News of a Russian bus accident in the Baltic states on New Year's eve, killing ten children, added to an already solemn undertone to this year's Novi God festivities in Russia, still in shock from terrorist attacks, the loss of the Ukraine, and the tsunami that swept through tourist resorts.
President Putin, in his annual New Years Message, made an oblique reference to the Beslan tragedy, in his otherwise optimistic statement from the Kremlin--a ritual that is some sort of cross between our own State of the Union speech and a New Year's toast. It was broadcast after hours of lively vaudeville shows featuring drag acts, singers, and comedians. Abruptly the party ends, and immediately there was Putin, dressed in a dark overcoat, standing outside the Kremlin palace, clocktower over his shoulder. Five minutes to midnight. The breath forms frosty clouds as he speaks to wish the nation a happy New Year. Then the Russian anthem, and fireworks begin in Red Square. They lasted until 3 am at various locations around town. No one got up very early on January 1st, 2005 in Moscow.
Interestingly, the first television channel broadcast a retrospective of past New Year's addresses, beginning with Brezhnev. From Brezhnev to Gorbachev, they looked very Soviet, formal, sitting behind a desk. An interviewer said that nobody listed to anything but "S'novim Godim!."
Then, the clips from the Yeltsin era were completely different. In fact, the first favorable coverage -- really any coverage -- of Yeltsin that I've seen on TV (Stalin, by contrast, is everywhere). He was relaxed, joking the the camera crew, demanding a glass of champagne for the rehearsal of his New Year's toast. It looked like everyone was having fun...
Then came Putin, standing outside in the cold, not drinking, not smiling, projecting a sober concern for the country and its future.
This year, for the first time, alcohol was banned at Red Square's outdoor New Year's celebration.