How Mikhail Gorbachev became an unlikely cultural icon

An illustration of Mikhail Gorbachev by Mario Breda (2020) (Shutterstock / Mario Breda)

Mikhail Gorbachev enters a Pizza Hut. It’s 1997, six years after the end of the Soviet Union, and the leader who oversaw its dissolution is in Moscow’s Red Square to star in one of the weirdest TV commercials ever produced. After taking a seat alongside his granddaughter Anastasia Virganskaya, Gorbachev is spotted by two men at a nearby table and a debate about his heritage ensues. “Because of him, we have economic confusion!” asserts an austere middle-aged man. “Thanks to him, we have an opportunity!” retorts the youngest of the couple, possibly his son. Admittedly, both are meant to represent a generational gap. While the eldest complains about political instability and chaos, the youngest talks about freedom and hope. It’s up to an older woman to decide the debate. “Thanks to him, we have a lot of things…” she said, “…like Pizza Hut!” On that they can all agree. The ad ends with the whole restaurant on their feet to discuss: “Hail Gorbachev! Hail Gorbachev!

Gorbachev, who died after a “serious and long illness” at the age of 91, was not the most obvious candidate to become a pizza salesman. That was sort of the goal. Pizza Hut had spent the decade using high profile personalities to generate eye-catching advertising campaigns. In 1995, Donald Trump appeared alongside his then-wife, Ivana, in a commercial that ended with the downfall: “Actually, you’re only entitled to half.” The following year, England defender Gareth Southgate wore a paper bag over his head in an advert that mocked his crucial missed penalty at Euro 96. As a former world leader and towering figure in the history of the 20th century, Gorbachev was on a whole different level. Former Pizza Hut advertising manager Scott Helbing recalled that when Gorbachev was hired, the company “needed an idea that really crossed continents” for a “global campaign that would play into any country in the world”. That’s more or less what they got, though ironically one country where the ad never aired was Russia itself.

Why did Gorbachev agree to whip the pizzas? The same reason as anyone: he needed the money. After leaving office, Gorbachev had established his own non-profit organization, the Gorbachev Foundation, and quickly used its platform to become a vocal critic of his successor as leader of Russia, Boris Yeltsin. In retaliation, Yeltsin systematically cut the organization’s means of support and reduced its offices in Moscow. Gorbachev saw the Pizza Hut money – which unconfirmed reports put at around $1 million – as a way to protect his beloved foundation. “At the time, I was having financial problems with my foundation, so I did a Pizza Hut commercial,” Gorbachev said. France 24 in 2007, hitting back at the idea that doing publicity was beneath him. “I had the maximum, because I needed to finish the building. The workers started to leave. I had to pay them.

Although Gorbachev was well paid, the money did not last. A year later, in 1998, he announced that he had lost his life savings in the financial crash. Meanwhile, the political openness he hoped to steer his country towards began to evaporate after Vladimir Putin took office in 2000. Some in the West have pointed to Gorbachev’s appearance in Pizza Hut as epitomizing the triumph capitalism over communism, but for others it means nothing more. than the void at the heart of popular culture. In 1998, infinity joke author David Foster Wallace referenced the announcement in his essay “Big Red Son”. “There seems to be this huge, unspoken conspiracy where we all pretend there’s still joy out there,” Wallace wrote. “How funny we think it is when Bob Dole does an ad for Visa and Gorbachev accomplices for Pizza Hut. That all of mainstream celebrity culture is rushing to cash in and all the while congratulating itself on pretending not to cash in. At the bottom of it all, though, we know it all sucks.

The Pizza Hut spot, strange as it is, was not to be Gorbachev’s last or most incongruous outing as the brand’s spokesperson. In 2007, he appeared in a print ad for French luxury brand Louis Vuitton, photographed by Annie Leibovitz in the back of a car next to the Berlin Wall. Twenty years earlier, President Ronald Reagan had used a famous speech in Berlin to implore: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Gorbachev justified his appearance this time on the grounds that he was using the money to buy equipment for a center that treated children with leukaemia. “It is the newest and possibly the best equipped center in Europe,” he said. France 24. “But we needed the money.”

In addition to his appearances in commercials, Gorbachev was also a regular on television comedies of the 80s and 90s. Despite the reforms he brought to Russia, Gorbachev was portrayed as an old-fashioned Soviet leader in a satire for a long time. Spitting image. The puppet version of his distinctive birthmark has been reshaped to look like a hammer and sickle. Meanwhile in 1996 The simpsons episode “Two Bad Neighbors”, Gorbachev (voiced by Hank Azaria) arrives to find former President George H. W. Bush struggling with Homer Simpson. “Just dropped by with a house-warming gift,” he sighs in broken English. “Instead, find yourself battling a local idiot.”

Following Gorbachev’s death, tributes poured in from a wide range of pop culture figures. The Terminator Actor Arnold Schwarzenegger has described the former Russian leader as “one of my heroes”. Meanwhile, the former children’s TV presenter Timmy Mallett recalled how Gorbachev inspired him to go to Red Square in 1990 to explain Russian politics to children. As in a certain Pizza Hut a quarter of a century ago, it looks like a crowd again shouting: “Hail Gorbachev!