Muppets in Moscow–International politics, puppetry, TV production, and taking Sesame Street to Russia

Review by C.J. Bunce

There’s no question today that The Children’s Television Workshop (later renamed Sesame Workshop) changed the face of America via Sesame Street.  By the 1990s co-productions aimed at making the lives of children worldwide better re-worked Muppet characters into shows in Brazil, Mexico, Germany, France, Kuwait, Spain, Sweden, the Philippines, and Turkey.  With the fall of the Soviet Union, politicians in Washington, DC, championed to take Sesame Street to Russia and the former Soviet republics.  Natasha Lance–who had no experience producing TV series, let alone one with 52 first season episodes, and no history with Jim Henson’s Muppets or Sesame Street–was tapped to lead the effort.  In the new book Muppets in Moscow: The Unexpected Crazy True Story of Making Sesame Street in Russia (available now here at Amazon), she describes her breathless, Herculean effort, involving murdered executives, armed soldiers clearing out buildings, and learning the hard way, step-by-step, how to bridge the gap between Western culture and Russian culture, and why a Russian Sesame Street–Ulitsa Sezam–was more difficult to get off the ground than with other cultures.  The result is volume that can serve as an ideal supplement for collegiate international studies and international business courses, or for any fan of Jim Henson’s legacy, and anyone interested in creating a puppetry-based production.

Natasha Lance, now Natasha Lance Rogoff, tells the story, often with self-effacing observations, chronologically as each television boss and executive entered the picture, and as she made connections in Moscow.  She had to hire a team to produce the series, write the episodes, create the set, direct the show, compose music for the show, and redub a small fraction of the American episodes to supplement the new series.  She also had to get financing in Moscow to match the amount Congress agreed to supply, and find a studio that would share in advertising profits to recoup production costs and hopefully bring in more money for both the U.S. and Russian investors.

Lance Rogoff encountered cultural obstructions at every part of her journey that went beyond translating languages.  One of the curriculum goals for the Russian version of the show was to introduce “a new open society” to Russian children and their families.  But Russians fresh from Communism did not know what to expect of their own new world.  Foreign capital was allowing many to live large for once, while others remained in poverty.  Nobody seemed to want an American show–it was perceived as an insult to even hint that the Russian writers and artists should use the original Sesame Street as a guide.  Most of the new creators interviewed and hired believed that the Russian way of thinking would always be better than outsiders’ views.

Lance Rogoff exhibited exceptional restraint, often being forced to concede simply because she had no other resources or options.  Along the way she picked up allies, first a longtime colleague adept at working through Moscow red tape, then tapping a young college graduate with initiative who begged to work with her from her dorm apartment in the city, then with a rising Moscow businesswoman who had her own little girl and wanted to see the show come to fruition.

The best international clashes were recorded by the author in her notes at the time, and her recollection of events and the difficult nuances are delivered with an air of authority.  She records many observations simply sitting in the room and listening to feedback from the Russian creators as Sesame Street’s tried and true educational experts and production veterans came to Moscow–and in some cases led workshops for the Russian team in New York–to teach what had become a good roadmap for adapting stories and characters to local cultural differences.  But Russia wasn’t only Russia, but all those new nation states trying to get their independence (as still today as the war with Ukraine reflects).  After a lot of effort, the first show would be broadcast into homes on two competing networks in October 1996.  Russia of 1996 was very different from the country under Yeltsin, where the show would become a success and survive to see its tenth anniversary.  Under Putin, the show would be cancelled as he started marshalling his attempts to restore a Soviet empire once again.  But as Lance Rogoff remarks in her final chapter after a visit in contemplation of releasing her book, an adult generation in Russia was allowed to grow up–and learn from a young age about compassion and equality–thanks to Ulitsa Sezam and the cast of characters that readers of Muppets in Moscow will see created literally from idea to production.

Fans of the Muppets and Sesame Street will also see how parallel efforts saw the birth of Elmo (performer Kevin Clash appears in the book) and the marketing of the groundbreaking Tickle Me Elmo and the new girl star Zoe.   The author recounts with some detail a glimpse into the creative process of using testing to define and create educational content, and even Cheryl Henson and Snuffleupagus performer Michael P. Robinson came to Moscow with a box of Muppets to personally teach new actors how to learn puppetry.  Why were the sets built this way?  Why were colors important to the Russians in building character designs?  Why were the initially drafted songs so depressing?  From the Soviets dubbing their shows with only one actor to overcoming multi-racial characters appearing on TV, and overcoming the lack of depicting children with disabilities on Russian television, there’s an enormous volume of information and history contained in this book.

From a personal perspective, I, as a lawyer in the 1990s working at an American company to try to effectively correspond with owners in Japan, also researching how to establish a new venture with an uncertain government regime in Vietnam (not that different from what Lance Rogoff was facing in Russia), and also trying to expand operations via government concession contracts in Latin America, would have found this book and Lance Rogoff’s experiences very useful.  And if you’ve ever walked onto the original Sesame Street set at the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, and marveled at its unique magic, or simply grew up with the show, you can understand the gravity of, and importance of, the efforts in this book.

It’s a fantastic history lesson and expert account of a nearly impossible project and how a small team overcame obstacles to get the job done.  It’s also an exciting read for fans of the Muppets and Sesame Street.  Highly recommended, order Muppets in Moscow now here at Amazon.

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