It’s difficult to remember that as of last Saturday afternoon, Sen. Bernie Sanders was still considered the odds-on favorite — if not a shoo-in — to win the Democratic nomination for president.
It’s been a long week for the Vermont socialist since then.
His loss to Joe Biden in Saturday’s South Carolina primary, while expected, was worse than anyone had expected.
This led to Super Tuesday, which erased any pretensions that Sanders had to front-runner status. Then came Friday, in which The New York Times revealed Sanders had been the target of a Soviet plot to spread their propaganda in the United States.
In the 1980s, Sanders rose to fame as the mayor of Burlington, Vermont. This would have been wholly unexciting to anyone except for the novel fact that he was a socialist at a time where the word was considered verboten if you wanted to win any sort of political office in the United States.
If you want to see how much of a novelty this was and you have a few minutes to spare, here’s a 1981 video of Sanders on NBC’s “Today” shortly after he was elected, with Phil Donahue cautiously considering him as if he were a sort of space alien:
Later in the 1980s, when Sanders’ Burlington became a sister city to Yaroslavl, USSR, he said he wanted the two superpowers to “live together as friends.”
That’s great, but it turns out the Soviets wanted a little something more from our space alien.
According to The Times, the sister-city program more than just a goodwill effort — Sanders was reportedly being groomed by the Soviets to spread their propaganda in the United States.
“One of the most useful channels, in practice, for actively carrying out information-propaganda efforts has proved to be sister-city contact,” a document from the Soviet Foreign Ministry to Yaroslavl at the time read.
Sanders would visit the USSR in 1988 in what he would call “a very strange honeymoon” (whether it was actually his honeymoon or not is a fact that remains under dispute, not that it matters much). In Yaroslavl, according to NBC News, he was filmed singing “This Land is Your Land.”
That’s all very nice, but it turns out the Soviets had more in mind for Sanders than just singing Woody Guthrie songs.
The files detailing the sister-city relationship, which have been at the Yaroslavskaya Region State Archive in Yaroslavl (and remained unseen at by anyone in the media because, according to Russian officials, no one bothered to look at them), discuss the negotiations for setting up the sister-city initiative.
“Throughout their negotiations with Burlington City Hall, Yaroslavl officials were coordinating their messaging with Soviet officials in Moscow,” The Times’ report said.
“In a letter to Moscow seeking approval for travel to the United States, Yaroslavl officials pledged that they would talk about the ‘peace-loving foreign policy’ of the Soviet Union and the changes being implemented by [then-Soviet Premier Mikhail] Gorbachev. They attached a seven-point ‘plan for information-propaganda work’ on their visit to Burlington, with specific talking points for each of the delegation’s three members.
“The plan is followed by a nine-page guide issued by the Soviet Foreign Ministry on how to communicate Mr. Gorbachev’s policies to international audiences. It describes antiwar movements, sister-city contacts and foreign cultural figures as particularly important targets for Soviet propaganda.”
“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,” that document reads.
This was all part of a Soviet initiative to “reveal American imperialism as the main source of the danger of war,” according to The Times.
It’s worth noting that Sanders was far from the only mayor targeted by the Soviets through the sister-city program, and that Burlington’s relationship with Yaroslavl — a city of 600,000 on the Volga River, northeast of Moscow — was unusual but not wholly unique.
Still, Sanders’ praise of Yaroslavl and his rather overreaching aims through the sister-city program do still stand out as problematic.
“People there seemed reasonably happy and content,” he told reporters in Burlington after returning from Yaroslavl. “I didn’t notice much deprivation.”
He also viewed the sister-city program as a way to provide a counterbalance to then-President Ronald Reagan’s Cold War strategy; apparently, according to Sanders and his associates, programs like the sister-city initiative were somehow going to save us all from a nuclear winter and end the military-industrial complex.
“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 said in a letter to the Soviet embassy in Washington shortly after his visit to the USSR.
In another letter to Valentina Tereshkova, then-head of the Union of Soviet Societies for Friendship and Cultural Contacts (and the first woman in space), Sanders said, “I believe that sister city programs like the Yaroslavl Burlington one, will help improve Soviet American relations and develop a more peaceful world.”
The Times’ article gives us a lot of puzzle pieces without enough to solve anything. I suppose that’s how this thing works, although it’s again curious to see Bernie being vetted for the first time right as he’s one of the two men still in the Democratic race.
The Times also noted the added context here: “Three decades later, amid reports that the Kremlin was looking favorably upon Mr. Sanders’s presidential candidacy (as well as Mr. Trump’s), the Burlington-Yaroslavl relationship lives on in an era of renewed tensions between Washington and Moscow.”
They also reported the fact that Sanders took a strangely internationalist view of his role as mayor, visiting not only the USSR but Daniel Ortega’s Nicaragua for the anniversary of the Sandinista revolution. What this had to do with the concerns of Burlingtonians is anyone’s guess.
Sanders campaign spokesman Mike Casca was quick to play down any aspect like that.
“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,” he 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.”
Casca also insisted that when the Soviets visited Burlington in 1988, propaganda wasn’t on the table.
“Reporting at the time is clear, rather than propaganda, officials on both sides discussed the limitations of the Soviet system and their common desire to avoid nuclear war,” the Sanders spokesman said.
This reporting, if extant, wasn’t produced by either The Times or Casca.
Whatever the case, it’s good to see that — as we all continue to try to label President Donald Trump as the Muscovite candidate — someone the USSR viewed as a potential conduit for their policies still has a reasonable shot at the Democratic nomination.
Of course, this revelation manages to cap off the Worst Week Ever™ for Sanders, which combined big primary losses with actual vetting, the kind of stuff that probably should have happened in 2016.
You can find the candidate, no doubt, huddled in a corner humming “This Land is Your Land” to himself. For the rest of the campaign, which still needs to sell their punch-drunk candidate to the general public, this is another spin nightmare that no Keurig-fueled staff all-nighter is going to fix.
This article appeared originally on The Western Journal.