Democratic presidential front-runner Bernie Sanders likes to market himself as a wise old man who just happens to have clown hair but is right about everything, such as the War in Iraq. Yet his opposition to the Iraq War was dictated not by cool-headed geopolitical calculations, but the lifelong habit of romancing American enemies — as is typical for communism-lovers.
The recently surfaced press conference Sanders gave following his return from his honeymoon in Yaroslavl, USSR, is a great example of leftist naïveté about totalitarian regimes. For Bernie to fawn over Soviet culture the way he did indicates a staggering degree of incuriosity. I was only 15 and growing up in Kharkiv, now Ukraine, when the couple visited the USSR, and I’m not impressed when I watch Sanders sing Moscow’s praises
Start with the metro. Sanders said at the time, “The stations themselves were very beautiful, including many works of art, chandeliers that were beautiful. It was a very, very effective system.”
It’s slightly creepy that Joseph Stalin initiated the tradition of building chthonian palaces underneath Soviet cities. The stations are beautiful, no doubt, but effectiveness is a whole different matter. Coverage was so-so, and the rush hour commute was a nightmare, so Sanders’ classification of the stations as “effective” is puzzling. People stuffed into trains like sardines.
More importantly, metros were only built in cities with populations exceeding one million. Investing money into extravagant projects makes sense if the goal is to dazzle foreigners, but it’s also highly unwise considering that the condition of roads across Russia has always been atrocious. Traveling in the USSR, especially in provincial towns such as Yaroslavl, Sanders, an American man with a driver license, would take note of the state of the infrastructure — one would think.
Free Theaters That Nobody Wants to Visit
Their palaces of culture for the young people, a whole variety of programs for the young people, and cultural programs which go far beyond what we do in this country. We went to a theater in Yaroslavl which was absolutely beautiful, had three separate stages. Their cultural programs were put together by professional actors and actresses, including a puppeteer area. And the cost, the highest price of the ticket you can get was equivalent of $1.50.
It’s true that the Soviet Union subsidized all sorts of cultural programming for children, such as theaters and youth culture palaces with after-school enrichment programs. Unfortunately, in a socialist economy, that type of institution existed without any feedback from the markets.
I was part of the generation that took yearly field trips to the Theater of The Young Viewer. Ticket costs aside, there was just one such stage in the city, plus the Puppet Theater for the younger kids, and not a lot of demand for the shows. I don’t think American cultural programming is in any way inferior, albeit the cost to the consumer might be higher.
When I was 10, I started taking the metro across town to a children’s palace where the after-school activities were offered. The palace, a beautiful pre-revolutionary structure, was named after Stalin’s henchman Pavel Postyshev. Postyshev presided over Red Terror, purges, and Holodomor, before himself falling victim to Stalinist repressions.
Toward the end of his life, the executioner, by then an alcoholic, was displaying symptoms of paranoia. He once decided that the flame drawn on the box of matches resembled the profile of Leon Trotsky and that sausages, when cut, have swirls similar to swastikas. He ordered the confiscation of all matches and a purge of the grocery.
My generation of Soviets came of age knowing that the USSR was built on tyranny and lies. We are the most cynical generation in Russian history. Once the country crumbled, our lives spun out of control. As a result, Russian speakers my age suffered through high rates of substance abuse, low life expectancies, and through-the-floor birth rates. On the plus side, we grew up with gaudy chandeliers in public places.
The Incurious Nature of Bernie and Jane
Bernie’s bride, Jane, picked up where her husband left off:
We were astounded with the openness, the optimism, the enthusiasm in the nation. … What struck me the most was the way that they dealt with children, and the cultural life of their community. As Howard [another man on the trip] mentioned, they put the money into public facilities, and they have palaces of culture which are paid for strictly by trade union dues, and those have movies and dances, and those have a lot of artistic outlets for people — for instance, they might become members of an orchestra and study to play an instrument and perform, and when they go off on performances, it seems not as — not something as they are doing on their own, and they need to take vacation time from work, but it’s seen as providing and contributing to the community life, so it becomes part of their work instead of compartmentalizing their life into job and hobbies. It’s all interrelated, and it’s all under the banner of community involvement.
The First-World problem Jane is trying to solve here is called “the fractured modern man,” and you wouldn’t know it was a problem until you took a fair number of college classes. I mean, is it really that bad to have a job and a hobby?
Her talk of “community involvement” is rather ridiculous, considering she visited a country with a very low level of trust, no meaningful civic culture, and lots of alcoholism. When the workday was over, most Soviet people didn’t go to culture palaces that they viewed as an extension of their work life. They didn’t practice violin. They went moonlighting, making money on the side, or shopping, a time-consuming process, or otherwise cared for their families.
Also drinking or maybe watching a foreign movie at the cinema — the USSR bought a limited number of those, but drinking was a favorite pastime. Alcohol consumption doubled from 1955 to 1979.
Nobody knows what paid for the construction and maintenance of Soviet culture palaces. In a planned economy with its web of subsidies and bribery, such things are not transparent. The trade union fees, however, were levied on everyone enrolled in a trade union, meaning every worker, because all those employed by the government were automatically enrolled in one, and everyone worked for the government — or at least pretended to. As the Soviet joke went, “We pretend we work, and they pretend they pay us.”
To be in awe of those palaces of culture performances in the late ’80s, a visitor would have to be really, really — I mean really — incurious. I understand the Sanderses went on their honeymoon surrounded by the KGB minders, but wow! The newlyweds were shown performance venues, but did they make an effort to meet an artist? Their tour was literally a Potemkin excursion through the Soviet Union: the best of architecture, no real people.
The Watchful Eye of the Censor
The late ’80s was a difficult time, when the economy had suffered as the country struggled to compete with U.S. military spending. But it was also an incredibly exciting time because Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost provided an opportunity to learn about the country’s past and discuss a whole universe of new ideas. Jane Sanders is right that there was much enthusiasm and openness in the country, and ordinary people were eager to meet Americans. The Sanderses let them down by staying with their minders.
And the culture palaces? Through most of Soviet history, those were the sanctuaries for second-tier Soviet culture — amateurish and produced under the watchful eye of the censor. Top-level Soviet performers didn’t start in provincial adult education classes; they were groomed in major cities starting in early childhood.
The kind of entertainment Soviet people wanted most wasn’t created by youth puppeteers, either. A handful of officially produced Russian-speaking stars remained popular among people of all ages. Many of those born after World War II developed a preference for Western performers and homegrown underground acts. Recordings of banned performers were bootlegged from friend to friend and sometimes pressed on X-ray vinyl film — “na kostyah” or “on the bones.” A few Western performers, most notably David Bowie, were allowed to tour the USSR. Soviet bands usually played concerts in apartments.
After a smuggled recording of Soviet underground rock was released in the West, Gorbachev reportedly said, “Why can’t we do it here?” Shortly after, artists featured on the recording got contracts with the sole Soviet recording company, Melodia. Stadiums and other official performance venues opened for musicians who had endured years of prosecution, including being fired from work, expelled from official youth organizations, and sentenced to prison terms.
Bernie Sanders Is Hopelessly Naive
That was happening when Bernie went to the USSR. Yet with all his excitement about chandeliers, puppeteers, and the KGB-sanctioned rehearsal spaces, he completely missed the zeitgeist. The Vermont communism-lover was as close to liberation as he could ever get, but he chose to bond with his minders. And millennial hipsters think he’s cool.
He is a special kind of tourist known to Russians. The “tell me something nice about your country” tourist, the “surely the bad things I’ve heard are all CIA propaganda” tourist, which is one grade below the “let’s be nuanced about your situation” tourist.
That said, the attitude toward those types of people was generally positive. They were still American, still in blue jeans, and they could tell us a thing or two about the music. We believed them to be basically well-intentioned but hopelessly naïve.
After moving to the United States, I no longer believe Bernie-types to be well-intentioned. Regardless, the man who could be led astray that easily should never be the president of the United States.