. There are no locks, no doors," explains Mr Garagaty showing off a huge storeroom. "We have different concept of security. We have no theft because we pay more attention to education of our people. We make them understand what this is all about." But, as any good Communist cadre would understand, trust cannot be left entirely unsupervised: "We also have security cameras to stop such things from happening."

Apart from a brief protest in Pushkin Square two years ago by anarchists and grumbles about the superiority of Russian pelmeni dumplings, McDonald's has not stirred the anguish felt in France by intellectuals angered about "American cultural imperialism", or in Britain, among Hampstead home-owners, worried about their property values. The Mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, suggested last week that Russia should have its own fast-food restaurants selling blinis and lumps of pork fat. But he also praised McDonald's as "an example for other international businesses".

So far, McDonald's has had to make only one small concession to what the xenophobic rantings of Vladimir Zhirinovsky would suggest is a rising tide of anti-Western nationalism - signs written in Cyrillic script. But, even McDonald's sometimes admits circumstances beyond its control. While trying to buy local produce, it turned last year to the US for 60 per cent of its potatoes. Russian farmers, Mr Garagaty said, could not meet chip quality: "We can't control the weather."