Bernie’s mystery Soviet tapes revealed
Unseen by the public for three decades, a POLITICO reporter views hours of footage from his 1988 ‘honeymoon’ to the USSR.
By HOLLY OTTERBEIN
BURLINGTON, Vt. — It’s 1988 and newlywed Bernie Sanders is in the Soviet Union with his wife, Jane, handing out gifts to the mayor of a midsized city they’ve befriended. The mood is festive as the two bestow the items: A Beatles album, a red “Bernie for Burlington” button, “delicious Vermont candy” and a tape of tunes Sanders recorded himself with fellow artists from Vermont, among other goodies.
“I have met many fine mayors in the United States,” Sanders says, “but I want to say that one of the nicest mayors I’ve ever met is the mayor of Yaroslavl.”
At another point, a member of Sanders’ delegation hands a Russian woman a small American flag.
“If you’re wondering what’s wrong with capitalism, it’s made in Hong Kong,” he jokes. “Sorry about that.”
The scene is part of 3½ hours of raw, never publicly seen footage of the trip Sanders took to the Soviet Union that year — his “honeymoon.” POLITICO viewed the tapes this week, along with a forgotten hourlong episode of a TV show created by Sanders that featured the same trip, at the offices of a Vermont government access channel.
Earlier this year, two minutes of the long-lost videos went viral when a staffer at Chittenden County’s Channel 17 posted a compilation of the station’s archival footage online. The clip featured a shirtless Sanders and other Americans singing “This Land Is Your Land” to their hosts after relaxing in a sauna. A few minutes later, Sanders doled out the gifts to his Russian friends with a towel wrapped around his waist.
But that’s only the beginning. The hours of footage include a scene of Sanders sitting with his delegation at a table under a portrait of Vladimir Lenin. Sanders can also be heard extolling the virtues of Soviet life and culture, even as he acknowledges some of their shortcomings. There are flashes of humor, too, such as his host warning the American guests not to cross the KGB, or else.
The video also paints a fuller picture of why Sanders ventured to the land of America’s No. 1 enemy in the midst of the Cold War, the anti-war idealism that fueled his journey, and what he found when he got there.
Over the course of 10 days, Sanders, who was then the mayor of Burlington, and his dozen-member delegation traveled to three cities: Moscow, Yaroslavl and Leningrad, now known as St. Petersburg. Their goal was to establish a “sister city” relationship with Yaroslavl, a community along the Volga River home to about 500,000 people. At the time, the Soviet Union was beginning to open itself to the world, if only slightly — and Sanders was a self-described socialist with an unusually large interest in foreign affairs for a mayor.
“It wasn’t as outlandish as it looks in the pictures,” William Pomeranz, the deputy director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, said after hearing a description of the footage. “It’s the height of Glasnost and Perestroika, where there are genuine efforts by Americans to reach out to Soviet cities and try to establish these relationships.”
At the time, Sanders was 46 and nearing the end of his eight years as Burlington mayor, which tracked precisely with Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Two years later, Sanders would be elected to Congress.
As mayor, Sanders worried about a potential nuclear war and railed against the bloated military budgets of both the United States and the Soviet Union. A year before the trip, he laid out his vision for a sister-city relationship. “By encouraging citizen-to-citizen exchanges — of young people, artists and musicians, business people, public officials, and just plain ordinary citizens,” he said in a speech, “we can break down the barriers and stereotypes which exist between the Soviet Union and the United States.”
Sanders’ opponents, though, will likely find much in the tapes to call outlandish. And in a campaign season in which Democrats are concerned about nothing more than defeating President Donald Trump, there’s plenty of material that Democratic voters might worry the Republican Party could spin into a 30-second negative ad.
Sanders is seen living it up with Russians. There are, naturally, shrines to Lenin everywhere. In one scene, Sanders and his wife, as well as other couples, boogie to live Russian music. “I brought my special dancing shoes!” Sanders exclaims.
Later, he tells a Russian man, “I’m not very happy about this, but there are not many people in the state of Vermont who speak Russian. In fact, one of the things that we want to do is to see if we can develop a Russian studies program in our high school.”
At another point, one of Sanders’ hosts jokingly warns the delegation to not upset the KGB: “Those who don’t behave move to Siberia from here.”
For now, many of the videos will remain available for viewing only in CCTV’s archives. POLITICO learned about the tapes after reporting on a TV show Sanders created while mayor called “Bernie Speaks With the Community.” The government-access channel is not planning to put the raw tapes documenting the Soviet Union trip online because they never aired, said executive director Lauren-Glenn Davitian. However, she does intend to post the lost episode of Sanders’ TV show online soon.
The tapes also reveal Sanders and his team being wooed by the Soviet Union: They eat nice-looking meals, tour a decorated subway station, take horse-and-buggy rides and watch professional dancers. A cab driver serenades members of Sanders’ delegation — it’s unclear whether Sanders was in the car — with songs for minutes on end. When they return home, the Americans said the cabbie liked them so much that he didn’t charge a fare.
“The Soviet Union always treated foreign guests very, very well,” said Pomeranz said. “They always wanted to show off the best side of their country and that invariably included a big table with a lot of food.”
At times, though, Sanders’ team saw behind the curtain: The tapes showed people who appear to be waiting in line for food as well as the Soviet Union’s shabby housing stock. Inside one Russian’s apartment, Sanders addresses the poor conditions.
“It’s important to try to translate this,” he says. “In America, in general, the housing is better than in the Soviet Union.”
There are also mundane scenes of everyday life — cars rolling around traffic circles, townspeople walking down the street, athletes playing sports on TV — rendered fascinating because of the moment in which they occurred.
According to a newspaper account at the time, members of Sanders’ mayoral team paid for the trip but also received their regular salary while abroad.
Throughout the videos, as well as in the final episode of “Bernie Speaks With the Community,” Sanders speaks at length about his dream of reducing conflict between the two nations by building relationships between ordinary citizens. While being interviewed by a Russian man on a bus, he says he would “love” for young people to participate in exchange programs between the two cities.
Sanders suggests a similar initiative for media outlets. He tells the man that a Vermont editor is coming to the Soviet Union soon and that “I have asked her to drop in [to] your newspaper.”
Sanders’ wife also talks to teachers in the Soviet Union over tea. She asks them detailed questions about their work and proposes a teacher and student exchange program.
“One thing we are very impressed with is the cultural life,” she tells them. “We strive in Burlington to enrich the cultural life as much as possible. But we have much further to go.”
Bruce Seifer, a top economic development aide to Sanders when he was mayor, said that 100 residents from Yaroslavl immigrated to Burlington after the trip and others visited.
“Over time, it had a positive impact on to the economy,” he said. “Businesses started doing exchanges between Burlington and Yaroslavl.”
Davitian, who lived in Burlington at the time, said progressives were thrilled by Sanders’ trip to the Soviet Union, while everyday residents didn’t mind. “As long as the streets were getting paved, there wasn’t opposition to him as an activist mayor,” she said.
When Sanders’ delegation returned to Burlington, CCTV captured the group on film in a hopeful mood, applauding the Soviet Union’s after-school programs, low rent costs and hospitality.
At the same time, they admit the poor choices of available food. Sanders says he was impressed by the beauty of the city and Soviet officials’ willingness “to acknowledge many of the problems that they had.”
“They’re proud of the fact that their health care system is free,” he says, but concede that the medical technology is far behind that of the United States.
Later that year, the relationship was officially established. Since then, “exchanges between the two cities have involved mayors, business people, firefighters, jazz musicians, youth orchestras, mural painters, high school students, medical students, nurses, librarians, and the Yaroslavl Torpedoes ice hockey team,” according to Burlington’s city government. A delegation traveled there as recently as 2016.
“They were just as friendly as they could possibly be,” Sanders said at a news conference at the airport after returning from the trip. “The truth of the matter is, they like Americans, and they respect Americans, and they admire Americans.”