Bernie Sanders was bare-chested, towel-draped, sitting at a table lined with vodka bottles, as he sang “This Land Is Your Land” to his hosts in the Soviet Union in the spring of 1988.
The just-married socialist mayor from Vermont was on what he called “a very strange honeymoon,” an official 10-day visit to the communist country, and he was enthralled with the hospitality and the lessons that could be brought home.
“Let’s take the strengths of both systems,” he said upon completing the trip. “Let’s learn from each other.”
The Soviet sojourn has long been an extraordinary, if little understood, chapter in Sanders lore. He has for years used it to help explain his views about foreign policy, citing it as recently as last month.
The trip garnered brief mention in the 2016 presidential campaign, but earlier this year, a video from a Vermont community television station was posted online that showed a few minutes of Sanders’s unlikely celebration with the Soviets. Right-leaning websites suggested Sanders was cozying up to communists, underscoring how the trip might be used against the senator if he becomes the Democratic nominee.
Until now, however, relatively few details about the trip have emerged, and most accounts have relied heavily on Sanders’s recollection. An examination by The Washington Post of the trip — based on interviews with five people who accompanied Sanders, as well as audio and video of it — provides a fresh look at this formative time for Sanders, foreshadowing much of what animates his presidential bid.
As he campaigns for president a second time, Sanders, an Independent who is running in the Democratic primaries, takes credit for moving the party to the left, and he now finds himself competing with candidates who advocate for the kind of activist government positions Sanders touted during his Soviet trip, such as government-sponsored health care for all.
As he stood on Soviet soil, Sanders, then 46 years old, criticized the cost of housing and health care in the United States, while lauding the lower prices — but not the quality — of that available in the Soviet Union. Then, at a banquet attended by about 100 people, Sanders blasted the way the United States had intervened in other countries, stunning one of those who had accompanied him.
“I got really upset and walked out,” said David F. Kelley, who had helped arrange the trip and was the only Republican in Sanders’s entourage. “When you are a critic of your country, you can say anything you want on home soil. At that point, the Cold War wasn’t over, the arms race wasn’t over, and I just wasn’t comfortable with it.”
Sanders declined to be interviewed for this report. Jeff Weaver, his senior adviser, said the trip fits into Sanders’s effort to form partnerships between people who may seem at odds with each other.
“Just like his politics in the U.S. are animated by bringing ordinary people together,” Weaver said, the trip to the Soviet Union “was an example of that, if you can get people from everyday walks of life together, you can break through some of the animosity that exists on a governmental level.”
Sanders has often emphasized the difference between his views as a democratic socialist and communist dogma, noting that he supports democratic elections and business enterprises that were inimical to the Soviet system. Sanders, who in 1988 had been mayor of Burlington for seven years, took the trip at a time when he was trying to put himself on the national stage. He wrote that Burlington, a city of about 40,000, had a foreign policy because, “I saw no magic line separating local, state, national and international issues . . . How could issues of war and peace not be a local issue?”
He was already known as a firebrand on foreign affairs, finding much to like in socialist and communist countries.
Sanders had visited Nicaragua in 1985 and hailed the revolution led by Daniel Ortega, which President Ronald Reagan opposed. “I was impressed,” Sanders said then of Ortega, while allowing that “I will be attacked by every editorial writer for being a dumb dope.” At the same time, Sanders voiced admiration for the Cuban revolution led by Fidel Castro, whom Reagan and many others in both parties routinely denounced.
Sanders, in turn, said Americans dismissed socialist and communist regimes because they didn’t understand the poverty faced by many in Third World countries. “The American people, many of us, are intellectually lazy,” Sanders said in a 1985 interview with a Burlington television station.
The trip to the Soviet Union was, at that time, Sanders’s most significant foreign venture. U.S. relations with the Soviet Union were in the midst of transformation. Just before Sanders departed, Reagan traveled to Moscow for a summit with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who was pushing for openness and reform. As a result, Sanders muted his criticism of Reagan, praising the summit as “a major step forward for humanity. . . . What we are doing is actually the same thing at a lower level.”
The timing of Sanders’s trip drew much notice. He got married before a crowd of hundreds in Burlington. “On the next day we began a quiet, romantic honeymoon,” Sanders wrote in his book “Outsider in the White House,” jocularly describing the journey with his bride, Jane, and about 10 others.
“It cost him some political capital when you are self-identified as a socialist and you go to the Soviet Union,” said Terrill G. Bouricius, who accompanied Sanders as a Burlington City Council member. “We knew there would be some negative effects of that, but we thought pushing peaceful coexistence was important.”
The trip had its genesis a year earlier, when Kelley helped arrange for a Soviet choir of about 30 girls to visit Burlington. After staying with local families and visiting schools, the choir performed for about 500 residents, and Sanders asked to take the stage. At one point, according to Kelley, Sanders pointed to the choir and said, “This is the enemy?”
The main purpose for the trip to the U.S.S.R. was to establish Burlington’s “sister city” in the Soviet Union. Kelley said he initially proposed that Burlington partner with Kaunas, Lithuania, but he said Sanders, who is Jewish, rejected that idea because thousands of Jews had been killed there by the Nazis in 1941.
Instead, Sanders agreed to choose Yaroslavl, a Russian city of 600,000 on the Volga River that had scenic views but also a depleted industrial core. Sanders and his companions paid their own way, according to news accounts at the time and his campaign.
Sanders and his entourage first visited Moscow, where Sanders walked through Red Square days after Reagan appeared there, and he saw Lenin’s Tomb, according to his companions. Then they went to Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), where they visited a cemetery where thousands of Soviets killed during World War II are buried, while “Swan Lake” played from speakers strung from trees.
Sanders then traveled to Yaroslavl, where he and his companions toured factories, hospitals and schools. During a boat ride on the Volga River, Sanders interviewed the city’s mayor for a Burlington radio show, quizzing him on the costs of housing and health care.
Throughout the trip, local officials took aside members of Sanders’s entourage, telling them that the Soviet system was near collapse. At one point, officials of an engine factory that employed thousands of people told Howard Seaver, an official with a Burlington business group, that orders from Moscow had fallen, and they asked whether he could help arrange business with the United States.
“I think [Sanders] saw and we all saw the downside of the Soviet system,” Seaver said. “Yes, they may have had low-cost apartments, but things were very out of whack — there were food shortages, no political freedom. I suspect that what Bernie saw in Russia probably affected his views that you see today, where he is not anti-free-enterprise or capitalism but he wants to have a safety net and give a fair shake to all, but certainly not to have a command economy we saw in the Soviet Union.”
On one of the last days of the trip, officials in Yaroslavl took the Vermonters to a workers’ retreat at an oil refinery for a classic Russian celebration: a trip to the sauna and a bath in cold water. Wrapping themselves in towels and then putting on toga-style sheets, Sanders and his colleagues gathered around a table lined with vodka bottles. A video of the event shows Sanders, bare-chested, listening in delight to Russian folk songs. In response, Sanders and other Americans sang the Woody Guthrie ballad “This Land Is Your Land.”
Weaver, the adviser, said Sanders “looks back on it with great fondness as a moment of celebrating with other people.”
Bouricius recalled the moment vividly.
“It would have been a normal, boring kind of diplomatic exchange except we had just come out of the sauna,” he said. “I think we were probably naked in the sauna. I certainly hadn’t brought a bathing suit . . . We were bare-chested with towels on.”
Alan Rubin, an internist who was on the trip, recalled it similarly, saying: “I remember the togas, the vodkas . . . I don’t remember anyone not drinking vodka.” Sanders, he said, “was jolly and light. I think we don’t see that often. He is genuinely that way.”
Rubin, who spent part of the trip talking with local hospital officials, said Sanders was changed by the experience.
“He was delighted,” Rubin said. “He met people he cared about and cared about him. He got very curious about life in Russia, and I think it became part of his life. He was interested in the way they organized health care, education, street life, families . . . It opened up a new world for me and, I expect, for him, too.”
Returning to Vermont, Sanders held an hour-long news conference in which he extolled Russian policies on housing and health care, while criticizing the cost of both in the United States — and boasted that he was willing to criticize his homeland.
“The fact that we were willing to be critical of the United States . . . I think that made them maybe more appreciative of our criticisms we made of their own society,” Sanders said then. “We were saying, ‘Yeah, in our country, we also have a housing crisis. Our housing in general is better than yours, but people are paying 40 percent of their income for housing. The quality of your housing is not good, but we appreciate the fact that people are paying 5 percent. The quality of your health care is not good, but in the United States, believe me, we have enormous problems in terms of our health-care system.’ ”
Part of Sanders’s mission was to encourage U.S. investment in Russia, and he suggested that Vermont-based Ben & Jerry’s build an ice cream factory there. Concluding the news conference, Sanders said, “I think we are all here to make a strong prediction: The people in the Soviet Union love ice cream and that Ben & Jerry’s is going to make a fortune.”
Ben Cohen, the co-founder of the Vermont-based company and co-chairman of Sanders’s presidential campaign, said in an interview that he did build a facility in the Soviet Union. But he said that “it had nothing to do with Bernie” and that he has never talked to him about it. Cohen said it was not possible to make money from the venture — he said he was paid at one point with Russian nesting dolls — and that it was eventually transferred to a local partner. Instead of seeking a fortune, Cohen said, he was hoping to foster better relations between the two countries.
Kelley, the Republican who helped organize the trip, said he and Sanders were naive in thinking that the Soviet system would be profitable for American businesses. But Kelley said Sanders was prescient in criticizing U.S. interventions. At the time, Kelley said, Sanders seemed to be comparing the U.S. war in Vietnam to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and Kelley was offended. In retrospect, Kelley said, Sanders was right.
Kelley said that in observing Sanders on the trip and afterward, he has concluded that “he is intelligent, he is hard-working, he is courageous, he is idealistic, and many of his ideas are absolutely impractical and unworkable.”
Sanders, meanwhile, was so enthused by the trip that he soon began planning his next foreign venture: a visit to Cuba the following year, during his last month as mayor.
“Under Castro, enormous progress has been made in improving the lives of poor people,” Sanders said before leaving, while noting “enormous deficiencies” in democratic rights. While he failed in his goal to meet Fidel Castro, he returned home with even greater praise than he had for the Soviet Union.
“I did not see a hungry child. I did not see any homeless people,” Sanders told the Burlington Free Press. While Cuba was “not a perfect society,” he said, the country “not only has free health care but very high-quality health care . . . The revolution there is far deeper and more profound than I understood it to be. It really is a revolution in terms of values.”
Julie Tate contributed to this report.