The late Paul Hollander wrote Political Pilgrims: Travels of Western Intellectuals to the Soviet Union, China and Cuba when the Cold War was still raging (it was published in 1981). It remains a valuable historical study of the phenomenon of political tourism to totalitarian countries by high-minded residents of free Western societies. Hollander briefly observes in the preface that “the pilgrimages to the Soviet Union are a thing of the past[.]”
What are we to make of the case of Bernie Sanders? His 1988 honeymoon to the Soviet Union reminds us: he is a throwback. He was one of those old-fashioned “useful idiots” — useful to the Communist masters of the Soviet Union and its ilk. Mona Charen’s Useful Idiots: How Liberals Got It Wrong in the Cold War and Still Blame America First provides a good journalistic review of the phenomenon. The reference to Western supporters of the Soviet Union as “useful idiots” is widely attributed to Lenin, though Lenin may never have uttered the phrase (as Mona notes).
New York Times Moscow correspondent Anton Troianovski zooms in for a close-up in “As Bernie Sanders Pushed for Closer Ties, Soviet Union Spotted Opportunity.” Troianovovski visited the Yaroslavl archive deriving from Sanders’s efforts to establish it as Burlington’s “sister city” during Sanders’s mayoralty:
The New York Times examined 89 pages of letters, telegrams and internal Soviet government documents revealing in far greater detail the extent of Mr. Sanders’s personal effort to establish ties between his city and a country many Americans then still considered an enemy despite the reforms being initiated at the time under Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the Soviet general secretary.
They also show how the Kremlin viewed these sister city relationships as vehicles to sway American public opinion about the Soviet Union.
“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 said.
The documents are part of a government archive in Yaroslavl, Russia, which became the sister city of Burlington. The files are open to the public, though archivists there said that, until now, no one had asked to see them.
The Soviet Union saw the whole “sister city” program as a device through which to promote the party line. Thanks to Sanders, Burlington adopted Yaroslavl. Both St. Paul and Minneapolis adopted Novosibirsk. If only Burlington and its likes would draw on their sister city relationships to develop a multiparty political system, perhaps we could get something truly useful out of them.