Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) famously visited the Soviet Union on his honeymoon in 1988, and a new report from the Washington Post shows he blasted U.S. foreign and domestic policy at a Russian banquet.
The 46-year-old mayor of Burlington, Vt., at the time, Sanders was open about his desire to learn from the Soviet socialist system to improve America's economy. Specifically, he said the low housing costs were preferable to the U.S. situation where people spend a much larger percentage of their income on housing, and he lambasted U.S. foreign policy.
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At a banquet with about 100 attendees in Burlington’s "sister city" of Yaroslavl, Sanders lit into U.S. intervention—prompting the only Republican in the group to walk out.
"I got really upset and walked out," David F. Kelley said. "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’s trip was part of his push for a national platform, before he became a U.S. senator, and he wanted foreign policy experience.
"I saw no magic line separating local, state, national and international issues," Sanders wrote while he was mayor. "How could issues of war and peace not be a local issue?"
Sanders, who is now running for president for the second time, declined to answer questions from the Post, but he has repeatedly cited the trip to Russia as a formative experience for his foreign policy views. His senior adviser Jeff Weaver said Sanders’s trip was part of his philosophy 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 and his also entourage visited Moscow and Saint Petersburg (then Leningrad), hitting such spots as Red Square, Lenin’s tomb, and a World War II cemetery. Once in Yaroslavl they toured hospitals, factories, and schools, and Sanders praised their housing policy despite repeated hints from Soviet officials that their system was nearing collapse.
Sanders also encouraged business arrangements between the Soviets and Americans, specifically calling for Vermont-based ice cream brand Ben and Jerry’s to build a factory in the USSR now that Mikhail Gorbachev’s new policies were loosening economic restrictions. Ben and Jerry’s co-founder Ben Cohen said they actually did build a facility in the Soviet Union but "it had nothing to do with Bernie." In the end, it was offloaded after not making any money, although Cohen said they were paid at one point with Russian nesting dolls.
A doctor on the trip, Alan Rubin, vividly recalls when Sanders and the group went with Yaroslavl officials to the sauna and a cold-water bath, a classic Russian celebration. Video of Sanders wearing a toga and singing "This Land Is Your Land" amidst a healthy supply of vodka was one part of the trip that has been widely spread on the Internet.
"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."
Before the Iron Curtain fell and the Cold War ended, Sanders had long expressed disagreement with the idea that the Soviets were an "enemy." Burlington invited a children’s choir for a visit in 1987, and after they performed Sanders asked to come on stage, where he pointed to the choir and asked, "This is the enemy?"
Sanders lavished praise not only on Soviet housing policy, but on the regimes in Nicaragua and Cuba. In 1985, he visited Nicaragua under Daniel Ortega’s dictatorship and said, "I was impressed," granting that "I will be attacked by every editorial writer for being a dumb dope" for saying so.