When Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, starred in a Pizza Hut commercial (1998)

Mikhail Gorbachev, the 8th and last leader of the Soviet Union, died last month at the age of 91, in a newsworthy event that sparked responses ranging from “Who? to “Wow, was he still alive?” The first answer misrepresents the lesson of history: Journalists covering Gorbachev’s death were forced to explain his significance to many American readers just decades after his name made headlines in American newspapers. But it’s also true that Gorbachev left an utterly ambiguous legacy that seems to become muddled over time.

As historian Richard Sakwa wrote on the 20th anniversary of the short-lived collapse of the Soviet empire, Gorbachev is remembered in the United States – depending on who remembers him – as a “failure magnificent” or a “tragic success”. Some former Soviets, especially those more sympathetic to the authoritarianism of a Stalin or a Putin, omit any positive description of Gorbachev’s major achievement – namely, the reform of the USSR in the late 1980s. 1980 with little need, really, for Reagan’s outlandish nuclear posturing. .

Putin himself calls the fall of the USSR “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the previous century, an assessment shared by many who disagree with him on nothing else. In the late 1980s, however, an emerging generation of Soviets had no clear idea of ​​what was happening as their country crumbled. “I was 6 years old when the Soviet Union dissolved,” writes Anatoly Kurmanaev on The New York Times. “I had no idea at the time that the person most responsible for the earth-shattering upheaval that transformed my hometown in Siberia was a man named Mikhail Gorbachev. I remember standing in line for bread in the last days of communism, but I don’t remember many discussions about its “perestroika”.

A mixture of admiration and contempt for Gorbachev reverberated through a younger generation a few years later. “The snippets of conversation I could hear were about the people who were fed up,” Kurmanaev writes, “not the man with the distinctive birthmark sitting in the Kremlin…. Ironically, my earliest distinct, independent memory of Mr. Gorbachev, as perhaps many of my generation, can be traced back to a 1998 advertisement for Pizza Hut’, an advertisement produced by the American fast-food company to celebrate the opening of a restaurant near Red Carré, and made by Gorbachev because…well, also ironic, given the premise of the ad…he needed the money.

Written by Tom Darbyshire of advertising agency BBDO, the ad features a debate between restaurant patrons before Gorbachev’s arrival calms things down. “Intended to be ironic,” writes Maria Luisa Paul at The Washington Post, the ad was intended to show that “pizza is one of those foods that brings people together and bridges their differences,” says Darbyshire. Another ironic twist is that Gorbachev himself – who negotiated for a year before agreeing to the spot – refused to eat pizza on camera, leaving the honor to his granddaughter instead.

Although he doesn’t touch it, Gorbachev defended himself against critics, including his own wife, Raisa, saying that “pizza is for everyone. It’s not just consumption. It is also socializing. What was the conversation at Gorbachev’s local Pizza Hut the day he came with his grandson to socialize? Why, it was about Gorbachev.

“Because of him, we have economic confusion!” a guest alleges.

“Thanks to him, we have an opportunity!” retorts another.

“Because of him, we have political instability,” replies the first.

An older woman breaks the deadlock by declaring their obvious mutual affinity for pizza, to which they all respond, “Hail Gorbachev!”

Despite their best efforts, even Pizza Hut could not heal the wounds caused by the country’s economic confusion and political instability.

The ad circulated on social media and in history classrooms before and after Gorbachev’s death as an example of mass media “still reflecting his legacy,” Paul writes. Gorbachev may be largely forgotten – at least in the United States – decades after the Pizza Hut ad aired, but it wouldn’t be his last attempt to make his mark in advertising, as we see in the Louis Vuitton from 2007 above, featuring a product much less accessible than pizza to the average Russian.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, North Carolina. Follow him on @jdmagness