The Washington Post runs a worthwhile account of Bernie Sanders’ 1988 honeymoon in the Soviet Union. The Post claims that this event is “little understood.” However, the article confirms, albeit sheepishly, what I take to be the common understanding of Bernie’s honeymoon: Sanders went because he had an affinity for the Soviet Union and left finding much to admire about it.
The Post dances around what is perhaps the most remarkable thing about Bernie’s trip. By 1988, the Soviet system was in shambles. It was about to be cast off in Eastern Europe and was expiring even in Russia. Indeed, according to the Post’s report, local Soviet officials told Sanders that the system was near collapse.
It’s one thing to be duped by the promise of Soviet Communism in the 1930s, as many American intellectuals were. By the early 1970s, the communists I knew were not defending the Soviet system. Instead, they called it a deviation from true communism.
To be taken in even a little by Soviet Communism in 1988 is truly remarkable. Sanders must have been among the very last of the American dupes.
Sanders’ campaign claims that the trip “fits into Sanders’s effort to form partnerships between people who may seem at odds with each other.” The Post’s reporting undermines this spin. Sanders wasn’t just engaging in the equivalent of ping-pong diplomacy. He was full of praise for the Soviet Union’s housing and health care policies.
If anything, Sanders’s admiration for the Soviet system seemed to grow during his visit. One of the men who accompanied the honeymooners says that Sanders was changed by the experience, and not in the way one would expect given that the Communist system was collapsing:
He was delighted. 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.
A “new world” that was about to be toppled.
According to the Post, when Sanders returned to Vermont, he 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.” (Emphasis added)
That’s another thing. Sanders violated the unwritten rule against criticizing America on foreign soil. And he chose not just any foreign soil, but that of our Cold War enemy. One member of the group that accompanied Sanders was so disgusted that he walked out on Bernie when he attacked America during a banquet.
From all that appears, during his hour-long news conference Sanders withheld the reports he received from local Soviet officials that the Soviet system was in dire straits. The Post does not report that he criticized the Soviet Union for its lack of freedom and its authoritarianism, either.
According to the Post, Sanders “was so enthused by the trip [to the Soviet Union] that he soon began planning his next foreign venture: a visit to Cuba the following year.” The man just couldn’t get enough of communist dictatorships.
Returning from that trip, Sanders gushed:
Under Castro, enormous progress has been made in improving the lives of poor people. . . I did not see a hungry child. I did not see any homeless people.
[While Cuba is] “not a perfect society [it] 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.
Has Sanders ever withdrawn his praise of the Soviet Union or Castro’s Cuba? Not to my knowledge.
The Post describes Bernie’s Soviet adventure as a “formative time for Sanders, foreshadowing much of what animates his presidential bid.” The Post is correct, I fear.