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Mikhail Gorbachev’s Pizza Hut Thanksgiving Miracle
In 1997, the former Soviet leader needed money, and Pizza Hut needed a spokesman. Greatness ensued.
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It’s dangerous for leaders to outlive their countries. Whether they move on or become obsessed with returning to power, they cannot escape their role as symbols of a vanished world—a condition fraught with both nostalgia and danger.
Nobody knows that burden like Mikhail Gorbachev, the final leader of the Soviet Union. Since his involuntary retirement, Gorbachev has raised money for worthy causes, attempted to make a comeback in Russian politics, and, notoriously, made an advertisement for Pizza Hut.
The ad would have become a footnote were it not for its long second life online, where it’s rediscovered every few years. There’s an undeniable voyeuristic frisson of seeing a man who once commanded a superpower hawking pizza.
Each time it repeats, it leaves behind a new flood of clickbait—Time listing it among the “Top 10 Embarrassing Celebrity Commercials” in 2010, Mental Floss using Gorbachev’s birthday as a hook to link to it in 2012, Thrillist naming it the sixth-most bizarre celebrity endorsement of all time. Most of the facts dredged up in these deluges are recycled from a 1997 New York Times article.
More serious authors treat the commercial as a free-floating signifier to prove whatever thesis they are peddling, as when Jacobin cites it as another data point showing that Gorbachev was a sellout or David Foster Wallace uses it to prove the vacuity of popular culture.
But the conventional stories don’t really hold up. Gorbachev isn’t actually the star of the commercial. He doesn’t even speak. He’s a bystander to the commercial’s central drama, a fight over Gorbachev’s legacy between a fiery, pro-reform young man and a dour, anti-Gorbachev middle-aged man—possibly father and son. The two exchange charges and defenses of Gorbachev’s record—“Because of him, we have economic confusion!” “Because of him, we have opportunity!” “Complete chaos!” “Hope!”—before an older woman settles the argument: “Because of him, we have many things … like Pizza Hut!”
In a lot of ways, it’s a beautiful short film and a very weird advertisement: Who would have thought that a bunch of Muscovites bickering about the end of communism would be a natural pitch for pizza?
For the people who created the ad—the executives, the agents, the creatives—it was a professional landmark. But for Gorbachev himself, the story of the ad is a tragedy: one man’s attempt to find—and to fund—a place in a country that wanted nothing more to do with him.
For the world, the death of the Soviet Union was a geopolitical earthquake. For Gorbachev, it was a forced retirement at the hands of his rival—and successor as Russian leader—Boris Yeltsin. According to the biographer William Taubman in Gorbachev: His Life and Times, Gorbachev reciprocated Yeltsin’s hatred, telling one journalist: “When they hang me, make sure that they don’t hang Yeltsin from the same birch tree.”
Initially, Yeltsin and Gorbachev avoided direct conflict. But within months of the Russian Federation’s establishment, Gorbachev began criticizing Yeltsin publicly. In retaliation, the Russian president ordered an audit into whether Gorbachev’s foundation was illegally using Communist Party funds. Then the Kremlin systematically removed the foundation’s sources of support, ginned up protests to harass the foundation, and finally cut its office space to a few thousand square feet.
Yeltsin’s final victory would come in the 1996 election. That year, Gorbachev challenged Yeltsin by launching his own bid for the presidency—scraping just 0.5 percent of the first-round vote. After that victory, Yeltsin left the foundation alone. Yet the years of presidential harassment had taken its toll on Gorbachev’s finances. In 1991, the heads of the former Soviet republics had voted to give Gorbachev a pension of 4,000 rubles per month—but it was not indexed to inflation. By 1994, according to Meduza, his pension was worth less than $2 a month.
Gorbachev had suffered the same fate as many Soviet retirees, who had looked forward to generous pensions only to find themselves forced to hustle and scrape to get by as the Russian economy collapsed around them—shrinking by 30 percent between 1991 and 1998. The foundation, too, was tottering, with even Gorbachev’s significant lecture fees unable to sustain both his family and the foundation and its staff, let alone any projects he might want to pursue to leave a legacy. Even generous donations from Ted Turner only went so far.
Gorbachev was determined to stay in Russia and fight for reform, not to take up a life of well-compensated exile abroad. To do that, he would need money to fund his center, his staff, and his activities—urgently. As Gorbachev later told France 24 when asked about the ad, “I needed to finish the building. The workers started to leave—I needed to pay them.”
To keep his vision going—and to stay relevant in a world moving beyond him—he would need a lot of money. More, even, than he could make by giving lectures. More than anyone in Russia could, or wanted to, give him.
As the Soviet Union shrank, Pizza Hut expanded.
The American firm had broken into the Soviet Union just before it died, thanks in part to Gorbachev’s policies of openness. That’s one reason why the commercial could exist in the first place: It was filmed on location in a Moscow Pizza Hut near Red Square, which had opened in 1990 as part of a Soviet-era deal with the chain’s then-parent company, PepsiCo. That arrangement, which had been hailed as the “deal of the century,” flopped when the Soviet Union collapsed, killing both the Russian economy and the restaurant’s supply chain. (Overnight, Lithuanian mozzarella became an expensive import from a foreign country.)
That connection helped provide the hook that Pizza Hut’s advertising creatives needed. For the advertising firm BBDO, Pizza Hut was a big client in a challenging category. Conveniently for BBDO, that translated into big-budget commercials. Pizza Hut ordered dozens of ads a year from BBDO, with a mixture of ordinary TV spots touting weekly specials and major campaigns featuring spokespeople like Dennis Rodman and Donald Trump.
Keeping such a big client happy was a priority for the firm. By 1997, Pizza Hut’s international arm was looking for new spokespeople. As a global brand, then-Pizza Hut advertising executive Scott Helbing recalled in an interview, the company “needed an idea that truly traveled across continents” for “a truly global campaign that would play in any country in the world.”
Former BBDO art director Ted Shaine, who helped create the ad with Tom Darbyshire, a young copywriter at the time, recalled that BBDO “heard that [Gorbachev] was willing to do something.” Others suggest that somebody at BBDO came up with the idea and sought Gorbachev out.
However it happened, the core idea of the ad remained stable throughout the monthslong 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 visuals that screamed “Russia” as possible.
The concept obviously exploited the shock value of having a former world leader appear. But the ad played on the fact that Gorbachev was far more popular outside Russia than inside it. As late as October 1991, a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll showed that 54 percent of Americans wanted to see Gorbachev as the head of the Soviet Union, compared with only 18 percent for Yeltsin. And warm feelings toward Gorbachev persisted in the West long after the Soviet Union dissolved. “In contrast to his unpopular standing at home,” the political scientist Andrew Cooper writes in Diplomatic Afterlives, “Gorbachev retained superstar standing abroad as a visionary statesman.” At home, Gorbachev was a pariah. Abroad, he was an elder statesman and celebrity, far more beloved than the buffoonish Yeltsin.
Actually brokering the deal took months. Katie O’Neill Bistrian, now chief marketing officer of the collaborative workspace firm Work Well Win, took on the role of representing Gorbachev. Then in her mid-20s and a firebrand executive at the sports and talent management company IMG who routinely brokered deals for stars like Derek Jeter, she viewed the Gorbachev deal as something that she could execute.
There was a hitch: IMG didn’t actually represent Gorbachev. Nobody did. O’Neill Bistrian’s first challenge, then, was to work through contacts, particularly IMG head Mark McCormack, to connect to people in Gorbachev’s circle to broker the deal.
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.
Taubman argues that Gorbachev’s loss of station and purpose hit his wife, Raisa Gorbachev, hard, not least because it meant that the betrayals of 1991 were compounded by public criticism and even charges of treason. Raisa likely feared that the Pizza Hut ad could only further harm his reputation. On the other hand, only international sources could provide the funds that Gorbachev needed. (The exact amount that Gorbachev would receive for the commercial is secret, but it may have been one of the largest talent fees in history—an amount that would be easily in the seven figures today, adjusted for inflation.)
While Gorbachev’s circle prolonged the negotiations, O’Neill Bistrian told BBDO that another figure was available: Muhammad Ali. IMG had just begun to represent the once-polarizing figure, who, by the 1990s, had transformed into a beloved national icon. Pizza Hut and BBDO leapt at the chance. (Concluding both the Gorbachev and Ali deals would get O’Neill Bistrian her own endorsement deal, for Samsung monitors—the only trace of O’Neill Bistrian’s involvement in the deal until now.)
Gorbachev finally assented—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. “We always wanted the hero of the ad to eat the pizza,” Helbing said.
Gorbachev held firm. “‘As the ex-leader, I just would not,’” Helbing recalled Gorbachev saying.
O’Neill Bistrian suggested a compromise: A family member would appear in the spot instead. Gorbachev’s granddaughter Anastasia Virganskaya ended up eating the slice. Pizza Hut accepted.
At last, filming could begin. Helbing, Shaine, Darbyshire, O’Neill Bistrian, the director Peter Smillie, and several others flew to Moscow in November 1997. Preproduction (casting, costuming, and location scouting) took several days before principal photography, which took place over two days—one for the exterior shots and one for the interior scenes.
BBDO Chairman Philip Dusenberry insisted that the agency’s advertisements be cinematic in their quality. The Gorbachev production lived up to that standard. Informed estimates put the commercial’s budget in the low millions of dollars. Darbyshire, who wrote the script in English, went through three translators to get the right level of idiomatic Russian. To capture the beautiful establishing shots of Red Square and its domed churches, the crew hefted the film cameras high atop the Kremlin itself. And somehow the production managed to get the whole square shut down for the entire shoot.
(Incidentally, Red Square seems to have been chosen more for cinematic needs than for veracity. The commercial shows a Pizza Hut storefront on Red Square itself, but that’s fake—the Russian signage behind several Pizza Hut logos establishes that the door Gorbachev and Virganskaya are filmed entering is actually a jewelry store.)
The team encountered challenges. “The weather was horrible,” Shaine recalled: low light, bitterly cold, and not even enough snow to make Red Square look as Americans felt it should—until a couple of inches fell on the day of the shoot itself. Worse, it wasn’t clear that the commercial would even happen. After months of reluctance to agree to the shoot, Gorbachev arrived late, the first of a few occasions when the BBDO team thought the agreement might collapse. (When the former leader arrived at Red Square, Shaine greeted Gorbachev by saying, “Well, this is a big production we’re involved in.” “I know,” Gorbachev replied through his interpreter. “I’ve been to many big productions in this place.”)
Filming the interior scenes took the better part of a day in a different location, inside a real Moscow Pizza Hut. (Even though the bulk of the commercial is just a conversation around a table, multiple sources stressed that filming such a scene—with its complicated sightlines—is enormously challenging.) Coincidentally, it also happened to be Thanksgiving Day in the United States. Since the commercial was being shot at a working Pizza Hut, the cast and crew—including Gorbachev—ate pizza, which was “one of the most interesting Thanksgiving dinners I’ve ever had,” said Shaine, who was seated with Gorbachev.
In b-roll shot during the production, Helbing interviewed Gorbachev on camera. Gorbachev justified his decision to do the commercial on two grounds. First, the former leader argued, “pizza is for everyone.” It was nicely communal: “It’s not only consumption. It’s also socializing.”
But the more important reason, Gorbachev confessed, was that he needed the money.
The Gorbachev commercial wasn’t just a piece of advertising ephemera. It was also a multimillion-dollar short film—and the creators were as concerned with artistic standards as selling pizza. Besides the expense and effort of the shoot and the postproduction (an original score recorded live!), the dialogue is entirely in Russian with English subtitles—even though Americans hate subtitles.
The aim of these choices was to show Pizza Hut as a global brand with, as Helbing calls it, a “gravitas” that Little Caesars or Domino’s couldn’t match. To do that, Darbyshire and Shaine tried to capture a story that would reflect Russian reality—not just American stereotypes.
Yuval Weber, the Bren chair of Russian military and political strategy at Marine Corps University’s Krulak Center, uses the commercial as a primary document in his classes in Russian history to illustrate the stresses of the transition from communism. Weber argues that Darbyshire and Shaine succeeded maybe even better than they knew at depicting Russian life at that moment. “You have the fundamental note of hope from the American side, that basically pizza or Western culture can solve the really intractable problems of Russian politics,” Weber said. “You have the Russians depicting a legitimate family—a stylized family dispute on something important. The actors themselves are portraying very real stereotypes about contemporary Moscow.”
“The disagreement about the big issues totally would have been plausible describing the Moscow intelligentsia that those actors are portraying in the commercial itself,” Weber said. “My guess, based on the clothes that the actors chose or that the costume designers chose, is that grandmother is clearly a philologist, some sort of drama teacher, literature teacher, foreign-language teacher. Dad? He’s an engineer of some type. The son is a businessman. And they represent the ’50s generation, the ’70s generation, and the ’90s generation. That would have been beyond an American audience, but … I’ve always thought the actors brought [those choices].”
You can also read the ad as a metatextual comment on itself. As Helbing observed: “If you see the spot and hear what they’re kind of saying about what he’s brought, that was truly what those actors were discussing. We would never have been sitting in that Pizza Hut with Gorbachev eating a pizza if it hadn’t been for what he had done.”
With filming concluded, the Americans flew back to the States. The footage went to Clayton Hemmert, an editor and co-founder of the firm Crew Cuts, who had the task of assembling a narrative from the raw footage. “When you get down to it,” Hemmert said, “you have hundreds of thousands, millions, of frames of film that could be juxtaposed in any order and put any sound behind it, so your options are tremendous.” His smooth cutting of music and dialogue gave the ad its chaotic, argumentative energy.
Hemmert played a key role in shaping the ending. “If you listen to that sound ‘Hail to Gorbachev,’ it sounds like the entire nation of Russia is chanting ‘Hail to Gorbachev,’” Hemmert said. The commercial closes with the cheers resounding throughout Red Square and then all of Moscow in progressively wider shots with celebratory music underneath. “It has this impression, you might say the illusion, that the entire nation feels this is a wonderful thing that happened.”
Of course, it is an illusion—in this case, taking the actor’s dialogue, adding reverb, and layering the chants over each other. But it’s also one that suited both the marketing needs of Pizza Hut and the myth-making needs of Gorbachev. Pizza Hut gets to be not only the avatar of global capitalism but also the restaurant that brings people together. In the commercial’s fiction, at least, Gorbachev gets the hero’s reception that Raisa always thought he deserved.
Yet the commercial itself is more open-ended than it might appear on first viewing. “At the very end, when everyone is saying ‘Za Gorbacheva,’ it resounds throughout Moscow and all the landmarks. But the last shot was an old lady, a babushka, dressed in black who basically looks into a great distance. And in a sense, it’s played for laughs. But that’s also her looking off into the future, which is still unclear,” Weber said.
The future turned out to be much dimmer than the ad anticipated. A little less than a year after the ad was filmed, in August 1998, the Russian financial system collapsed. The economic recovery that had begun to take hold was wiped out. As the Moscow Times wrote, “The whole Russian economy fell to pieces at a stroke.”
Weber reflected on what that might have meant for the fictional family in the commercial. “They would have been the ones crushed. The son, he’s exactly the sort of guy who would have been overleveraged. Dad isn’t in great shape. Grandmother hangs on but in worse shape because grandson probably can’t support her as much,” he said. Whatever optimism made the pro-Gorbachev slant of the ad even dimly plausible as a representative sampling of Muscovite opinion vanished. News reports suggest that the Pizza Hut location in which the commercial was filmed itself closed during the crash.
And that means that this fictional family, like most Russians, probably spent the early 2000s supporting the increasingly hard-line Vladimir Putin, seeing him as “the only person who can take them back to stability and potential for growth,” Weber said. Out with pizza, in with the vertical of power.
Everyone with whom I spoke about making the commercial remembers it fondly. They got to meet a world leader; they succeeded in drawing attention to the brand; and the commercial received a unexpected second life online, keeping their work alive in a profession where most product is disposable.
For Gorbachev, however, the ad’s legacy seems less bright—mostly because he never found the path he’d meant for it to fund. The commercial funded his foundation and loyal retainers for a while. Yet a year later, he told the Guardian that he had lost his own savings in the 1998 crash. Raisa died of cancer in 1999. And despite Gorbachev’s ambitions that his post-presidency could push his country toward greater openness, Russia has slipped ever further along a much less free path than he once envisioned.
This year, Putin commemorated two decades in power. A tightening of laws on foreign support for nonprofits inside Russia squeezed the Gorbachev Foundation; many of his family members have reportedly moved to Germany. In a book released last month, Gorbachev even weakly offered praise for his successor on the grounds that Putin “inherited chaos” and that his moves could be justified if “the aim of authority is to create conditions for developing a strong modern democracy.”
For Russians, the debate about his legacy that the ad foregrounded has been conclusively resolved. In a 2018 poll by the respected Levada Center (another byproduct of Gorbachev’s reforms), 66 percent of Russians responded that they regretted the collapse of the Soviet Union. So, of course, does Gorbachev. His ambition was to perfect the country, not to end it.
Yet Russians seem to blame him for the catastrophe. A 2017 Levada poll found that only 1 percent of Russians expressed admiration for Gorbachev, 30 percent professed to dislike him, and 13 percent said their overall attitude was one of disgust or hatred. (Yeltsin, who died in 2007, received almost identical ratings.) As a leader, Russians rank Gorbachev well below Joseph Stalin.
No Russian crowd, in other words, is going to chant “Hail to Gorbachev!” anytime soon.