On the night that Mikhail Gorbachev died, a clip began to spread like wildfire on social networks:
A man and a child walk along a deserted Red Square in Moscow with an umbrella, the ground covered in snow. It looks like one of those frosty days where it’s best to be inside and have lunch with your family.
Dramatic music plays. In the close-up we see a pensive man wearing a black coat and hat, with his smiling granddaughter walking beside him.
In just seconds, they reach their destination: a Pizza Hut restaurant located directly on Red Square – the square that sealed a huge part of Soviet and Russian history.
But why, 24 years later, is this ad being shared as an era-defining artifact?
Because the man in the black coat – the man who practically sells American pizza – is Mikhail Gorbachev himself – the last leader of the Soviet Union.
Gorbachev had doubts about making the ad, and his wife Raisa was even more skeptical of the idea.
On the one hand, he needed money, and a large fee was offered for advertising. The fee, which Gorbachev allegedly used to finance the Gorbachev Foundation, a non-governmental organization created to limit the centralization of power, stop confrontation with Western Europe and the US and restore democracy in institutions.
On the other hand, taking part in an advertisement for a huge American corporation would certainly further damage his already bad reputation in Russia. In the end, Gorbachev agreed.
In the ad, a middle-aged man notices the former leader and exclaims, “That’s Gorbachev!” before lamenting, “Because of him, we have an economic mess.” A younger man answers him: “Thanks to him we have opportunities!” – which suggests a generation more open to economic liberalization than the 1990s.
The conversation continues: “instability,” “freedom,” “chaos” and “hope” are all offered as examples of what Gorbachev brought to Russia.
The argument between the two men is interrupted by the intervention of an elderly woman who has her own reason to thank Gorbachev: “Thanks to him we have … Pizza Hut,” she says.
No one can dispute that, and after a second’s thought, the middle-aged man, who had previously been disaffected by Russia’s economic chaos, stands up, raises the slice of pizza in the air, and exclaims, “Glory to Gorbachev!”
This is a real twist. Soon the whole restaurant joins him. Gorbachev smiles and waves, and his granddaughter claps her hands. The idea of the creators of the ad was to use Gorbachev as a source of conflict and pizza as a unifier.
The ad was broadcast internationally but was never shown in Russia, where it was ridiculed by the press. It has acquired cult status in the West and resurfaces every few years on social media as people rediscover the strange controversy of the former Soviet leader selling American pizzas.
Gorbachev will be remembered in many ways – revered in the West for his role in ending the Cold War, but widely disliked in Russia for the economic and social upheaval caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Almost 25 years later, this ad shows both sides of that legacy.
And what happened to Pizza Hut in Russia? Nearly a quarter of a century after the ad was shot, the brand is pulling out of the country – in response to the invasion of Ukraine.