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Pizza Hut, luxury luggage and Spitting Image: How Mikhail Gorbachev became an unlikely cultural icon

The last leader of the Soviet Union, who has died at 91, enjoyed an unusual second act as a spokesperson for Western brands. Kevin E G Perry looks back at how Mikhail Gorbachev came to embody the triumph of capitalism

Wednesday 31 August 2022 05:45 BST
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<p>An illustration of Mikhail Gorbachev by Mario Breda (2020)</p>

An illustration of Mikhail Gorbachev by Mario Breda (2020)

Mikhail Gorbachev walks into a Pizza Hut. The year is 1997, six years after the end of the Soviet Union, and the leader who oversaw its dissolution is in Moscow’s Red Square to star in one of the strangest television adverts ever produced. After taking a seat alongside his granddaughter Anastasia Virganskaya, Gorbachev is spotted by two men at a nearby table and a debate over his legacy ensues. “Because of him we have economic confusion!” claims a dour, middle-aged man. “Because of him we have opportunity!” fires back the younger of the pair, perhaps his son. Certainly the two are intended to represent a generational gap. While the elder complains about political instability and chaos, the younger talks of freedom and hope. It’s left to an older woman to settle the debate. “Because of him, we have many things…” she says, “…like Pizza Hut!” On that, they can all agree. The advert ends with the whole restaurant standing to chant: “Hail to Gorbachev! Hail to Gorbachev!”

Gorbachev, who has died after a "serious and long illness" at the age of 91, was not the most obvious candidate to wind up as a pizza salesman. That was sort of the point. Pizza Hut had spent the decade using high-profile figures to generate attention-grabbing advertising campaigns. In 1995, Donald Trump appeared alongside then-wife Ivana in an ad that concluded with the punchline: “Actually, you’re only entitled to half.” The following year, England defender Gareth Southgate wore a paper bag over his head in a commercial that mocked his crucial penalty miss at Euro ’96. As a former world leader and towering figure in 20th century history, however, Gorbachev was at another level entirely. Former Pizza Hut advertising executive Scott Helbing recalled that at the time Gorbachev was hired, the company “needed an idea that truly travelled across continents” for a “global campaign that would play in any country in the world.” That’s more or less what they got, although ironically one country where the advert was never shown was Russia itself.

Mikhail Gorbachev stars in Pizza Hut advert

Why did Gorbachev agree to flog pizzas? The same reason anybody does: he needed the money. After leaving office Gorbachev had started his own non-profit organisation, The Gorbachev Foundation, and before long was using his platform to become an outspoken critic of his successor as Russian leader, Boris Yeltsin. In retaliation, Yeltsin systematically removed the organisation’s means of support and reduced their office space in Moscow. Gorbachev saw the Pizza Hut money – which unconfirmed reports put in the region of $1m – as a way of protecting his beloved foundation. “At the time, I had some financial problems with my foundation so I did an advertisement for Pizza Hut,” Gorbachev told France 24 in 2007, shooting back at the idea that making adverts was beneath him. “I got the maximum, because I needed to finish the building. The workers started to leave. I needed to pay them.”

Although Gorbachev was paid well, the money didn’t last. A year later, in 1998, he announced he had lost his savings in the financial crash. Meanwhile, the political openness he had hoped to steer his country towards began to evaporate after Vladimir Putin took office in 2000. Some in the West have pointed to Gorbachev’s Pizza Hut appearance as embodying the triumph of capitalism over communism, but to others it signifies nothing more than the emptiness at the heart of popular culture. In 1998, Infinite Jest author David Foster Wallace referenced the advert in his essay “Big Red Son”. “There seems to be this enormous unspoken conspiracy where we all pretend that there’s still joy,” wrote Wallace. “That we think it’s funny when Bob Dole does a Visa ad and Gorbachev shills for Pizza Hut. That the whole mainstream celebrity culture is rushing to cash in and all the while congratulating itself on pretending not to cash in. Underneath it all, though, we know the whole thing sucks.”

The Pizza Hut spot, strange as it is, was not to be Gorbachev’s last or most incongruous outing as a brand spokesperson. In 2007 he appeared in a print advert for French luxury brand Louis Vuitton, photographed by Annie Leibovitz in the back of a car beside the Berlin Wall. Twenty years earlier, President Ronald Reagan had famously used a speech in Berlin to implore: “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Gorbachev justified his appearance this time on the grounds that he was using the money to buy equipment for a centre that treated children with leukaemia. “This is the most recent and maybe best-equipped centre in Europe,” he told France 24. “But we needed some money.”

As well as his appearances in adverts, Gorbachev was also a regular fixture of television comedies during the Eighties and Nineties. Despite the reforms he brought to Russia, Gorbachev was depicted as an old-style Soviet leader on long-running satire Spitting Image. The puppet version of his distinctive birthmark was reshaped to resemble a hammer and sickle. Meanwhile in the 1996 The Simpsons episode “Two Bad Neighbors”, Gorbachev (voiced by Hank Azaria) arrives to find former President George HW Bush wrestling with Homer Simpson. “I just dropped by with present for warming of house,” he sighs in broken English. “Instead, find you grappling with local oaf.”

In the wake of Gorbachev’s death, tributes have poured in from a wide range of pop cultural figures. The Terminator actor Arnold Schwarzenegger described the former Russian leader as “one of my heroes”. Meanwhile, former children’s television presenter Timmy Mallett recalled how Gorbachev had inspired him to travel to Red Square in 1990 to explain Russian politics to children. Just as in a certain Pizza Hut a quarter of a century ago, there seems once again to be a whole crowd shouting: “Hail to Gorbachev!”

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