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by Yale Richmond

The author tells the story of American “gastronomic diplomacy” in the USSR long before perestroika and the establishment of the first McDonalds in Moscow. –Ed.

An assignment in Moscow provided opportunities to meet prominent and world-famous Soviet citizens, some on business and others in very unusual circumstances. And that’s how I came to have a hamburger with Aram Khachaturian, the renowned Armenian composer.My story begins in 1968 with Ambassador Thompson flying back to Moscow from a visit to Washington and seated next to a woman who began the usual in-flight chit-chat. On learning that Thompson was American ambassador to the Soviet Union, his seat companion began to ply him with questions about his relations with the Russians. Unwilling to discuss political problems with a woman he did not know, Thompson made small talk about life in Moscow.

“What is your most immediate problem,” she eventually asked, and Thompson told her of his unfulfilled plans for the upcoming embassy July 4 reception. What he really would like to do, said the Colorado-born and bred diplomat who was definitely not of the striped pants variety, was to stage a real American cookout for his Soviet guests, with hot dogs, hamburgers, rolls, and all the fixings which, of course, were unavailable in Moscow at the time.

“Tell me how many guests you plan to have,” replied Joan Toor Cummings, the New York philanthropist and art patron whose husband was the founder and president of Consolidated Foods Corporation (later Sara Lee Corporation), “and I’ll have the whole works shipped to you by air.”

And so it came about that more than 200 of Moscow’s political and cultural elite gathered on July 4 in the garden of Spaso House, the ambassador’s residence, where they were introduced to American hamburgers and hot dogs, grilled over charcoal by embassy teenagers. And that’s how I found myself standing in line at the charcoal grill with Aram Khachaturian, the celebrated composer, who was waiting patiently for his second hamburger. Khachaturian has been described as “accessibility incarnate,” and we chatted.  Not about music or high culture, but about hamburgers – which he liked very much–their ingredients and how they had become the American sandwich par excellence.

Khachaturian, in 1948, had been accused of bourgeois tendencies in his music compositions but was later rehabilitated and remained in good standing with the Soviet authorities, despite his love of hamburgers. He died before McDonald’s opened its first restaurant in Moscow, and gamburgers, as they are called in Russian, took Russia by storm. And that’s how Mrs. Cummings, the art patron who presented priceless paintings to Chicago’s Art Institute and New York’s Metropolitan Museum, also brought the plebeian hamburger to Moscow.End.

Yale Richmond
Yale Richmond

Yale Richmond is a writer and former Foreign Service Officer who lives in Washington, D.C. His latest books are Understanding the Americans: A Handbook for Visitors to the United States (Hippocrene Books, 2009), and From Nyet to Da: Understanding the New Russia 4th edition (Intercultural Press, 2009).  He served in Moscow as Counselor for Press and Culture, 1967-69.


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