On January 28 2019, a video of what appeared to be video of a shirtless Bernie Sanders at a dinner party in Russia in 1988 surfaced on Twitter:
BREAKING: @SenSanders like you’ve never seen him!!
Bernie and Jane on their honeymoon in Russia singing “This land is Your Land” with their Russian comrades!!
Trigger Warning: Bernie is sitting at a table shirtless in his briefs. So are most of the rest of the men… pic.twitter.com/2DPyDY2WV0
— m. mendoza ferrer (@mgranville1) January 28, 2019
In the clip, a camera in a darkened room pans around a table of women and shirtless men. Initially, the attendees sing a different song; when it concludes, a woman at the table says that Russians “have a tradition,” adding that one side of the table sings a song and then the other side sings their own song when the first side finishes. At that point, several people at the table begin singing Woody Guthrie’s 1940 song “This Land Is Your Land.”
The footage essentially raised two questions: was it authentic and unaltered, and what were its overall implications? The original poster said that the footage had come from a Vermont public television archive. As a long-serving mayor of Burlington, Vermont, Sanders’ activities throughout the years were documented by local television stations:
CCTV – Bernie apparently loved being taped by VT community television. This one was like hitting the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow – it was buried deep in an archived compilation. I’m like a dog with a bone when it comes to finding my #receipts
A provided link to Channel 17/Town Meeting Television and CCTV Center for Media & Democracy’s “CCTV Archive Compilation” led to a longer clip, some of which consisted of that particular footage.
Sanders’ 1988 visit to Russia was extensively documented during his 2016 campaign. Both the trip and 2016 mention of it came before the larger controversy of Russian interference in the general election that same year. Archival footage from the same Vermont-based outlet, recorded in June 1988 and republished in 2016, featured Sanders discussing his trip along with other members of the delegation at length.
In 2015, PolitiFact examined scrutiny of the excursion, noting that “the Soviet Union was barely intact at the time of the trip.” As PolitiFact noted, use of the 1988 trip as a smear was not new:
Sanders and his wife, Jane Sanders, spent their first days as newlyweds in the Soviet Union, claims George Will in a recent Washington Post column … We wanted to see if Sanders actually honeymooned on the turf of the United States’ former adversary during the final years of the Cold War.
The trip took place while Sanders was mayor of Burlington, Vt., from 1981 to 1989. Toward the end of his mayoral tenure, the small city on Lake Champlain launched a sister-city program with Yaroslavl, located 160 miles northeast of Moscow.
The program, which is still operating today, has facilitated exchanges between the two cities involving “mayors, business people, firefighters, jazz musicians, youth orchestras, mural painters, high school students, medical students, nurses, librarians and the (Yaroslavl) ice-hockey team,” according to its website.
Along with sister-city relationships with Bethlehem in the West Bank and Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua, the Yaroslavl program was part of Sanders’ unorthodox attempt to take on international issues from a small city in New England. Sanders also actively pursued his agenda outside of the country, writing letters to world leaders and even traveling to Cuba to meet with the mayor of Havana.
Will made it sound as if Sanders was visiting to condone Soviet torture practices, but the Burlington trip was more of a dialogue-building exchange program. The Vermont weekly newspaper Seven Days reported in 2009 that the sister-city relationship “helped local residents who sought to ease tensions between the United States and Soviet Union by initiating citizen-to-citizen exchanges with a Russian city.”
Republican candidates like Lindsey Graham also referenced the trip critically in 2015.
Kremlin propaganda outlet RT.com reported on a debate in which Graham mocked Sanders (and included Sanders’ response):
Sanders now contends, however, that Graham was just taking an easy shot at him, and that it wasn’t a honeymoon at all.
“I think that’s a little silly [and] absurd,” Sanders told MSNBC’s Thomas Roberts.
“Do you think that Sen. Graham is trying to imply that you are some type of communist sympathizer?” Roberts asked him.
“Yes, that’s exactly what he’s trying to do,” Sanders replied. “The fact is that I went to establish a sister city program with Yaroslavl, then in the Soviet Union, now an important city in Russia, which is still in existence today.”
“Did it take place after my marriage? It did,” he added.
None of the accounts spreading the clip mentioned that Sanders was visiting the country “as part of an official delegation in his capacity as mayor.” However, we located a Reddit post shared to r/pics in April 2016, titled “Bernie Sanders in Russian banya – Yaroslavl, Russia, 1988.” That post included a source and pegged the location of the depicted party as a banya, a culturally significant meeting place in Slavic countries.
Based on an image which circulated in April 2016 and the provenance of the clip, footage of Bernie Sanders at a party in Russia in 1988 is almost certainly real. Other images clearly show Sanders at the same banya with the same woman. However, the context of Sanders’ post-wedding trip to the USSR in 1988 was absent in many of the tweets circulating in 2019. Not only was his visit to Russia three decades prior extensively documented and previously used as a smear, an image of the events in the footage circulated in 2016. The footage itself may have been newly discovered (or rediscovered), but the visit to the banya certainly was not.
Update [February 1 2019, 10:31 AM]: VTDigger.com spoke to John Franco for their piece (“Sanders’ shirtless vodka video from 1988 Soviet trip goes viral”). Franco was present on Sanders’ 1988 USSR visit, and he said:
According to Franco, the event videotaped was a send off party/dinner sponsored by officials in Yaroslavl on the last night of the trip. It was held, he said, at a spa where the guests took part in a Russian tradition of going into hot and cold pools after having their backs hit with eucalyptus and birch leaves. The guest then wrapped themselves in sheets before sharing a buffet style dinner and toasts, Franco said, noting Sanders did not drink.
“This is why social media is such toxic horseshit,” Franco said.