One of the sights in Yarolavl.

Photographer: Harry Engels/Getty Images

How Bernie Sanders Spent His Soviet 'Honeymoon'

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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Senator Bernie Sanders's long-ago "honeymoon" in the Soviet Union is held up by his opponents as evidence of dubious judgment, and even Communist sympathies or anti-American tendencies. The self-described socialist was questioned about the visit during a debate of Democratic presidential candidates in October as a way to raise doubts about his electability.

Those descriptions and concerns are based on distortions and exaggerations: The trip, which began the day after his wedding with his second wife, Jane, in May 1988, was undertaken as part of Sanders' official duties as mayor of Burlington, Vermont. And in any case, most of his critics seem to have forgotten that the Soviet Union at the time was hardly the place for an admirer of communism to find comfort. 

Under Sanders, Burlington developed sister-city programs with places that reflected his sympathies, notably Puerta Cabezas, Nicaragua. That pairing was in keeping with Sanders' opposition to President Ronald Reagan's attempts to undermine the leftist Sandinista government. Sanders and the Burlington Board of Aldermen even wrote angry letters demanding that the president "stop killing the innocent people of Nicaragua."

Burlington also had a link-up with the city of Yaroslavl, in Russia. But as Sanders wrote in his 1998 political memoir, "Outsider in the White House," the motivations were quite different: 

Like the Puerto Cabezas project, the sister-city program with Yaroslavl has been very successful. Each has different constituencies of support. Puerto Cabezas mostly attracted the energy of left-wing activists who were initially involved because of their support for the Sandinista Revolution and opposition to U.S. intervention in Central America. The Yaroslavl project received more broad-based backing, including from a number of business people in the city.

The Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev was opening to the world, no longer exactly an enemy of the U.S. and more an intriguing, unknown entity. In 1987, Gorbachev effectively signed the planned economy's death sentence, permitting so-called "cooperatives" -- essentially private companies that could produce and trade goods as freely as the tired and greedy bureaucracy allowed. Thus began the second stage of what Gorbachev called perestroika, or restructuring. It also included political reforms that attempted to shift the center of power from the Communist Party to the Soviets -- a system of representative government that handled the Soviet Union's housekeeping. 

Soviet newspapers and magazines were beginning to publish documents and eyewitness accounts from the time of Stalin's purges. It was dawning on a large part of the Soviet people that their own Communist state, and not the West, was, and had long been, their biggest enemy. Rallies and marches against the Communists' monopoly on power were springing up across the country. (Two years later, I attended one such gathering in Moscow with more than 1 million others -- still the biggest protest I've ever seen.)

At the same time, of course, the economy was falling apart, not just because oil prices were at record lows and the Soviet government was beginning to print money desperately to finance essential programs, but because the centralized planning system was rotten: Essentially, bureaucrats across the country were falsely reporting that plans and quotas were being met, when in fact workers were stealing all they could, and their bosses were either lost in a stupor of incomprehension or trying to figure out how the new "cooperatives" could help them get rich.

During the "honeymoon" in Yaroslavl, Sanders interviewed Alexander Ryabkov, head of the city's executive committee -- the Soviet equivalent of a mayor -- for a Burlington radio station. Ryabkov, a career bureaucrat obsessed with construction, gave a stilted account of the city's plan to build an apartment for every family in the city by 2000 -- a year that lay in a too-distant future in a country where no one, not even Gorbachev himself, could predict what would happen the following week. My grandmother's sister lived in a communal apartment in Yaroslavl, where the kitchen and other amenities were shared with her neighbors, and she never expected to move into a place of her own. Less than a year after the Sanders visit, Ryabkov stepped down after being accused of pripiski, the common practice of reporting an inflated rate of compliance with the central plan that many bureaucrats used to appropriate scarce resources. 

Judging by the interview, Sanders wasn't particularly impressed by Ryabkov's claims. He noted that the quality of housing and health care in Vermont was far better than in Yaroslavl. In response, Ryabkov told him that a typical Yaroslavl family only spent 3 to 4 percent of its income on rent and utilities and that health care was free. Unsurprisingly. Sanders sounded as if he liked that part, on principle.

Sanders was doing what every American who witnessed the perestroika-era Soviet Union or even read about it in a newspaper did: trying to make comparisons and find similarities. Yaroslavl's Kirov Street looked to him like Burlington's Church Street: both led to a church. In Yaroslavl, housing and health care were the most important issues; they were important in Burlington, too. After decades of hostility, it was finally possible to travel and talk to people. That wasn't trivial: In 1988, foreign correspondents based in Moscow still had to ask the Foreign Ministry for permission to travel outside the capital. Most Russians were meeting Americans for the first time. There was a sense of new opportunities, of an emerging warmth between the two nations. "We never knew what friends we had until we came to Leningrad," Billy Joel sang after touring the Soviet Union in 1987. 

Nonetheless, Yaroslavl in 1988 wasn't a pretty picture: an exhausted industrial city on the Volga, its only attraction the ancient churches that were kept shining white and gold for the tourists' sake. The infrastructure was threadbare, falling apart like everything in the Soviet economy in those days. Just four months before Sanders' visit, a freight train derailed in Yaroslavl, spilling almost a ton of heptyl, a highly toxic rocket propellant that was such an extreme danger to locals that some neighborhoods had to be evacuated while more than 1,000 people dug up the contaminated earth and removed it in trucks to be burned.

There is nothing Sanders could have seen in the Volga River city that he would have wanted to transplant to Vermont. And he never sang the Soviet Union's praises. In his book, he only said that his "honeymoon" -- actually, a working trip with a delegation of 10 -- had been "very strange." He never became a Russophile, either. As senator, he backed U.S. sanctions against Russia after it annexed Crimea, calling for the political and economic isolation of President Vladimir Putin. 

To his credit, however, Sanders has continued to meet with Yaroslavl delegations that kept coming to Burlington long after he ceased to be mayor. Irina Novikova, who is in charge of the exchanges in Yaroslavl, last saw him in the U.S. in 2013. She was impressed. "He's a man of global thinking," she told me. "An uncommon man, with this broad perspective on the whole world."

Sanders is unashamed of his leftist views, which seem to appeal to a large number of Democratic voters. His Russian trip, though, wasn't about leftist ideology: In 1988, that was much easier to find in Nicaragua or Cuba than in the Soviet Union. Rather, it was about keeping an open mind about a bizarre land that was slowly emerging after decades of oppression and isolation. I appreciate the open-mindedness: My country has since sunk back into a Soviet-style mire, and when it opens up again, people like Sanders will be welcome. They always are the first to show up.

I just hope he understood during that 1988 trip that free health care and housing aren't really free. I can't tell from his speeches if he did.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net