Sen. Bernie Sanders and I don’t have a lot in common. We both lived in Vermont, where I was one of his constituents, but I never voted for him because I thought then, as I do now, that he’s a fundamentally unserious person whose far-left politics are ridiculous.
But it turns out we’ve both been to the Soviet Union. In fact, as a scholar of Soviet and Russian affairs, I visited the USSR and later the new Russia several times. (I even speak Russian, although I’m a bit rusty.) Now I find that I face the unwelcome possibility that for the first time I might have to vote for Sanders — for president, no less.
As a Soviet expert and a politically homeless Never Trump voter, I am certain of three things when it comes to Bernie and the Soviets. First, his comments about the USSR show that his judgment is terrible. Second, he will be unable to wave away his comments merely by appending “democratic” to his preferred version of Soviet ideology.
And third, the Republicans will weaponize his remarks, and this will likely cost him the election. Indeed, it would be professional malpractice if Trump’s campaign people passed up this chance. Were I still a Republican and hoping for a GOP win, I could write those ads myself.
Sanders sounded bamboozled
First, some context. Sanders visited Yaroslavl and other cities — another coincidence, since that is a city I’ve visited as well — in 1988, when the Cold War was nearly over. By that point, Mikhail Gorbachev had been in power for three years and had welcomed Ronald Reagan to Moscow after they both had signed a landmark nuclear arms treaty.
Still, Sanders came back sounding like he had been bamboozled, like so many other credulous Westerners who visited the USSR and took what they were shown by their hosts at face value. Some of the juicier quotes, like the wince-inducing praise of Soviet youth organizations, are already floating around on social media.
Here’s an example that has gone less noticed. It’s about health care, a subject vital to the Democrats.
Sanders was amazed at the open “self-criticism” of his Soviet hosts, who admitted that the USSR was 10 or 15 years behind America in medical technology. This seems quite candid, if you didn’t know a thing about the Soviet Union. In reality, it was a perfect example of the sophisticated way in which the Soviets to the very end played a canny game of public relations.
Yes, health care was provided by the state. Sanders admired this, but that’s because he did not understand the reality of Soviet medical care. Perhaps he should have looked at it more closely.
A year after Sanders got home, I was part of a U.S.-Soviet cultural exchange group, which included an American doctor, and we carefully finagled a tour of a hospital. (My ability to do some translating helped me make the case for tagging along.) Strictly speaking, we were not supposed to be there, and so we donned white doctor jackets so we could move about the facility quietly with just a few of the Soviet physicians.
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What we saw was grisly. Patients draining their wounds into open jars of pus. Post-operative infections worse than the problem that required surgery. Reusable metal hypodermics, dirty bedclothes, untended patients wandering about dimly lit hallways.
I saw an operating theater with windows — to the outside. As I looked at the trees and grass while standing next to the surgical table, I asked: “Do you open these? Ever?” When it gets hot, the Soviet doctors replied, nodding.
The American doctor was polite and professional, but at one point he leaned over to me and whispered that this was where American medicine was … in 1890.
The point here isn’t that Sanders should have known more about medicine. Rather, he should have known more about the Soviet Union. Maybe the Soviet health care system was behind by a decade in the best Kremlin hospitals. In the rest of the country, it was behind by a full century.
I’ve taken one example from many in just one news conference, but there are others. “Let’s take the strengths of both systems,” Sanders said at one point. “Let’s learn from each other.” What should we learn? Here, he was less clear. He talked of the Soviet housing crisis — again, praising his hosts even for mentioning it — and then moved on to the price of cheap theater tickets in Yaroslavl. (“They put a lot of money into culture, they want people to enjoy it, and they deserve credit for that.”)
We can only be thankful that he wasn’t looking for ideas on prison reform.
Don’t force me into the Sanders corner
Sanders supporters are indignant and are already claiming that he has been misquoted. They’re wrong, but it doesn’t even matter. The few clips already making the rounds on social media are already more than enough ammo for the Republicans this fall.
To be clear, I am not criticizing Sanders for whooping it up and drinking with his Soviet hosts. I’ve been there and done that. I’ve killed multiple bottles of vodka with ordinary Soviet citizens and more than a few with people from Soviet officialdom, including arm-in-arm bouts of singing and talking into the wee hours. Sanders is right: They are a warm and ebullient people, and I don’t blame him one bit for enjoying himself in their company.
That is a different matter, however, than seeing the Soviet Union through the eyes of a fool.
If the Democrats force me into this corner, I will cast my vote for Sanders, because I will take a fool and his dreamy notions about the Soviet Union over Donald Trump and the mafia state he and people like Attorney General William Barr are busy creating in America. If by some miracle Sanders wins, he will be an ineffective and embarrassing president, but if that’s what it takes to rid us of the caudillo in the White House, so be it.
The more likely outcome is that Sanders loses. And when that happens, the Democrats will have no one to blame but themselves. In any case, a contest between Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders is the worst of all worlds and should fill us all with dread.
Pass the vodka, comrades.
Tom Nichols is a professor at the Naval War College, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and author of “The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters.” The views expressed here are solely his own. Follow him on Twitter: @RadioFreeTom