Critics of Bernie Sanders’s trip to the Soviet Union are distorting itRoundup
tags: Cold War, Soviet Union, Bernie Sanders, 2020 Election
Yana Skorobogatov is an assistant professor of Russian and Soviet history at Williams College.
Yakov Feygin is the 2017-2018 Postdoctoral Fellow in History and Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School's Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, where he researches the history of Soviet economic reform and the economic and political history of financial globalization.
Artemy M. Kalinovsky is senior lecturer in East European studies at the University of Amsterdam and the author, most recently, of "Laboratory of Socialist Development: Cold War Politics and Decolonization in Soviet Tajikistan."
Bernie Sanders’s rise to front-runner status in the Democratic primary has prompted renewed scrutiny of favorable statements Sanders made about socialist dictatorships in the 1980s (comments he has since defended) and, in particular, his 1988 trip to the Soviet Union.
Sanders’s critics complain that the senator’s compliments of certain aspects of the Soviet Union ignore and minimize that country’s horrible crimes. However, the story is more complicated than they acknowledge. The Soviet Union of 1988 was no longer the Stalinist dictatorship it once was, nor was it even the Brezhnev-era oligarchy that preceded it. Rather, Sanders’s trip to the U.S.S.R. came when the country under Mikhail Gorbachev was taking radical steps to democratize, and U.S. leaders on both sides of the aisle were encouraging such changes. Understood in this context, Sanders’s remarks show a desire to challenge stereotypes and end the Cold War — not support for authoritarianism.
Beginning in the late 1970s, the Cold War dramatically hardened, reversing thaws of the prior decade. Clashes over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, human rights and arms control brought the Soviet Union and the United States to the brink of military confrontation. Ronald Reagan adopted a hard-line strategy to what he labeled “the evil empire”: Even when he wanted to ease tensions, Reagan found himself without a negotiating partner thanks to a rapid succession of aging Soviet leaders.
But with the rise of Gorbachev in 1985 came dramatic transformation. Gorbachev was ready to cast off years of orthodoxy at home and abroad. The new Soviet general secretary was eager to resume dialogue with the United States to both improve the security of the U.S.S.R. and to create room for what would turn into a radical set of domestic reforms.
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