Slice of life: Gorbachev's Pizza Hut ad a time capsule

FILE - Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev says in Moscow that a local military commander ordered the use of force in the breakaway republic of Lithuania, where an assault by Soviet troops on Jan. 13, 1991 claimed 14 lives. Russian news agencies are reporting that former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev has died at 91. The Tass, RIA Novosti and Interfax news agencies cited the Central Clinical Hospital. (AP Photo/Boris Yurchenko, File) (Boris Yurchenko, Copyright 1989 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

MOSCOW – Call it a slice of life. The television commercial that Mikhail Gorbachev did for Pizza Hut 25 years ago might be seen as a 60-second gloss of his career, both cheerful and glum.

In the 1997 advertisement, Gorbachev is portrayed as eating at one of the chain's outlets in Moscow, where he's spotted by diners at another table who then argue about his accomplishments as the Soviet Union's last leader.

He brought us freedom and opportunity, one says; he brought us economic troubles and political instability, another shouts.

A woman says: “Because of him we have many things, like Pizza Hut.” The Gorbachev detractor at the table then stands and toasts him.

Through a rose-colored filter, it is a story of Russia's advances and increasing consumer comforts even amid troubles. More darkly, it shows a once-towering world figure and Nobel Peace Laureate reduced to shilling for a Western interloper.

Pizza Hut opened in Moscow in 1990, one of the first in a wave of Western businesses taking advantage of the joint-venture arrangements that were one of Gorbachev's signature reforms. It wasn't Russians' first chance to get pizza, but as with the opening of McDonald's a few months earlier, the presence of a major Western brand was heartening to those who wanted the Soviet Union to be more integrated into the world.

That wasn't a universal view. Even today, some Russians complain that the rush of Western businesses into the country water down its culture and exploit consumers.

Gorbachev died Tuesday at age 91, and Pizza Hut’s time in Russia is growing short — the corporation that owns the Pizza Hut brand has announced it has transferred its franchise assets to a Russian operator that will rebrand as part of its efforts to exit Russia altogether in the wake of Russia sending troops into Ukraine.

By the time Gorbachev made the commercial to raise money for his charitable foundation, he was a marginal figure at home. In presidential elections the previous year, he notched only 1% of the vote. Even some people once on his side regarded the Pizza Hut ad with disdain.

“In the ad, he should take a pizza, divide it into 15 slices like he divided up our country, and then show how to put it back together again,” quipped Anatoly Lukyanov, a one-time Gorbachev supporter.