It is traditionally the highest-rated broadcast of the year on Russian television: the president’s annual New Year’s greeting, shown in the last minutes before the clocks across Russia’s 11 time zones strike midnight.
To a large extent, the prerecorded presentations are designed to be forgettable, chockablock with often hard-to-justify optimism and steeped in seasonal and cultural clichés. But modern media such as YouTube have captured them, like a fly in amber or herring in a fur coat, for dissection and comparison.
Here are some of the most notable New Year’s messages, stretching back to the tradition’s beginnings in Soviet times and moving forward to the highlights of the 20 years since Vladimir Putin took over the country’s reins.
Mikhail Kalinin, The Wartime Messages:
The tradition of New Year’s greetings in the Soviet Union dates back to December 31, 1935, when the chairman of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Kalinin, made a brief address by radio. Formally the head of state, Kalinin was in reality subordinate to dictator Josef Stalin, the party’s general secretary.
Amid the darkest days of World War II for the Soviet Union, on New Year’s Eve 1941-42, Kalinin’s speech sounded upbeat, even though German troops had only been turned away from the outskirts of Moscow earlier in December and remained deep in Soviet territory. He focused on the recent liberation of Rostov-on-Don, Kaluga, and other cities, as well as extending his good wishes to “residents of Soviet regions that are temporarily seized by German-fascist occupiers.”
Kalinin’s address on New Year’s Eve 1942-43, just as the tide of the war was turning and only weeks before German troops surrendered at Stalingrad, was captured for newsreels.
The outgoing year had presented “complicated and difficult tasks to our people,” he said, while emphasizing the “promising prospects for the coming year.”
Kalinin’s 1944-45 speech, months before the Nazi surrender to Allied forces, marked the first time the address was followed by the playing of the Soviet national anthem.
Brezhnev, The 1970s
Kalinin died in 1946 and the tradition of New Year’s greetings was discontinued until 1953-54, months after Stalin’s death — when the mantle was taken up by the chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, Konstantin Voroshilov. His messages, however, were not broadcast — only printed on the front page of the government’s official daily, Izvestia.
In 1957, after Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gave his so-called secret speech and began dismantling Stalin’s cult of personality, New Year’s greetings were no longer signed individually, but were presented from the entire Central Committee of the Communist Party.
Leonid Brezhnev, however, revived the custom and began making annual televised addresses in 1970-71.
In his first address, the 64-year-old Brezhnev looked healthy and calm, sitting in an office in front of a map of the Soviet Union and wearing a single Hero of the Soviet Union medal — he would have four of them by the time he died in 1982 — and a Hero of Soviet Labor medal. He read his speech from papers on his desk.
He began by asserting that 1970 was an “unforgettable year,” noting that the Soviet Union had celebrated the centennial of the birth of its founder, Vladimir Lenin, and lauding the conclusion of a “successful” eighth Five-Year Plan for the economy. The grain and cotton harvests had set records.
Brezhnev boasted about the Soviet lunar rover, Lunakhod 1, which landed on the moon on November 17, 1970, on a mission that would last 322 days.
The Soviet people were greeting 1971 “full of optimism” and “pride in what they have achieved,” he said. He said highlights of the coming year would include the 24th congress of the Communist Party, and — in a dig at the United States — extended New Year’s greetings to everyone around the world who was “struggling against imperialism.”
Footage of Brezhnev’s 1978-79 address comes with a bonus: It offers two versions of the speech prefaced by about two minutes of preparations, including the nearsighted leader trying on different pairs of glasses and a producer brushing back one of his prodigious eyebrows.
The United Nations had declared 1979 the International Year of the Child, and Brezhnev addressed his New Year’s greeting specifically to young people.
By this time, Brezhnev looked decidedly older and frailer and spoke haltingly, his words heavy and slurred.
“In the Soviet Union, we try to do everything possible to make the childhood years healthy and happy,” he said, asserting that the government was building “thousands and thousands of bright and comfortable nursery schools, kindergartens, and schools.”
Before the end of the year, Brezhnev would be mired in a disastrous war in Afghanistan that contributed substantially to the downfall of the Soviet Union.
Gorbachev And Reagan, 1985-86
After Brezhnev’s 1979 speech, poor health prevented him from making further televised greetings. On December 31, 1982, a little more than a month after Brezhnev’s death, Soviet viewers were congratulated by the deputy chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, Vasily Kuznetsov.
Likewise, Brezhnev’s successors, ex-KGB chief Yury Andropov and propaganda specialist Konstantin Chernenko, each spent only one New Year in the Kremlin before dying in office and neither issued a public greeting.
In 1985-86, Mikhail Gorbachev, young and sprightly at the age of 54, made his first New Year’s address. And he did it with an unusual twist, agreeing with U.S. President Ronald Reagan to exchange messages to one another’s countries. The initiative came just a few weeks after the two leaders’ first summit, in Geneva, which was generally considered a success despite Reagan’s insistence on proceeding with his Strategic Defense Initiative, a proposed space-based missile-defense system known as Star Wars, which Moscow opposed.
The two leaders exchanged New Year’s greetings again in 1987-88. Those speeches came less than a month after they signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.
“That treaty marks the first step along the path of reducing nuclear arms, and that is its enduring value,” Gorbachev said. “But the treaty also has another merit. It has brought our two peoples together. We are entering the new year with a hope for continuing progress, progress toward a safer world.”
Once viewed as a cornerstone of the arms-control regime, the treaty came to an end this year after the United States withdrew, citing a major alleged Russian violation.
Mikhail Gorbachev continued the exchange tradition with Reagan’s successor, George Bush, in 1989-90.
“The whole world is progressing,” Gorbachev said in his message, 11 months before the fall of the Berlin Wall. “It wants happiness, freedom, and prosperity. We are deeply convinced that the epoch of peace is possible.”
In his final New Year’s greeting, as leader of a country that would no longer exist 12 months later, Gorbachev called the looming 1991 a “year of great hopes” — despite having just described 1990 as “a most difficult year” of economic and political crises and massive strikes.
“No matter how deep the crisis that the country is enduring is, we can and we must achieve a breakthrough to the better in the next year,” he said.
Before the end of 1991, the country would have experienced a March referendum in which 76 percent of voters urged the retention of a reformed Soviet Union; bloodily suppressed uprisings in all three Baltic states; an attempted coup during which Gorbachev himself was held under arrest; and a meeting in December of the leaders of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine that announced the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
On December 25, 1991, Gorbachev resigned and the Soviet flag was lowered at the Kremlin. On December 27, Russian President Boris Yeltsin moved into Gorbachev’s former office.
Yeltsin took up the mantle of New Year’s messages, establishing the solid annual tradition that continues to this day. He adopted a stiff style he may have inherited from his Soviet predecessors, speaking formally from his Kremlin office.
Yeltsin used his first address as president, on December 31, 1991, to announce the introduction of market prices starting two days later — on January 2, 1992.
“It will be a difficult time,” he said. “But it won’t last long. Six or eight months.”
In his 1993-94 address, Yeltsin acknowledged that the new country had been on the brink of civil war just months before. He expressed hope that the new constitution that came into force on December 25, 1993, and which gave the Russian president vastly expanded powers, would serve as the “firm foundation for building a democratic government and a free society.”
The following year, however, Yeltsin gave a typically upbeat New Year’s greeting, despite the fact that he knew a major military conflict was unfolding in the North Caucasus republic of Chechnya.
“Don’t give in,” he told Russians. “Don’t despair. And keep your faith in a better future.”
He took a moment to congratulate those serving in the military, “ensuring the security of the citizens of our country.”
“I have no more important task for the coming year than to restore peace to the Chechen republic and to North Ossetia and Ingushetia,” he said.
Even as he spoke, Russian troops were storming Chechnya’s capital, Grozny, with a tremendous loss of life following bombardments that left the city destroyed and tens of thousands of civilians dead. Government forces seized the presidential palace weeks later but fighting in the city continued until March. Gorbachev called the war a “disgraceful, bloody adventure.”
Yeltsin And Putin, 1999-2000
Perhaps the most memorable New Year’s greeting of all came on December 31, 1999, when Yeltsin used the occasion to announce his resignation and endorse Vladimir Putin — a former KGB officer who had been prime minister since August but was virtually unknown to the public before 1998 — as his successor.
A visibly frail and slurring Yeltsin, stiff and unmoving, announced that “today, for the last time, I bring you New Year’s greetings.”
“Today, for the last time, I address you as president of Russia,” he added.
Yeltsin, then 68, said that he had planned to stay in place until the next presidential election, scheduled for June 2000, and to “create a crucial precedent of the civilized and voluntary handover of power from one president to a newly elected one.”
“But I made a different decision,” he said. “I am leaving, leaving before my term is over. I have realized that I must do that. Russia must enter the new millennium with new politicians, with new faces, with new, strong, smart, and energetic people.”
He emphasized that Russia would never return to its past and must only move forward. He then described Putin as “the man on whom practically every Russian has pinned his hopes for the future,” a person “deserving of being president.”
Yeltsin then asked for “forgiveness,” saying that “many of our mutual dreams did not come true” and that “many things that seemed simple turned out to be torturously difficult.”
“The pain experienced by each of you created pain in me, pain in my heart, sleepless nights, torturous suffering,” he said. “I am leaving. I did everything that I could.”
He then named Putin, 47, as acting president of Russia and scheduled a new election for March 2000. Yeltsin expressed confidence in the “wisdom” of the Russian people and said he was certain what choice they would make in the election.
Yeltsin’s stunning address was immediately followed by a speech by the new acting president, sitting in an ill-fitting suit and leaning one elbow on a desk.
Putin opened by noting that there would be no power vacuum in the transfer and warning that any unconstitutional actions would be “decisively put down.” He pledged to defend freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, freedom of the press, and property rights.
The Putin (And Medvedev) Era
Beginning in 2000-01, Putin started the tradition of filming the New Year’s greetings outside, on the grounds of the Kremlin or nearby. But the New Year’s messages from both Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, who was president from 2008-12, have often been bland and anodyne, with few frank assessments of the events of the outgoing year or the challenges of the new one.
In his speech at the end of 2004, Putin made no specific mention of his own reelection in March, the May assassination of Chechen President Akhmad Kadyrov, or the September school hostage-taking in Beslan that left more than 330 people — including 186 children — dead.
However, on December 29-30, the southern city of Volgograd was hit by two bomb attacks that together left 34 people dead and 70 injured. This tragedy led to an odd situation with Putin’s New Year’s greeting.
In the Far Eastern time zones, viewers saw a prerecorded version that did not mention the bombings at all and continued Putin’s tradition of tending toward patriotism and platitudes.
“At this time [of year], we particularly sharply feel how quickly time passes, how quickly our children grow up, how we value our families and friends, how we love them,” he said. “Every one of us is thinking about the most important events, meetings, and words of the year. And we are all hoping that New Year’s night will bring us all successes and a little something miraculous.”
The rest of the country, however, saw a hastily recorded address, which Putin taped while inspecting the consequences of flooding in the Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk.
He called the bomb attacks on a train station and a trolleybus in Volgograd “inhuman” and the natural disaster in the Far East “unprecedented.”
“Dear friends, we bow our heads before the victims of these cruel terrorist acts,” he said of the blasts. “We will continue the fight against terrorists with confidence and pitilessness until they are completely destroyed. We will support all the victims.”
After that short diversion, he returned to the main menu of New Year’s platitudes.
“No matter where we are, the atmosphere of the marvelous New Year’s night warms our hearts,” he said. “We look to the future with optimism and sincerely believe in the good, in progress, and success. And every one of us understands that prosperity doesn’t just happen. It is achieved through intense work and personal improvement. Effort achieves results and the fate of our Motherland is determined by that effort.”
On New Year’s 2014-15, Putin mentioned some of the key events of the preceding year, including the seizure of Ukraine’s Crimea region and the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
The “return” of Crimea to its “native home” “will always be a crucial milestone in the history of our country,” he said, not mentioning the Russia-fomented separatist war in parts of eastern Ukraine that has left thousands dead and millions displaced or the July 2014 downing of a passenger jet over eastern Ukraine by Moscow-backed separatists using a missile system brought in from Russia.
In subsequent New Year’s addresses, the topic of overcoming the effects of Crimea-related Western economic sanctions became a regular theme — “2016 was not an easy year, but the difficulties we encountered have brought us together,” for example.
Putin then turned to the Sochi Olympics, saying that just a few years earlier, the idea of hosting the games was nothing more than a pipedream.
“But that dream didn’t just come true,” he said. “We didn’t just prepare and host the best Olympics in the history of the Winter Games, but we won them as well. That victory is to the credit of all the citizens of our country.”
Less than a year after Putin’s speech, however, the World Anti-Doping Agency had issued the first of a series of scathing reports outlining a long-running and comprehensive state-sanctioned doping program that eventually led to the banning of Russian teams from international competitions.Print