Friday’s New York Times features a lengthy treatment on Bernie Sanders’s 1988 efforts to set up a sister-city arrangement between Burlington, Vt., where he then served as mayor, and a city in the Soviet Union called Yaroslavl. The Times reviewed previously unreported documents in Yaroslavl that showed Soviet officials viewed the alliance as a potential propaganda win.
But there was someone else who saw significant benefit in this kind of alliance: Ronald Reagan.
Three years before Sanders visited Yaroslavl, President Reagan met with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneva to sign a cultural agreement. The 1985 agreement sought to improve relations between Americans and Soviets, and it was a notable turnaround for a president who had vigorously opposed a policy of detente.
As part of that agreement, Reagan explicitly cited the benefits of sister-city arrangements.
“Why shouldn’t I propose to Mr. Gorbachev at Geneva that we exchange many more of our citizens from fraternal, religious, educational and cultural groups?” Reagan said in November 1985, adding, “We could look to increase scholarship programs, improve language studies, conduct courses in history, culture, and other subjects, develop new sister cities, establish libraries and cultural centers, and, yes, increase athletic competition.”
A handful of sister-city relationships between the United States and the Soviet Union were launched in the 1970s, with five existing by 1977, according to Sister Cities International. But most of them failed to survive later events, including the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the U.S. Olympic boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. One that did remain was between Seattle and the city of Tashkent.
Efforts to rekindle such exchanges increased in the 1980s, with a handful of local governments pursuing them. Among them were Takoma Park, Md., Fredericksburg, Va., and Vista, Calif.
The effort got a big shot in the arm with the 1985 Geneva agreement between Reagan and Gorbachev, and by the time of a 1989 U.S.-Soviet Sister Cities Conference, there were 36, according to SCI.
Sanders isn’t even the only current U.S. senator who was seeking a sister city in the Soviet Union at the time. Then-San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein looked to pair her city with Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in 1986, though the effort was suspended over the Soviet Union’s treatment of Jews.
As that example shows, the efforts weren’t without controversy. But it’s important to point out that this was an initiative of the Reagan administration that was encouraged and facilitated at the highest levels of U.S. government. And even as some U.S. cities were rejecting them over human rights concerns, the administration doubled down, saying human rights had to factor in but that they should press forward.
“One of our objectives is to get people out of the Soviet Union to take a look at us over here,” Stephen Rhinesmith, the head of Reagan’s U.S.-Soviet Exchange Initiative, told the New York Times in May 1987.
Rhinesmith’s office did warn people against forging ties with the Soviet Union via certain organizations, and it was acknowledged that such exchanges could be exploited by the Soviets. As the Christian Science Monitor reported in early 1988:
One of the documents reviewed by the Times says, “One of the most useful channels, in practice, for actively carrying out information-propaganda efforts has proved to be sister-city contact.”
The Times reports that Sanders coordinated his sister-city effort through an organization in Virginia and worked with Yuri Menshikov, a government official charged with organizing cultural exchanges.
Its report quotes Sanders’s campaign, stating that this was the kind of arrangement that the Reagan administration supported. (“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 Sanders spokesman said.) But it otherwise doesn’t dwell upon how much the federal government facilitated this kind of thing. Against the backdrop of Sanders’s controversial comments about the Soviets and other socialist and authoritarian regimes and his “honeymoon” in the Soviet Union, you could certainly come away believing Sanders was some kind of renegade local mayor playing into the Soviets’ hands.
Sanders did arguably give the Soviets something for their trouble. The Associated Press had reported that there were food shortages and no hot water in Yaroslavl. “People there seemed reasonably happy and content,” Sanders responded. “I didn’t notice much deprivation.”
When Bernie Sanders returned from a trip to the Soviet Union in 1988, he was asked about a recent AP report of no hot water or food in one of the towns he visited:
But the Reagan administration knew that the Soviets would try to use these exchanges for propaganda, and it still encouraged them. It was a balance that it sought to strike between that and improving relations. Whether Sanders struck the right balance is for people to decide. But he wasn’t alone.
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