It is no secret that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) admired the Soviet Union for decades, but a bombshell report by the New York Times shows that the "Evil Empire," as dubbed by President Ronald Reagan, saw him as an ideological ally and mouthpiece for their propaganda.
Reporters with the Times tracked down a Soviet archive containing previously unseen documents from the 1980s while Sanders — as mayor of Burlington, Vermont — worked to establish a sister city relationship with Yaroslavl, Russia. According to the report, the Soviets utilized sister city partnerships as propaganda opportunities and "sought to leverage Sanders' interest in their country to their advantage."
Identifies as an ideological ally
The documents were located in the Yaroslavskaya Region State Archive in Yaroslavl in a file titled "documents about the development of friendly relations of the city of Yaroslavl with the city of Burlington in 1988."
While the documents do not seem to indicate that Sanders knowingly contributed to the dissemination of Soviet propaganda, they do confirm that the Kremlin saw him as an ally.
"Nothing in the documents suggests that Mr. Sanders was the only local American official targeted for propaganda, or even that he was particularly receptive to it, though they do describe him as a socialist," reporter Anton Troianovski wrote.
'Very strange honeymoon'
The documents reviewed by the Times also show that Sanders aggressively courted the Soviets to establish a sister-city relationship with Burlington. During a May 1988 trip to the city of Yaroslavl with his wife and an American delegation (which Sanders subsequently described as a "very strange honeymoon"), the Soviets provided Sanders with a detailed itinerary that "was planned minute-by-minute" and included "tours of schools and theaters and virtually no breaks during the day."
However, the trip itself was not sufficient to establish the sister-city relationship he sought with the Soviet Union, as the partnership had to be approved by high-ranking Soviet officials in Moscow and Burlington also had to host a reciprocal trip for a Soviet delegation.
The Times report suggests that in order to carry favor with the Kremlin, upon returning to the United States, Sanders spoke glowingly about his experience in the USSR and "ratcheted up his lobbying effort in private."
"People there seemed reasonably happy and content," Sanders told American reporters about Yaroslavl at the time. "I didn't notice much deprivation."
Driven by opposition to nuclear weapons
According to multiple people interviewed by the Times, Sanders' interests in building relationships with the Soviet Union appear to have been largely driven by his strong opposition to a potential nuclear escalation with the Soviets.
When local residents and city council members grew frustrated with his focus on foreign policy as the mayor of a small city, Sanders quipped, "We cannot have a good police, fire or planning department if there is a nuclear war," according to official minutes of a city meeting. "The enormous spending on the military by both countries strangles their local economies."
In a statement to the Times, the Sanders campaign said it was "proud" of his efforts to build relationships with the Soviets. "Mayor Sanders was proud to join dozens of American cities in seeking to end the Cold War through a Sister Cities program that was encouraged by President Reagan himself," a campaign spokesman said in a statement.
"The exchange between Burlington and Yaroslavl, which continues to this day, confirmed Sanders's long held view: by meeting face to face, we can break down the barriers and stereotypes that exist between people and their governments."