Soviet officials used then-mayor Bernie Sanders’s attempts to establish a sister-city relationship with Yaroslavl, Russia as propaganda to “reveal American imperialism as the main source of the danger of war,” according to documents reviewed by The New York Times.
As mayor of Burlington, Vt., Sanders was only one of several dozen mayors who already had or were applying to establish a relationship with a Soviet sister city at the time, in an effort to deescalate a possible nuclear conflict amid the tensions of the Cold War.
Asked by the Times to comment on the matter, Sanders’s campaign stood by the decision. “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.”
But Soviet documents at the time show that the Kremlin was happy to oblige the efforts for propagandistic purposes. “One of the most useful channels, in practice, for actively carrying out information-propaganda efforts has proved to be sister-city contact,” a Soviet Foreign Ministry document provided to Yaroslavl officials reads.
Sanders’s written statements and comments at the time reveal a lack of knowledge regarding the level of coordination between local Yaroslavl officials and Soviet officials in Moscow.
“When carrying out propaganda measures abroad, the forms and methods of the information-propaganda work and its concrete contents must be approved by the Soviet Embassy and take into account the Soviet Union’s relationship with the given country,” a Russian document says.
Sanders traveled to Yaroslavl in 1988 with a delegation, a trip he has called a “very strange honeymoon” after marrying his wife just before leaving.
The trip left him impressed. “People there seemed reasonably happy and content,” Sanders told reporters in Burlington after the trip. “I didn’t notice much deprivation.” He then wrote to the Soviet Embassy in Washington, expressing his desire to start the sister-city program.
“It is my strong belief that if our planet is going to survive, and if we are going to be able to convert the hundreds of billions of dollars that both the United States and the Soviet Union are now wasting on weapons of destruction into areas of productive human development, there is going to have to be a significant increase in citizen-to-citizen contact,” Sanders wrote.
An agreement was reached and Yaroslavl officials then traveled to Burlington, but not before promising in a letter to the Kremlin that they would emphasize the “peace-loving foreign policy” of the Soviet Union, attaching a seven-point “plan for information-propaganda work” on their visit and with specific talking points for each member of the delegation.
Sanders has drawn criticism on the campaign trail for favorable comments about Soviet-ally Cuba, including defending Fidel Castro in a 60 Minutes interview and a CNN town hall.
Earlier this week, an American who was imprisoned in Cuba until 2014 said he was offended when Sanders told him he did not see “what’s so wrong with this country” while visiting him in captivity.