All in all, it had to be a pretty jolly holiday season for Vladimir Putin. The Russian president ended his first year in office with his approval rating remaining above 60 percent–a huge number when you remember that Boris Yeltsin regularly scored in the single digits–and with the economy having grown 7 percent for the year.
Perhaps more significantly, Putin rang in the New Year with a televised address to the nation, in which he stressed one of his favorite themes–the need to, as he put it, “bridge the disparity” between Russia’s past and present. To underscore his point, the head of state unveiled the new lyrics he had chosen for the country’s revived national anthem–the one with music written during the Great Patriotic War at Josef Stalin’s behest which had extolled the “unbreakable union … united and mighty.” Just so there could be no doubt over his commitment to reconciling Russia’s different historical epochs, Putin chose for the old anthem’s new words a new set of lyrics written by its original lyricist–Sergei Mikhalkov, father of the filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov. The elder Mikhalkov, apparently an unrepentant Stalinist, nonetheless bowed to the spirit of the New Russia, opting for words which glorified the “Fatherland” and invoked God rather than Comrades Lenin and Stalin.
Putin’s “middle path” pragmatism was also underscored by the flow of official visitors to and from the country during the holiday season. On the one hand, there was Defense Minister Igor Sergeev ending the year with a visit to Tehran, where he heard Iranian President Mohammad Khatami praise Moscow’s renunciation of the 1995 Russian-U.S. understanding on limiting Russian arms sales to Tehran as a “sign of courage and Russian independence.” On the other hand, Orthodox Christmas saw the arrival of two friendly visitors from the West–German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and his wife Doris, who accompanied the Russian president and his wife Lyudmila to a midnight Christmas mass in Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral conducted by Aleksy II, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, and later joined Russia’s First Couple for a ride in a traditional Russian troika.