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Pond hockey propaganda How Bernie Sanders’s nefarious Burlington-Yaroslavl sister cities program is still bringing Russians and Americans together in Vermont

Source: Meduza
Ron DiMasi / Burlington/Yaroslavl Sister Cities Program

On March 5, the New York Times published a report and two accompanying behind-the-scenes pieces detailing efforts by Bernie Sanders, then the mayor of Burlington, Vermont, to establish a sister cities relationship with the city of Yaroslavl, then part of the Soviet Union. The report placed a distinct emphasis on the way Soviet officials aimed to use the relationship to promote perestroika-era government policy: In Russian, the word they used was “propaganda.” However, as current Burlington/Yaroslavl Sister Cities Program President Oliver Carling argues, “the Russian term ‘propaganda’ refers to any centrally generated message propagated to an audience. Thus, in Russian, one can refer to a public health campaign against smoking as ‘anti-smoking propaganda’ without pejorative connotation.” He did acknowledge, however, that “to be sure, Soviet and U.S. officials, including President Ronald Reagan, hoped that sister city relationships would serve as positive PR – propaganda in the Russian sense – and contribute to understanding and more peaceful relations.” To learn how the red scare of citizen diplomacy continues to scourge present-day Vermont, Meduza asked Carling to describe the most recent collaboration between Burlington and Yaroslavl: A traditional pond hockey tournament attended by the Bears, an amateur Yaroslavl hockey team.

Oliver S. Carling

President, Burlington/Yaroslavl Sister Cities Program, Inc.

The late 1980s were an exciting and promising time in U.S.-Soviet relations. The Soviet Union was opening up, and after decades of persistent fear of nuclear war, there was hope for the beginning of a new era of peaceful relations and cooperation. Many Americans were visiting the USSR on missions of peace in those days, including President Reagan himself and the Atlanta Hawks basketball team. It was more difficult for Soviet citizens to travel to the U.S. A delegation from Yaroslavl managed to come to Burlington in fall 1988, and as then-mayor Bernie Sanders and the visiting officials were signing documents that formalized the sister city relationship, I was taking my first Russian course as an undergraduate at nearby University of Vermont. Since then, over the decades, the Burlington-Yaroslavl program has facilitated exchanges among jazz and youth orchestra musicians, a theater troupe, students, business people, architects, doctors and nurses, journalists, librarians, firefighters — ordinary citizens from many walks of life and professions. 

A month ago, Burlington welcomed its latest delegation from Yaroslavl: an amateur hockey team (8 players in all), two representatives of the Russian-American Association of Yaroslavl (a non-commercial organization), and an interpreter from the Division of International Relations at Yaroslavl’s City Hall. The hockey team was registered to compete in the Lake Champlain Pond Hockey Classic, an annual tournament played on the ice of Malletts Bay. This would be our first project in sports diplomacy since 1991, when the visiting Yaroslavl team Torpedo played the UVM Men’s Hockey Team in an exhibition game at historic Gutterson Fieldhouse (the Gut).

Pond hockey, for the uninitiated, is a style of recreational outdoor hockey familiar in the northern US and Canada, but relatively new to Russia. Played according to rules that emphasize teamwork, puck-handling, and fun, pond hockey is open to players of all ages, genders, and skill levels. There is a spirit of fellowship among players and spectators, as everyone is outside in the open air, in whatever conditions winter might have in store.

Oliver Carling / Burlington/Yaroslavl Sister Cities Program

The Yaroslavl Bears — named for the traditional symbol of the city, a bear with a medieval spear on its shoulder — were professionals with day jobs, ranging in age from 26 to 45. The delegation was led by one of the players, Aleksandr Legus, Head of the Directorate of Physical Culture and Sport at the City of Yaroslavl, and the team captain was Yaroslav Melnikov, Director of the Regional Sports Training Center in the Yaroslavl Region. The Bears had played recreational hockey on a standard rink, but outdoor hockey on natural ice, in accordance with pond hockey equipment, rules, and traditions, would be an entirely new experience.

Ron DiMasi / Burlington/Yaroslavl Sister Cities Program

We met our visitors at their hotel – the team had spent a couple of days in New York City, where they caught a Rangers game and then drove up to Burlington in rental cars. Most were in the U.S. for the first time, excited to explore the country that they had only seen online, on TV, and in the movies. Following formal introductions and warm greetings on both sides, we headed out into the cold, bright day. Bob Kiss, former mayor of Burlington, led a tour of the historical downtown area and waterfront, and we popped into the ECHO Leahy Center museum and a nearby café to warm up and chat. The Yaroslavl Bears were somewhat alarmed to note that the lake was not frozen at the Burlington waterfront, its widest point. I assured the Bears that there would be thick ice at Malletts Bay, a shallow inlet to the north. Their worry was infectious, though, so the next day I made a stealthy side-trip to the tournament site to check the ice with my own eyes — and feet.

Following our walk downtown, we visited with Russian language students at the University of Vermont (UVM), eating together in a student dining hall, a cultural experience in itself; toured UVM’s athletic facilities, led by a UVM student and hockey player originally from Russia; and met with the UVM Women’s Hockey Team. The Bears presented the Women’s Team with a signed jersey of a women’s team in Yaroslavl, the Phoenix. The next day, the Bears practiced with the St. Michael’s College Men’s Hockey Team and were greeted at Burlington’s City Hall by Mayor Miro Weinberger, who very graciously accepted the gift of a signed jersey from Lokomotiv, Yaroslavl’s professional hockey team.

David Seaver / Burlington/Yaroslavl Sister Cities Program
Oliver Carling / Burlington/Yaroslavl Sister Cities Program

The tournament began with an 8:00 AM game on Friday, February 7, the day of a tremendous snowstorm, likely the largest of the winter. Before the game could start, both teams used scrapers – wide snow shovels, designed to be pushed by people on skates – to try to clear the ice. The effort was mostly in vain, as the snow was falling too quickly. The Bears, for the most part, faced younger opposition, former collegiate players in their twenties by the look of them. Games lasted only 32 minutes, including a two-minute halftime break, and were played four-on-four at a furious pace. Each team was guaranteed four games, two on day one and two on day two; those that advanced to the playoffs would play on the third and final day. Each team’s goal actually consisted of two tiny pockets with netting, simulating the corners of a regulation hockey goal; to guide the puck home, one had to deposit it there, essentially. To shoot from farther away was pointless, as the bumpy, ridged ice would simply redirect the puck. The Bears lost their first game and promptly repaired to Rozzi’s Lakeshore Tavern to discuss strategy. (As promptly as permitted by the weather, anyway: a rental minivan lost traction en route, and several Bears got out to push.) The Bears were not interested in food or beer, though Labatt’s Blue was a major sponsor of the tournament and there were discounted brews on offer. “Это потом” (“We’ll do that later”) was the answer – they had another game to play that morning.

During this tavern meeting, the Bears learned that they had a “secret weapon,” as described by Burlington’s weekly Seven Days. One of the Bears had come down with the flu the night before and could not play, so there was an open spot on the roster. Sitting at the long table with the Bears was Steven Ushakov, a high school math teacher and self-described “product” of the sister city relationship. His father, Sergei Ushakov, had visited Burlington on one for the earliest exchanges as sound engineer for a band. He met and fell in love with a woman from Burlington, and Steven was born a few years later. Steven was a former club hockey player at UVM, and he agreed to fill in for the remaining three games.

Ron DiMasi / Burlington/Yaroslavl Sister Cities Program
David Seaver / Burlington/Yaroslavl Sister Cities Program
David Seaver / Burlington/Yaroslavl Sister Cities Program

During the second game, the Bears felt more confident, but the snowfall was heavier, and conditions were even worse. The puck was frequently lost in the snow, and it was impossible to pass or even control the puck in the traditional way. It was not even possible to skate – players resorted instead to hopping about in the snow. One of the Bears later told me that young children in Russia learn to play hockey in boots, on packed snow rather than ice. He wished that he had worn his boots for that game, as the skates were useless. A player in a neighboring match — picture 14 rinks, side by side with walkways between them — confided that once his team went ahead by one goal, they deliberately chucked the puck into a snowdrift along the boards, to run out the clock. This did not happen in the Bears’ game, as far as I could tell, but the outcome would likely have been the same. The opposition managed a hard-fought victory.

That evening, all teams were invited to a pub crawl in downtown Burlington. Vermont has the highest per-capita number of breweries in the US, and there is no shortage of pubs, either. This was an opportunity to socialize with the members of over 150 pond hockey teams from across New England and beyond. The Bears’ schedule included plenty of free time by design, and throughout the visit they were quite independent, exploring the city on their own and in small groups, meeting new people along the way. This evening followed that general pattern. The next morning, there was a brief panic, as one player was nowhere to be found at the hotel. Not to worry – he had stayed over with some new friends in town.

Ron DiMasi / Burlington/Yaroslavl Sister Cities Program

The second day of the tournament was very cold, but clear with brilliant sunshine. In the opening game, the Bears earned their first victory in a high-scoring affair. On this day, more spectators had braved the elements, and Russian and English speakers cheered on the team in unison: “YA-RO-SLA-VL! Go, Bears, Go!” After this game, we caught up briefly with the commissioner of the Pond Hockey Classic, Scott Crowder, for a photo op and the presentation of a gift from Yaroslavl. Scott greeted the team warmly and thanked them for the gift. He asked us to send him a team photo for the Pond Hockey Classic website – he wished to showcase the Bears as the team that had traveled the farthest.

In the second game of day two, Burlington City Councilor Adam Roof, who has been to Yaroslavl twice with Burlington delegations, subbed in for Steven Ushakov to get some ice time. This game was eventually lost, ending the Bears’ hopes for a playoff run. A touching aspect of the first three games was that the Bears managed to get a group photo with each opposing team and present them with a gift from Yaroslavl. The opposing teams were visibly touched by the gesture, and there were handshakes and high-fives before the games and after.

Our closing gathering was a potluck dinner hosted by a good friend of the sister city program who traveled with the 30th anniversary delegation to Yaroslavl in fall 2018. I arrived at the closing dinner with large print photos of the team on the ice at Malletts Bay, the players resplendent in their bright red jerseys against the blue sky. The broadest smile was on the face of Steven Ushakov, son of the sister cities.

Players took turns signing the photos with a Sharpie, creating souvenirs for both cities. I tried my best to give a toast in the Russian style — the heartfelt kind with a narrative structure that builds to an emotional crescendo of sorts. I stumbled along and ended with a team chant that I had learned but never managed to use: “Медведь – это сила, медведь – это класс, медведь – это воля, медведи – мы за вас!” The Bears cheered and thanked me with a signed Lokomotiv jersey, just like the one given to the Mayor, and I was speechless. To show my deep appreciation, I put it on immediately. For a few more hours, we talked and joked, shared stories and Russian candies (Bird’s Milk!), until eventually it was time to say goodbye.

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As told to Hilah Kohen