In June 1988, Mayor Bernie Sanders led a delegation of Burlington city officials on a 10-day cultural exchange trip to the Soviet cities of Moscow, Leningrad, and Yaroslavl. The trip’s primary goal was to form a sister-city relationship with Yaroslavi, an ancient community on the Volga River located 150 miles Northeast of Moscow with a population of 500,000.
The excursion was organized amid the Reagan and Gorbachev “Superpower Summit” in the Soviet Union. Sanders said the sister-city relationship could result in a steady exchange of programs between Burlington and Yaroslavi to establish peace at the city level, particularly to educate younger generations on communicating with people from different cultures.
“It seems that at a time when we are spending $1 trillion on weaponry and in which we have the capability now of destroying each other a dozen times over, it is absolutely imperative that people from different countries with different ideologies begin the process of sitting down and communicating face to face,” Sander said.
Although the Board of Aldermen unanimously agreed with the effort to build relations with the Soviet Union, some had concerns about the city tax dollars paying salaries for the delegation. The 12-member delegation paid an estimated $1500 each in travel expenses for the trip but received their regular city salaries. Their days overseas would not count as vacation time. Mayor Sanders believed that this was the proper way to draw the line.
City Treasurer Jonathan Leopold supported Sanders’ decision. “I’d much rather see the city sending city employees (to the Soviet Union) who are working for world peace and to prevent nuclear war than sending city employees to airport conferences, snow plowing conferences, and parks and management conferences, which are relatively less important than the question of world peace.”
In October 1988, Yaroslavl Mayor Alexander Ryabkov arrived in Burlington with Yuri Novikov from their city’s medical college and Sergi Verkhovets, director of a machine factory, for a six-day visit. The Soviet delegation visited City Hall for a welcome reception and later toured several stores on Church Street. The trip was a great success in establishing a sister-city relationship later that year.
Ryabkov said in a speech at City Hall that the better relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union made their trip possible. “Frankly speaking, three years ago, we did not dream that we should come here to the United States of America.” He told city officials that despite ideological and political differences between the two societies, “we have the possibility to meet with each other and to develop a relationship with each other.”
The Mayors signed an agreement at City Hall bonding the two cities. Sanders said such agreements offer people from both countries a chance to “reverse the trends of history in which more and more money is being spent on weapons of destruction while enormous human needs are being unfulfilled.” The sister-city relationship has no time limit.
Sanders added, “I hope that what we are signing today is the beginning of something that for years to come will blossom and involve hundreds if not thousands of people.”