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Vladimir Putin: Why the Russian president’s skiing joke is not the only part of his speech to hark back to the Soviet era

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Vladimir Putin’s skiing joke may hark back to the Soviet era – but so did a lot of his speech

Warnings of nuclear war fuelled by the Western war-mongers, praise for Russian entrepreneurs and troops serving in Ukraine, a drive to encourage women to have more babies – and health advice to stop drinking and start skiing: it was all there in Vladimir Putin’s annual state of the nation address, which was beamed into Russian households on Thursday morning.

Even those who weren’t at home will not have had an opportunity to miss it: the national address was projected onto large buildings and cinemas opened their doors for free to ensure everyone had access to the two hour speech.

While the speech held few surprises, with plenty of criticism of Western allies and rhetoric which booted morale around the invasion of Ukraine, around half of it was dedicated to more mundane domestic policies such as investment in culture and education and changes to taxation.

He warned that the West was responsible for creating a potential nuclear conflict which could lead to the “destruction of civilisation” and, in an ominous, but not uncharacteristic message, said any countries considering lending their troops to support Ukraine on the war would face “tragic” consequences.

He also praised Russian entrepreneurs who had stepped in to run businesses which replaced western brands which pulled out of Russia after the invasion of Ukraine, such as Starbucks and McDonalds.

When it came to the invasion, Mr Putin unusually moved away from his conventional language of a “special operation” to describe it as a “war”.

“We did not start this war in Donbas,” he insisted, going on to bring out the old trope of his aim to “de-Nazify” Ukraine.

One thing he did not speak about, unsurprisingly, was the death of Alexei Navalny, the opposition politician who died while serving time in a penal colony in Siberia – four years after surviving a poisoning attempt. Mr Navalny’s funeral is due to take place in Moscow on Friday.

In a wider policy sweep, he also tackled Russia’s health problems, including alcohol.

“Everyone remembers the joke: stop drinking and start skiing,” he said, referencing a Soviet-era motto.

I’m not quite sure what the joke is, but it’s probably not bad advice for a nation which, according to the US-based Jamestown Foundation think tank, has increased its alcohol consumption to 2.3 billion litres since the start of the conflict with Ukraine.

However, his skiing joke – which hopefully works better in Russian – was not the only Soviet element to his speech.

A new initiative, Family, will encourage women to have more babies to populate Mother Russia, in an echo of a similar Stalin-era policy, while Mr Putin’s nuclear threats trigger not-too-distant memories of the Cold War era.

There is no doubt Mr Putin will win next month’s elections, he will make sure of it.

But whether returning Russia to Soviet policies will be popular with the country’s citizens, remains to be seen.

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