The death of the last leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, reveals an advertisement for Pizza Hut
Arguments ensue. In the minute-long, 25-year-old Pizza Hut ad – which resurfaced on Tuesday after Russian news agencies reported Gorbachev had died at 91 – fellow diners are divided over his legacy.
“Because of him, we have economic confusion!” said an older man. “Thanks to him, we have an opportunity!” responds a young man.
The 1997 ad was meant to be tongue-in-cheek, Tom Darbyshire, who wrote the ad for ad agency BBDO, told The Washington Post. Tapping into the debate over the legacy of Gorbachev – a man seen as a hero abroad and a villain in Russia – the ad sought to show that “pizza is one of those foods that brings people together and fills their differences,” Darbyshire said.
But the ad that made Pizza Hut trending on Twitter on Tuesday almost didn’t happen — and it didn’t even air in Russia. It took a year of negotiations for Gorbachev to accept it. He refused to eat pizza on camera – pledging his granddaughter to do it instead. That frosty morning when they were supposed to shoot, he arrived late, Darbyshire recalls.
“We weren’t sure he was going to show up,” he said. “He was about an hour late, the negotiations had been a bit strained, and I think he was only doing it because he needed the money.”
The value of Gorbachev’s pension plummeted after the fall of the Soviet Union, Foreign Policy reported. Eliot Borenstein, professor of Russian and Slavic studies at New York University, said it was “sad and ironic” that the former leader was so strapped for money that he had to advertise – and that the only way for Gorbachev to get praise from Russians was through paid comedians.
Despite the initial challenges, Darbyshire said the day of filming was filled with emotional moments. They filmed Thanksgiving, and as the crew ate pizza instead of turkey, Gorbachev got up and insisted on serving the slices, he recalled.
“A day when we give thanks for everything we have in America, our freedoms and our abundance, for him to make this symbolic gesture realizing he was taking us away from our families…was something I will never forget. “, he said.
The final product reflects Gorbachev’s complicated legacy, said Jenny Kaminer, professor of Russian at the University of California, Davis. The ad “aligns with how different generations experienced the collapse of the Soviet Union,” she told the Post in an email.
For some, Gorbachev’s twin policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) brought the promise of economic freedom. For the others “who could not adapt to the rapid transition to a market economy meant abject poverty, insecurity and a humiliating loss of dignity,” Kaminer said. This division is similar to how Westerners view Gorbachev versus how Russians view him, she added.
“More Russians, I would say, agree with the older man’s verdict [in the ad] who accuses Gorbachev of creating chaos and instability, while Westerners cheer him on for defending our supposedly sacred liberal values of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’,” Kaminer said.
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Pat Willerton, a professor at the University of Arizona, agrees.
“The Russians saw someone whose efforts led to the collapse of the country,” Willerton, an expert on Russian politics, told the Post. “They saw someone whose efforts accelerated an already deteriorating domestic, political and socio-economic situation. They saw a leader who was naive in his way of engaging the West. They feel that the West has taken full advantage of their efforts and that they have placed themselves in a position of inferior power.
The Pizza Hut ad diners eventually come together when an elderly woman cuts the squabbling down to interject: “Because of him, we have a lot of things like Pizza Hut!” Soon everyone will be raising a slice to the chant of “Hail Gorbachev!”
In reality, however, not everyone finds this common ground.
As the Post’s David E. Hoffman wrote, “Soviet collapse was not Mr. Gorbachev’s goal, but it is perhaps his greatest legacy. It ended a seven-decade experiment born of utopian idealism that led to some of the bloodiest human suffering of the century. Yet Gorbachev’s bold actions proved to be a double-edged sword in a country that has always valued strong men.
Abroad, he induced “Gorbymania” – drawing large crowds who showered him with praise for easing what had been nerve-wracking nuclear tensions. But at home he became a persona non grata, consistently ranking among Russia’s most hated leaders – even below Joseph Stalin, who ordered executions and forced people into labor camps.
“The diametrically opposed views reflect the world we find ourselves in,” Willerton said. “We are in a completely divided world.”
A 2017 Pew Research Center poll found that more than two-thirds of Russians polled said the collapse of the Soviet Union was a bad thing. That number jumped among older Russians, according to the poll. In the same poll, 58% of Russians polled rated Stalin positively, while 22% rated Gorbachev positively.
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“In Russia, greatness has nothing to do with kindness; it has to do with strength,” Willerton said. “That’s why a contemporary Russian seeing the ad would most likely think ‘Thank goodness we have [President Vladimir] Putin now after the mess Gorbachev left. ”
Gorbachev was aware of the negative opinions of Russians. Initially, concerns about his legacy led him to decline to star in the advert, wrote Madison Darbyshire of the Financial Times in 2019. He finally agreed when “after a spat with his successor, Boris Yeltsin, he suddenly needed new office buildings for his foundation,” according to Darbyshire, whose father is Tom Darbyshire.
This need for funds also led Gorbachev to agree to another now-viral moment: a 2007 Louis Vuitton campaign photographed by Annie Leibovitz. In it, the former statesman is depicted in the back seat of a car with the remains of the Berlin Wall in the background.
Tuesday wasn’t the first time Gorbachev’s Pizza Hut ad made the rounds. The ad has periodically found new audiences online, even though it ran before the social media era. It was widely shared earlier this year amid talk of Pizza Hut leaving Russia following the country’s invasion of Ukraine.
Seeing the ad resurface this week unlocked another memory for Darbyshire: the process of translating the script from English to Russian. After reading it, a Russian speaker told him, “We don’t really have a word for freedom in the way you think of freedom in America,” Darbyshire said.
“It was an interesting idea, this freedom as we think of it is not even a word that they had a term for, because this is a country that may have been rushed to try democracy without putting all the institutions in place,” he said. said.
Gorbachev would later see some of the freedoms celebrated in this reverse advertisement under Putin. The pizza memes continue though.