Khrushchev, Gorbachev and the Power of Pizza

Khrushchev was the first Soviet leader who tried to humanise the Soviet Union. This huge monolithic state that represented tyranny and state control had been created by Stalin and though Stalin himself brought Khrushchev into his inner circle, it was Khrushchev who later rejected the brutality of the Soviet State.

Khrushchev openly criticised the Stalin era and began a new, more open era of government. Alarm bells had begun to ring in the Kremlin though and by 1964 Khrushchev’s colleagues were not so happy with what he was doing. Brezhnev organised the removal of Khrushchev and soon had taken the top spot for himself.

Brezhnev remained in power till his old age and when he died in 1982 a group of old men successively took over, Andropov 1982-84, then Chernenko 1984-85 and then in 1985 came a younger man, Mikhail Gorbachev.

Gorbachev felt reforms were necessary and began two initiatives, Perestroika (restructuring) and Glasnost (Openness). He dealt with the issues of war in Afghanistan and the nuclear disaster of Chernobyl. His determination to bring in elected bodies such as the Congress of People’s Deputies and further democratisation of the Soviet Union seemed only to undermine his position. He once dismissed Boris Yeltsin from the Communist party but was forced to deal with him again when he was elected President of Russia.

In 1991 an attempted coup by Communist hard liners failed but this seemed to give the political impetus to Yeltsin. Yetsin banned the Communist party that had once rejected him and soon the Soviet Union collapsed underneath Gorbachev.  He gave a television address to announce that the Soviet Union would formally end at midnight on 31st December, 1991.

Image courtesy Wikipedia creative commons.

In retirement Gorbachev created the Gorbachev Foundation with the aims of publishing material on the history of Perestroika and of presenting his ideas and philosophy to the world. Ironically, although Gorbachev was revered outside of the Soviet Union, within the country his fellow citizens accused him of destroying the economy as well as the communist party.

No longer President, Gorbachev needed money to maintain his foundation and his family and so he undertook to begin lecture tours, charging large amounts of money.  He began to suffer the same fate as many of his fellow former soviet citizens, his pension, 4000 roubles per month, given him by the Russian Federation, was not index linked to inflation and by 1994 his pension cheque was worth very little.

The Foundation began to struggle and even the lecture fees were not enough to pay bills and staff wages. In order to stay in Russia Gorbachev needed money, much more money.

McDonald’s opened in Moscow in 1990 and in that same year Pizza Hut opened its Moscow doors. By 1997, Pizza Hut’s international arm was looking for new ways of reaching out to the public. It wanted a global campaign that would play in any country in the world.

What about a TV ad using Mikhail Gorbachev?

Pizza Hut’s advertising people approached Gorbachev but the negotiations took months. Partly, this represented a negotiating tactic: The longer the negotiations drew out, the higher Gorbachev’s talent fee would be. But it also represented real hesitation on Gorbachev’s part.

However it happened, the core idea of the ad remained stable throughout the long process of negotiating and filming it. It would not focus on Gorbachev but on an ordinary Russian family eating at Pizza Hut. It would be shot on location, featuring as many visual references to Russia as possible.

Gorbachev finally assented but with conditions. First, he would have final approval over the script. That was acceptable. Second, he would not eat pizza on film. That disappointed Pizza Hut.

Gorbachev held firm.

A compromise was suggested: A family member would appear in the spot instead. Gorbachev’s granddaughter Anastasia Virganskaya ended up eating the slice. Pizza Hut accepted.

The advertising concept exploited the shock value of having a former world leader appear. But the ad also played on the fact that Gorbachev was far more popular outside Russia than inside it.

Either way, the former leader of the Soviet Union would be advertising pizza. Gorbachev had lost his presidency and in a sense his country, after all the Soviet Union was gone, replaced by the Russian Federation. I wonder if Gorbachev ever thought for a moment about Nicholas II, another man forced to resign his country’s leadership. Perhaps, perhaps not.

Khrushchev ended his days living in a small dacha in Moscow constantly spied on by the KGB. He wrote his memoirs and they were smuggled out to the west although Khrushchev was forced to deny sending them to a western publisher. He died in 1971.

Gorbachev reportedly received a million dollars for the promotion. The badly needed funds enabled him to pay his staff and continue working for reform in Russia.


Floating in Space is a novel by Steve Higgins set in Manchester, 1977. Click the links at the top of the page to buy or for more information.

2 responses to “Khrushchev, Gorbachev and the Power of Pizza

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.