A New Year Tradition Full of Gas and Nostalgia

We have a tradition: Every year on Dec. 31, my friends and I go to the banya." That is a classic line from the Soviet-era film "Irony of Fate" shown every New Year's Eve. The film, which has a near-cult following in Russia, was made in 1975 and is just as inseparable a part of the country's New Year's celebrations as the fir tree.

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The longer the New Year's holidays are stretched out, the more nostalgic the programming becomes because the airwaves are filled with classic Soviet films. This year, it seemed that every channel was showing reruns of the old Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson adventure series from 1979.

Most interesting, radio programs began discussing the fact that, year after year, people prefer watching classic Soviet films rather than modern movies. As a whole, we are a conservative people, and if we liked something in the past, we will like it forever. And it seems that during this holiday season a new Russian New Year's tradition was born: gas wars with Ukraine.

The first such conflict took place on New Year's Eve 2005. This year's drama, however, was particularly gripping. Just imagine: New Year's Eve, you are busy preparing for the midnight celebrations and watching either "Irony of Fate" or "Sherlock Holmes" on television when captions begin rolling across the bottom of your screen telling you that an emergency news bulletin will interrupt this program in a few minutes. You freeze in anticipation of another war, a terrorist attack or news that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has replaced President Dmitry Medvedev (or vice versa).

Instead, the news anchor comes on to report that negotiations over gas prices between Ukraine and Russia are continuing. These periodic updates continue all evening. Then, just 30 minutes before the clock strikes midnight to usher in the new year, the rolling captions inform you that an agreement could not be reached and the Ukrainian delegation has walked out on the negotiations. Even the next morning, you get a little thrill remembering what a cliffhanger the incident was at the outset and how it ended so trivially. Now, there's the start of a novel New Year's tradition for you.

But in the face of this new tradition, Europeans will almost certainly wax nostalgic. With their teeth chattering from the cold after gas supplies failed to reach their homes, they will fondly recall Putin's oft-quoted remark that "the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century." With warm memories, they will recall the good old days of the Cold War, when the two sides threatened each other with Pershing and SS-20 missiles, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and the United States created al-Qaida to oppose the Soviet forces. But year after year, even during the coldest of Cold War times, the gas continued flowing from East to West over Ukrainian territory. With a single totalitarian secretary-general sitting in the Kremlin, it was somehow possible to keep the pipeline open, but with four democratic leaders in the two now-independent countries, disruptions to the supply line have begun.

For some reason, I sympathize most with Russia's leaders in this year's gas dispute. Sure, the Europeans are freezing, but at least they are freezing during their regular work schedule. Our leaders had to deal with the problem during their holidays, and this undoubtedly kept them from watching their favorite old films. I hope that they at least figured out that it was possible to watch "Sherlock Holmes" at any convenient moment during the holidays without having to tear themselves completely away from deciding the fate of the world.

Alexei Pankin is the editor of IFRA-GIPP Magazine for publishing business professionals.