Television programming in Russia on New Year’s Eve—the biggest holiday of the year there—reveals a lot about the current state of affairs in the country. Given the Russian government’s tight control of the media, it sends the public a number of signals.

This time around, the festive programming lacked past flair, since many prominent Russian entertainers who would traditionally feature in it had emigrated last year. As with Russia’s military losses, holiday concert emcees pretended that they had not even noticed the absence of the legendary pop diva Alla Pugacheva and her entertainer husband Maxim Galkin, who were for many years staples of such programs. Like with “enemies of the people” in the 1930s, the state prefers to pretend they never existed.

The two biggest TV channels went for a nostalgic tone, with performances of old Soviet hits. That in itself is nothing new, but now it is quite deliberate. The idea is to make the audience feel that the Soviet era continues. There is also a practical element now: TV producers have to rely on performers from Soviet times and the 1990s whose loyalty to the regime has been tried and tested.

Russian pop music has never provided much meaningful content, but the last year was especially dire. The singer Shaman, the state’s new poster boy, sings: “Let’s rise while God and truth are still with us.” His other hit, “I am Russian,” would never have gotten past the censors in peacetime due to its nationalistic message. This time around, it was the headliner of the New Year gala show on the state-run Channel 1.

Another pop-rock artist, Yulia Chicherina, used her seasonal greeting to threaten Ukrainians with the Gulag, which has suddenly become an object of admiration rather than historical shame. Russia’s chief TV propagandist, Vladimir Solovyov, told Russians that after thirty meaningless years, they finally have a cause worth dying for. All of this was crowned by the bellicose New Year address of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was filmed standing flanked by people in military fatigues.

One might conclude from these examples that the masks are off: Russia is showcasing its militaristic fervor, and is prepared for an all-out war. Yet the artists’ most radical statements, which then duly did the rounds on social media, eclipsed the totality of the content shown on New Year’s eve. This might create the impression that Russian society is now on a military footing, but if one had watched the evening’s entertainment in full, that’s not the picture the average Russian would have gotten.

Military pronouncements figured little in the traditional New Year routine. Veteran stand-up comedian Yevgeny Petrosyan’s quip, “Like it or not, Russia’s expanding,” was perhaps the most radical statement on the air that holiday evening, yet even this comment was somewhat softened by the geriatric comedian’s image.

None of this is accidental. The New Year’s Eve TV marathon on various channels conjured up memories of the ceremonious Kremlin concerts of the 1970s. There was the same conspicuous multiethnic flavor, with Russian folk songs sandwiched between Georgian and Ukrainian ones—at a time when the Russian military is pounding Ukrainian cities with missile strikes. 

Meanwhile, the official rhetoric stresses peace. Servicemen raised their champagne glasses for the “swift return home to their loved ones,” and military correspondents and army medics sporting typical Ukrainian and Russian last names wished each other peace.

It looks like the Russian establishment is trying to have its cake and eat it: to talk about the war, but in a way that won’t concern anyone too much. It’s an absurd combination of war and entertainment. 

This stylistic clash also sends an important signal. Had the Kremlin wanted war hysteria on the nation’s screens, the holiday coverage would have featured nothing but military fatigues, and the propaganda overlord Solovyov would have hijacked the evening. But there was none of that.

It’s important for the Kremlin to project a general sense of humdrum stability and normalcy. The authorities understand that the only asset they can sell to their compatriots is that, unlike Ukraine, Russia so far bears no burden of war. That means that the Kremlin is more concerned by radicalization inside the country than with boosting wartime morale. 

With the partial introduction of martial law, the government is becoming more radical, but radicalism once unleashed can also be directed at the government, and that’s what the Kremlin really fears. If things go wrong on the front, this could trigger unpredictable developments inside the country.

That’s why state propagandists are faced with the double-edged task of talking about the war without really saying anything about it. They must simultaneously support people’s wartime morale and maintain normal routine.

The Kremlin is not opposed to escalating its bellicose rhetoric, but it’s far more important to keep the average Russian from feeling like anything actually depends on them and becoming more involved in the country’s political life. For this reason, it is trying to create a semblance of normalcy at a time of war, or a sense of permanent war that allows people to go on with life as usual.

Starting a war while wanting peace is typical rhetoric for the Kremlin, dating back to Soviet times: war for the sake of peace on earth. It is quite an unstable construct, since any unpredictable event (and what is more unpredictable than war?) could shatter the illusion of this semi-peaceful existence. In that case, all the forces that were previously being contained would burst forth with an even greater intensity.

  • Andrey Arkhangelskiy