In 1988, Ronald Reagan visited Moscow to finalize a key arms treaty as US–Russian relations continued to warm in what would be the waning days of the Cold War.
Just a couple weeks later, Bernie Sanders and nearly a dozen other Vermonters called a press conference to talk about their own recent trip to the Soviet Union — 10 days in three cities, visits to schools and factories, and an authentic banya session, complete with vodka and patriotic singing. Sanders gushed about the Moscow Metro and the low price of theater in Yaroslavl, with which he was working to set up sister city status with Burlington, of which he was mayor. Reporters asked how much that would cost, and if anyone they met over there had thoughts about Sanders being a socialist (not realizing, perhaps, that by that time in the Soviet Union any ideological fervor was long gone). And then, just as everyone was ready to pack it in, a reporter asked, kind of quietly: “Of anybody you met, was anyone familiar with Vermont?” The reporter continued: “When you said you’re from Vermont, they said, ‘Oh yeah, Solzhenitsyn,’ right?”
Sanders remained silent, but his wife Jane jumped in: “Yes! Yes! Yes!”
This little exchange hasn’t made it into most of the stories about the Sanders’ Soviet adventure. The media usually treats the trip as a comedic piece of trivia that accentuates just how outside the mainstream Sanders has always been — the honeymooners take Yaroslavl! — rather than part of a complicated tradition of lefties visiting the USSR and what they chose to pay attention to and what they chose to ignore.
But back then, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was one of those people easily recognized by their last name only. In Cavendish, Vermont, the tiny picturesque town he called home for nearly two decades, people still talk proudly about how they refused to give out the address of a man who fiercely guarded his privacy, despite the many reporters, fans, and gawkers who traveled far to see him. “He liked Vermont because he was looking for a place with a long cold winter to remind him of home, where he could do his writing in an undisturbed environment,” said Bruce McEnaney, the sexton of the town (population: 1,380). “And that's what the people in town gave him. Nature gave him the snow and the people in town gave him his space.”
Born one year after the Bolshevik Revolution, Solzhenitsyn was arrested in 1945 for making jokes about Stalin in letters to a friend. He was sentenced to eight years in the brutal labor camp network known as the Gulag, and then permanent internal exile in Kazakhstan, which was then a part of the Soviet Union. He was one of millions who suffered that fate, but he wrote about it, and beautifully, in the form of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. The novella was the first to expose the Soviet camps — and describe its daily brutalities — in literature, and it was devoured both at home and abroad. “It was so incendiary that, when it appeared, many Soviet readers thought that government censorship had been abolished,” the writer’s biographer wrote.
The onslaught from the state began almost right away. The Communist Party’s newspaper, Pravda, called him “alien and hostile to the entire life of the Soviet people.” His subsequent works — In the First Circle and Cancer Ward — were banned from being published at home, and read as samizdat (secretly self-published works) instead. The state increasingly did not know what to do with him.
Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970 — but didn’t travel to Sweden for the ceremony, worried that the Soviets wouldn’t let him back in.
In the meantime, he had been receiving hundreds of letters — “an explosion of letters from the whole of Russia” — in response to Ivan Denisovich as people told him of their own experiences inside the camps. According to Solzhenitsyn’s widow, he then felt a “moral duty” to expose the system more broadly, and undertook a “literary investigation” that became The Gulag Archipelago, his most comprehensive and celebrated book. (As David Remnick put it in 2003: “It is impossible to name a book that had a greater effect on the political and moral consciousness of the late twentieth century.”) In three volumes, he wrote about the Gulag to a degree it had never been written about before. The work was published in France, as it was still banned at home, but it proved too much for the Soviet authorities. “Everyone is watching us to see what we will do with Solzhenitsyn — if we will mete out punishment to him or if we will just leave him alone,” Yuri Andropov, then the head of the KGB, said, according to Politburo minutes cited by Remnick. “I maintain that we must take legal action and bring the full force of Soviet law against him.”
In 1974, Solzhenitsyn was stripped of his citizenship and forced into exile. Thus began a global media hunt to see where the writer, by this time 55 and sporting his signature wise man beard, would land. First it was Frankfurt, then Zurich. Within a couple of years, though, he appeared to home in on somewhere unexpected. On Sept. 9, 1976, the Eagle Times, a paper that serves Vermont and New Hampshire, ran a story headlined: “Exiled Soviet Author Solzhenitsyn May Make Cavendish His Home.” Two days later, the New York Times wrote: “Secluded Vermont Estate May Be Solyzhenitsyn’s Home.” In January the following year, the Washington Post had a piece about “Solzhenitsyn’s Quest for Solitude.” By March, he had settled in down a wooded road in the tiny Vermont town of Cavendish, and the stories read more like “Solzhenitsyn Tells Neighbors He Regrets Causing Commotion.” For a while there were regular stories on his desire to put up a fence.
By the time Sanders visited the USSR, though, Solzhenitsyn's stark accounts of the Gulag and Soviet cruelty had helped open a schism within the intellectual left about how to reconcile the brutal legacy of communism with the dream of socialist revolution. And by then, the American political visit to the Soviet Union had a long, tortured history of truth, belief, and deception. For decades, the USSR courted American dissidents — many of whom had deep, correct criticisms of the US government's racist subjugation of black citizens — and presented many with a false view of Soviet egalitarianism.
What were the odds that one of the most prominent Soviet dissidents was living in, of all places, Bernie Sanders’s small state? The world felt bigger in the ’80s, distances larger and borders harder to pierce. The country was split between those who thought the USSR posed the gravest threat to US security and values, and those who thought that was wildly overblown. Solzhenitsyn refused to be boxed in. In 1975, he gave two major speeches to the AFL–CIO denouncing communism (in Washington, he was introduced as “the single figure who has raised highest the flame of liberty”). Three years later, he gave the commencement address at Harvard — a rousing call to the pursuit of truth but also a vicious indictment of his new home, with its ruthless capitalism and inequality, its addiction to pop culture, the flaws in its press and politicians. No one knew what to make of this man, who seemed to have harsh words for everything but God (he was deeply Russian Orthodox) and non-Soviet Russia (he was supremely nationalistic, which fueled accusations of anti-Semitism later in life, which his supporters denied).
“Truth seldom is pleasant,” Solzhenitsyn told the Harvard graduates. “It is almost invariably bitter.”
When Sanders returned from the Soviet Union, he talked of how impressed he was with what he felt to be people’s openness to criticize their own society, but Solzhenitsyn remained blacklisted, his work banned, his exile in force. Five months after Sanders got back, the Kremlin’s top ideologist said that “to publish Solzhenitsyn’s work is to undermine the foundations on which our present life rests.”
Despite living just a couple hours away from each other, Sanders and Solzhenitsyn never met. People aren’t particularly interested in speculating as to why they never did, either.
The senator’s campaign declined to comment for this story. The writer died in 2008. “I cannot recall any such contact; no communication, and certainly no substantive exchange, such as a visit or meeting between Mr. Sanders and my husband,” Natalia Solzhenitsyn wrote in an email, and declined to comment further on Sanders. In 1994, on the other side of the Soviet Union’s fall, Aleksandr and Natalia Solzhenitsyn had returned to Russia.
In the town the couple left behind, the Cavendish Historical Society has meticulously organized a tribute to the writer. There are old books and photographs of the Solzhenitsyn family, decades of newspaper clippings, and at least one memento (a chair), among other relics and keepsakes from Cavendish’s 250-plus-year history — an old flag, a butter churner, typewriters, and antique cash registers. “I remember hearing about the Holocaust and I would think, ‘How do you survive something like this?’” said Margo Caulfield, who runs the historical society. “And I read Ivan Denisovich and had my answer.” Before moving to Cavendish in 1991, Caulfield worked as a health practitioner in Baltimore at the height of the AIDS crisis, and found solace in Solzhenitsyn’s ability to survive the worst. “In spite of all he went through he remained an optimistic person.”
That was when a Soviet dissident had the ability to break into US public opinion. These days, nearly 30 years after the fall of the Soviet Union and with all that’s happened since — 9/11 and the Iraq War, in particular — many in the US have forgotten a lot of the once-well-worn conversations about the Soviet Union and communism. In political ways, we almost treat Sanders as though he emerged from Han Solo carbonite in the spring of 2015, as though he were a singular figure in the 1980s, divorced from any broader context about what it meant to be a socialist visiting the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Even in 1988, after Mikhail Gorbachev launched perestroika and glasnost in a bid to bring some sort of modernity to the USSR, visiting the country involved reconciling ideals and propaganda abroad, and harsh politics at home.
From the beginning, those politics were more harshly inflicted upon black Americans, who felt the full weight of punishment from both the US government and a culture steeped in fear of communism. Often, those white people who went to the Soviet Union were celebrated as bridge builders, like Samantha Smith, an 11-year-old girl who accepted an invitation to visit the Soviet Union in 1983 after writing a letter to Yuri Andropov, the leader at the time, seeking peace. She was welcomed back with appearances on the Today show and Donahue. (Smith later died in a plane crash.)
Decades prior, the Soviet government did outreach of a different kind, wooing black Americans by highlighting the (very real) racist system in the US as a sign of the ills of capitalism in general, and the US in particular.
Hundreds of black Americans moved to the Soviet Union to work following the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. Then, in 1932, a group of 22 black US citizens, including the poet Langston Hughes, famously went to Moscow to film a movie about race (that was, in the end, never made). When Hughes was called to testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, as fears over Soviet influence reached their extreme domestic apotheosis, he was asked, by Sen. Everett Dirksen, “Would you care to tell us whether you have traveled to the Soviet Union?”
Paul Robeson, the singer and actor, was also called before HUAC, to discuss his work and many visits to the Soviet Union. Unlike Hughes, he was a full-fledged believer throughout and until the end, telling the Daily Worker during a visit in 1935: “This is home to me,” before reveling in “this utter absence of any embarrassment over a ‘race question.’ ... It is obvious that there is no terror here, that all the masses of every race are contented and support their government." (Four years later, in 1939, Lovett Fort-Whiteman, a prominent member of the US Communist Party and the first national organizer of its black arm, the American Negro Labor Congress, died of starvation in the Gulag after being suspected of counterrevolutionary sentiments during Stalin’s purges. He had been visiting and then living in the Soviet Union for years.) Even before he was called before HUAC, Robeson’s support for the Soviet Union destroyed his career at home.
And then there was activist and professor Angela Davis, who became a star in the Soviet Union as she awaited trial on charges related to the deadly 1970 attack on a Marin County courthouse. She repaid the support with a visit to the Soviet Union in 1972 to receive an honorary doctorate from Russia’s leading university, and followed up in 1979 to accept the Lenin Peace Prize. “There’s a certain woman here named Angela Davis. I don’t know if you are familiar with her in this country, but in our country, literally for one whole year, we heard of nothing at all except about Angela Davis,” Solzhenitsyn told the AFL–CIO crowd in New York. (He criticized her for not speaking up for Czech political prisoners — this was still in the wake of the Prague Spring, when the Soviets crushed Czechoslovakia’s “socialism with a human face” — when she had spoken up so loudly at home.)
Speaking to the union audience, Solzhenitsyn saw a global solidarity among workers, but called out those who refused to embrace others — among prisoners, for example, or those who valued freedom. He praised the AFL–CIO for calling out the Soviet Union’s horrors (its “concentration camps” in particular), and had no time for those who didn’t. (“The leaders of the British trade unions are free to play the unworthy game of visiting Russia’s so-called trade unions and receiving visits in return,” he told the crowd. “But the AFL–CIO has never given in to these illusions.” He was met with applause.)
Sometimes it was true belief and willful blindness that caused some among the left to embrace the Soviet Union, and sometimes it was fear of being grouped in with a right whose own criticism of the USSR verged on the cartoonish (reaching its peak in the Red Scare at home). Susan Sontag sought to call that out, in 1982, and caused what amounted to a civil war in the left. “I have the impression that much of what is said about politics by people on the so-called democratic left — which includes many people here tonight — has been governed by the wish not to give comfort to ‘reactionary’ forces,” she told the crowd at New York’s Town Hall, which included everyone from Gore Vidal to Kurt Vonnegut. “We were unwilling to identify ourselves as anti-communists because that was the slogan of the right, the ideology of the Cold War and, in particular, the justification of America’s support of fascist dictatorships in Latin America and of the American war on Vietnam.
“We thought we loved justice; many of us did,” she continued. “But we did not love the truth enough. Which is to say that our priorities were wrong. The result was that many of us, and I include myself, did not understand the nature of the communist tyranny. We tried to distinguish among communisms — for example, treating ‘Stalinism,’ which we disavowed, as if it were an aberration, and praising other regimes, outside of Europe, which had and have essentially the same character.”
That’s the tack that Sanders took, buying into the myth that the Bolshevik Revolution and Russia’s embrace of communism would have been just fine had murderous Stalin not appeared on the scene, with his labor camps and purges, his late-night kidnappings of innocents, his brutal erasure of enemies and allies alike.
But that is not the true history of the Bolshevik Revolution, which is one of mass terror, executions of political prisoners and wealthy farmers alike, and a ruthless secret police from the very start. Stalin may have made widest use of the Gulag (through which, by the end, around 20 million Societ citizens would pass), but it was founded under Lenin (he and Leon Trotsky preferred the term kontslager, or “concentration camp,” as early as 1918). That has been written out of the left’s history of the USSR.
Speaking at that press conference after he got back from Moscow, St. Petersburg (then known as Leningrad), and Yaroslavl (which had once hosted its own camp for political prisoners), Sanders offered the following observation, a sort of soliloquy on communism. It came after he reveled repeatedly in his surprise and happiness at seeing the degree of self-criticism people were allowed to express — their acknowledgment that yes, they had free health care, but their equipment was crap; yes, they had free housing, but not good quality and not enough. And then he said this: “At least some of the people that we met, from some of their lips, I was very impressed by their desire to become a democratic society and to move forward into some of the early visions of their revolution — what their revolution was about in 1917. They understand that they have had, in many ways, a dismal history since then, and they want to go back to some of their early visions. And we certainly wish them well in that.”
Thanks in large part to Sanders’s first run at the presidential nomination, campaigning on socialism in 2019 is no longer subversive. But an ahistorical socialism has become a catchphrase, designed to mark oneself as progressive, while engaging little with the realities of what it actually means and meant. It’s not hard to understand why the word brings a rush of support today — anger with capitalism over rising income inequality, the continuing aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, the fact that dealing with some of our era’s biggest challenges will inescapably pit the public interest (battling climate change) against private ones (oil companies), the ascension of a populist president who is a flashback to the height of 1980s-era glitz and greed.
Sanders himself took that route in an interview 30 years ago. “Socialism has a lot of different messages to different people,” Sanders told Catherine Alison Hill, then a student at Cornell writing a thesis on his failed 1986 campaign for governor. “I think the issue of socialist ideology and what that meant or means is not terrible important. I think the positive of it is that it indicates to people that I am not a conventional politician.”
Then, as now, Sanders campaigned on socialism, trying to set himself apart by articulating a vision of a more radical equality in this country, and a more peaceful approach to the world (before he sought out sister city status with Yaroslavl, he did the same with Puerto Cabezas in Nicaragua).
But in the 1980s, many socialists in the US weren’t good at separating the fearmongering in the US from the very real life-or-death issues that plagued the Soviet Union, and Sanders was no exception.
And so he went to the USSR, and didn’t visit the dissident up the road.
There was a way to visit the Soviet Union the right way. Take feminist poet and thinker Audre Lorde, who traveled to Moscow and Uzbekistan (then a Soviet republic) in 1976, the only American invited to the Union of Soviet Writers' Afro-Asian Writers' Conference. She praised the government’s stated policy of multiculturalism but contrasted that with the reality on the ground. She wrote in Notes From a Trip to Russia: “I felt that there were many things we were not seeing.” She was excited that the Soviet Union promised to put people, as opposed to profit, “at the core,” but, she wrote, “I am not always convinced that human beings are at the core here, either.” ●