Quarrels arise. In the minute-long, 25-year-old Pizza Hut ad — which resurfaced on Tuesday after Russian news agencies announced Gorbachev had died at age 91 — fellow diners are divided over his legacy.
“We have economic confusion because of him!” says an older man. “Thanks to him we have opportunities!” a younger man responds.
The 1997 ad was intended to be ironic, Tom Darbyshire, who wrote the commercial for the advertising agency BBDO, told The Washington Post. Taking advantage of the debate over Gorbachev’s legacy — a man seen abroad as a hero and a villain in Russia — the commercial set out to show that “pizza is one of those foods that brings people together and bridges their differences.” said Darbyshire.
But the commercial that made the Pizza Hut trend on Twitter on Tuesday almost didn’t come out — and it didn’t even air in Russia. It took a year of negotiations to get Gorbachev to agree. He refused to eat pizza in front of the camera and enlisted his granddaughter to do so. He arrived late that bitter cold morning they were due to shoot, Darbyshire recalled.
“We weren’t sure if he would show up,” he said. “He was about an hour late, the negotiations were a bit tense and I think he only did 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, a professor of Russian and Slavic studies at New York University, said it is “sad and ironic” that the former leader was so short of cash that he had to make the commercial — and that the only way Gorbachev got praise from the Russians was by paid actors.
Despite the initial challenges, Darbyshire said the filming day was filled with moving moments. They filmed on Thanksgiving, and while the crew ate pizza instead of turkey, Gorbachev got up and insisted on serving the slices, he recalled.
“On a day when we give thanks for all we have in America, our freedoms and our abundance, for him to make that symbolic gesture of realizing that he kept us away from our families… was something I will never forget, ” he said.
The final product reflects Gorbachev’s complicated legacy, said Jenny Kaminer, a professor of Russian at the University of California at Davis. The ad “corresponds to how the different generations experienced the collapse of the Soviet Union,” she told The Post in an email.
To some, Gorbachev’s dual policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) brought the promise of economic freedom. For others “Failing to adapt to the rapid transition to a market economy has meant abject poverty, insecurity and a humiliating loss of dignity,” Kaminer said. That breakdown is similar to how Westerners view Gorbachev versus the Russians about him, she added.
“More Russians, I would say, agree with the older man’s verdict [in the ad] who blames Gorbachev for creating chaos and instability, while Westerners applaud him for upholding our supposedly sacred liberal values of “freedom” and “democracy,” Kaminer said.
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Professor Pat Willerton of the University of Arizona agrees.
“Russians have seen someone whose efforts have led to the collapse of the country,” Willerton, a scholar of 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 the way he approached the West. They feel that the West took full advantage of his efforts and put themselves in an inferior position of power.”
The diners in the Pizza Hut ad finally come together when an elderly woman breaks up the bickering to intervene: “Because of him we have many things like Pizza Hut!” Soon everyone will be lifting a piece to chants of “Hail Gorbachev!”
In reality, however, not everyone finds that common ground.
As David E. Hoffman of The Post wrote, “The collapse of the Soviet Union 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 the bloodiest human suffering of the century.” Yet Gorbachev’s daring moves proved to be a double-edged sword in a country that has traditionally valued strong men.
Abroad, he caused “Gorbymania” – drawing large crowds who showered him with praise for easing the nerve-wracking nuclear tensions. But at home, he became a persona non grata and consistently ranked among Russia’s most hated leaders — even under Joseph Stalin, who ordered executions and forced people into labor camps.
“The diametrically opposed views are a reflection of 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 surveyed thought the collapse of the Soviet Union was a bad thing. That number rose according to the poll among older Russians. In the same survey, 58 percent of Russians surveyed rated Stalin positively, while 22 percent rated Gorbachev positively.
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“In Russia, greatness has nothing to do with being nice; it has to do with being strong,” Willerton said. “That’s why a contemporary Russian seeing the ad would most likely think, ‘Thank God we have’ [President Vladimir] Putin now after the mess Gorbachev left behind.’ ”
Gorbachev was aware of the negative views of the Russians. Initially, concerns about his legacy made him turn down the lead role in the ad, the Financial Times’ Madison Darbyshire wrote in 2019. He eventually agreed when “after an argument with his successor, Boris Yeltsin, he suddenly needed new office real estate for his foundation,” according to Darbyshire, whose father is Tom Darbyshire.
That need for funds also led Gorbachev to agree to another now-viral moment: a 2007 Louis Vuitton campaign shot by Annie Leibovitz. In it, the former statesman can be seen in the back seat of a car with the remains of the Berlin Wall in the background.
Gorbachev’s most daring political move in the Putin era? This 2007 Louis Vuitton ad, with a (Russian language) report on the assassination of Putin critic Alexander Litvinenko visibly poking out of the top of his expensive designer bag. pic.twitter.com/U2IbI3UVUe
— John Slocum (@JohnSlocum2) August 30, 2022
Tuesday wasn’t the first time Gorbachev’s Pizza Hut ad made the rounds. The commercial has regularly found new audiences online, even though it aired before the social media era. It was widely shared earlier this year, amid talks of Pizza Hut’s departure from Russia over Ukraine’s invasion of the country.
When the commercial resurfaced this week, another memory unlocked 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 the way you think of freedom in America,” Darbyshire said.
“That was an interesting idea, that freedom as we think of it isn’t even a word they had a term for, because this is a country that may have rushed into democracy without putting all the institutions in their place,” he said. . said.
Gorbachev would later see some of the freedoms celebrated in that commercial reversed under Putin. However, the pizza memes live on.