- Muppets in Moscow: The Unexpected Crazy True Story of Making Sesame Street in Russia Natasha Lance Rogoff Rowman & Littlefield,
In this engaging memoir, Natasha Lance Rogoff recounts the experience of bringing Sesame Street to Yeltsin’s Russia. A Russo-phile who changed her name from Susan to Natasha as a teenager, Lance Rogoff had been working in Moscow for more than a decade as a reporter and documentary filmmaker when she was approached to be the executive producer of Ulitsa Sezam in 1993. ‘No one can say no to Elmo,’ a Sesame/Children’s Television Workshop executive insisted.
Launched in 1969 to bridge the socio-economic gap in education among American pre-schoolers, by the early 1990s Sesame Street had created nearly two dozen foreign co-productions, with programming adapted for cultural differences. In the wake of the Cold War, Senator Joe Biden spearheaded congressional support for bringing Sesame Street to Russia, in hopes that the Muppets would act as ambassadors for democracy and free markets.
Despite the show’s success in countries such as India, Mexico and South Africa, Russia presented unique problems. Lance Rogoff was tasked with finding trustworthy co-investors, a creative team who could collaborate with the mothership and a broadcaster able to beam episodes across the 11 time zones of the former Soviet Union. To say it was a bumpy ride is an understatement. Political instability and funding issues threatened to derail the project, with Lance Rogoff regularly having to plead her case at HQ in New York, where she had also left her increasingly anxious fiancé.
‘Translating Sesame Street’s ebullient and idealistic outlook to Mother Russia was not only incredibly difficult,’ she writes, ‘but also incredibly dangerous.’ In that period of Wild West capitalism, fortunes were being made and lost overnight. Not one but three of their potential business partners were the subject of assassination attempts. The oligarch Boris Berezovsky survived (for the time being); the journalists Vlad Listyev and Oleg Slabynko did not.
Joe Biden hoped that the Muppets would act as ambassadors for democracy in Russia
Soldiers armed with AK-47s once stormed Ulitsa Sezam’s office without explanation, confiscating scripts, equipment and a life-sized Elmo. Strikes halted production as employees went unpaid by a Russian partner; a pregnant Lance Rogoff had to bring $8,000 in cash from New York in her bra to keep it going. Parts of the set had to be brought piecemeal from the US, including a 40ft tree that led to a ten-hour stint at airport customs.
Cultural adaptation was also challenging, with the show’s first head writer lobbying for the inclusion of a cannibalistic Baba Yaga. ‘Russia has a long, rich, and revered puppet tradition dating from the 16th century,’ she told Lance Rogoff. ‘We don’t need your American Moppets.’ The music director, a classically trained composer, deemed rock songs ‘polluting’. Capitalism clashed with the legacy of communism: when Lance Rogoff suggested using a lemonade stand to teach cooperation, her colleagues were horrified at the thought of showing kids engaged in ‘dirty mercantile activities’.
Russian humour relies on irony, parody and wordplay, without a tradition of the slapstick comedy that appeals to children, Lance Rogoff notes. Could Elmo’s and Cookie Monster’s ‘wacky, lighthearted banter even be translated for Dostoevskian, angst-ridden Russians’? One proposed script had musicians feeling ‘sadness in their souls as they play a song of suffering’. Another writer suggested a storyboard to teach the letter D featuring ‘a sad furry Muppet slowly mopping a linoleum floor… as a voice narrates: “D for Depressia” ’.
Having managed to overcome such creative hurdles and secure both financing and broadcasters, the first episode of Ulitsa Sezam aired on 22 October 1996. It was an instant hit: millions of children fell in love with Bert and Ernie, Elmo and Cookie Monster, as well as their custom-made companions Zeliboba, Businka and Kubik. As in the US, where Sesame Street made a point of showing racial diversity, the cast represented ethnic minorities from across the former Soviet Union.
Muppets in Moscow’s epilogue, however, takes a sombre turn. While Lance Rogoff left the show in 1998, it continued to air for more than a decade. In 2010, ‘no longer supported by Putin’s people at the television networks’, the streetlamps on Ulitsa Sezam went dark, signalling an end to the era of optimism heralded by glasnost. Many of those involved in the series chose ‘to step away from television production rather than yield to the uniformly pro-Kremlin and propagandistic programming on Russian state television’, Lance Rogoff writes.