A radically new New Year: what we can expect from 2023

Russians have many traditions. On the New Year’s Eve, it is common to eat salads with a lot of mayonnaise, drink “Sovjetskoje Shampanskoje” (which has nothing to do with Champagne) and listen to the president’s address on TV. The president praises his folk for good performance in the outgoing year, overcoming all challenges and obstacles, and wishes them a happy new year. It is all very cozy.

But this New Year’s address was radically different, both stylistically and content-wise. In the previous years, Putin stood against the background of the Moscow Kremlin. This time, the background contained people in military uniforms. They seemed to represent war heroes and soldiers, but according to rumours, at least some of them were personnel of the Federal Guard Service. You can never be too cautious.

The message was also very different from the previous years. First of all, the text has been the longest since 2012. As the graph below shows, Putin has been increasingly verbose since 2020, the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. Apparently, there is more and more need to explain, persuade and encourage. When a country is having hard times, the leader is expected to give hope and convince everyone that the deaths and sacrifices are not meaningless.

Content-wise, the message was very different, too. It had always been a feel-good message. In the previous years, the most frequent words included Russian equivalents of the words “year”, “new”, “holiday”, “Russia”, “together”, “dear”, “child”, “country”, “life”, “best”, “love”, “family”, “do”, “happiness”, “human”, “important”, “attention”, “always”. Typical words for a family holiday.

This time, the message was very different. The top 25 distinctive lemmas (computed with the tf-idf measure) include words related to the special military operation and warfare in general: voennyi “military”, specialnyi “special”, operacija “operation”, sražatsa “fight”, soldat “soldier”, boec “fighter”, geroj “hero” and pogibnut’ “fall, die”. Other distinctive words name Russia (rossijskij “Russian”, federacija “federation” and otečestvo “fatherland”) and its new regions (Donbass and subjekt “subject as a territory”). Notably, two words are related to Russia’s independence from what Putin calls the “collective West” and its insidious influence: suverenitet “sovereignty” and nezavisimyi “independent”. As Putin often argues, Russia is facing an existential threat.

The figure below demonstrates once again that the 2023 address was very different from the previous ones. The plot shows two most important dimensions of a four-dimensional Multidimensional Scaling (stress = 0.16). The closer two years, the more similar the texts with regard to the ranked frequencies of the words in them. One can see that the 2023 address is indeed very different from the lexical point of view.

With this military-patriotic lexicon and picture, Putin is preparing Russians for a long and bloody war. There will be deaths, hardships and sacrifices. It is time for full consolidation of the people around their leader. Russia is under existential threat. It’s either “us” or “them”. Unfortunately, this video confirms the worst fears. No one should have any illusions that Putin will end the invasion soon and on any reasonable terms. He knows very well that losing the war will mean his political and very likely physical end. And he will not care about the price.

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