You Tell Me How to Get to “Ulitsa Sezam”?
In 1993, just after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Children’s Television Workshop (now Sesame Workshop) asked Natasha Lance Rogoff, a young American documentary filmmaker working in Moscow, to create a version of “Sesame Street” for the new post-Communist Russia and the former Soviet states. No one realized just how difficult and sometimes dangerous that would be. Her new book, “Muppets in Moscow: The Unexpected Crazy True Story of Making Sesame Street in Russia,” blends incidents that would be at home in a Bond thriller with insights on Russian culture that are still timely 30 years on.
Lance Rogoff says she’s always loved both Russian culture and filmmaking. “I was really drawn to film because of the medium’s capacity to evoke people’s emotions, including my own. In graduate school at Columbia, while studying Soviet foreign policy and nuclear strategy, I was not in my classes often because I was over at the film school all the time. Miloš Forman, Vojtěch Jasný—the entire Columbia film department was all east Europeans, and they all spoke Russian. Even though I wasn’t a film student, I was over there constantly.”
Her first trip to Russia was as an exchange student at Leningrad State University in the early 1980s. “By the time I finished the exchange program, I was hooked,” she says. “I just thought this country was utterly fascinating and full of contradictions, an all-consuming alternate landscape, intellectually, politically and socially.”
Over the next decade, she worked in Moscow as a freelance print journalist and documentary filmmaker, gaining notice for her coverage of the underground rock scene and government persecution of the LGBTQ+ community. In 1988, she was hired as a producer by Tom Brokaw’s team at NBC to cover the Reagan-Gorbachev summit, and then spent two years on a gritty documentary that led her, improbably, to “Sesame Street.”
“In ‘Russia for Sale: The Rough Road to Capitalism’, I had embedded with a group of hardline Communist, many of whom later took part in the overthrow of Gorbachev in 1991 and ultimately the Soviet regime.” The film aired on PBS. “The night of the coup, I got a call from Tom Bettag, executive producer at ABC News. They wanted to use my footage of the hardliners because nobody had been following them.”
Shortly after her return to New York, two Sesame Workshop executives attended a screening of her film, which she calls “pretty dark,” and approached her to help them bring “Sesame Street” to Russia. Lance Rogoff was baffled. “I really thought, you know, ‘Did you just watch this film?! Why me?’ I didn’t have any children’s television experience. But they asked me to come down to the Workshop headquarters. What they were trying to do sounded really difficult but ambitious and amazing, and I thought it could have an enormous impact.”
“Sesame Street” had already become an international phenomenon. By the early 1990s, local versions included “Rehov Sumsum” in Israel and “Plaza Sesamo” in Mexico, the latter of which Lance Rogoff worked on while learning the ropes.
What set the Russian project apart was its timely potential for “soft power” diplomacy, she says. In 1992, Sesame Workshop’s CEO, Gary Knell, proposed the idea to then-Senator Joe Biden. The Foreign Relations subcommittee hearing included supporting testimony from Russia’s education minister, and Congress greenlighted America’s half of the funds.
“The decision to have Russia match funding I believe came from USAID,” Lance Rogoff says. “They wanted the Russians to have skin in the game and also, politically, they didn’t want it to seem as though America was imperialistic, creating a children’s television show to manipulate the minds of Russian children. They wanted it to be collaborative and an original creation with local artists…I don’t think I really fully grasped the scope of how difficult it was going to be at that time.”
Lance Rogoff brought in her friend Leonid Zagalsky, a seasoned Moscow journalist who knew most of the people in Russian media, to help make contacts and secure Russian funding for the new show. “I first met Leonid in 1988 while covering the Reagan-Gorbachev Summit. He had broken the story on political prisoners being held in a psychiatric hospital. We hit it off like a house on fire, and he really became my best friend; he is to this day.”
While she set about finding a television company and high-level creative team to develop “Ulitsa Sezam,” Zagalsky sought out Russian funders with deep enough pockets to match the American commitment, a task made harder due to Russia’s economic collapse after the rapid shift in government.
“What was unrealistic,” Lance Rogoff says, “was that both Sesame Workshop and Congress expected the Russian government, which was the state funder of television, to help finance the creation of the Russian version of ‘Sesame Street.’ At that time, there was literally no government money for production. It was going to require some type of independent financing in post-communist Russia, and this this idea of independent funding was so new.”
They also had not reckoned with the potential for violence. Zagalsky set up a meeting with Boris Berezovsky, one of Russia’s rising oligarchs who, surprisingly, agreed to sponsor the new children’s show and asked if it would feature Big Bird. Just weeks later, Berezovsky’s car was bombed and Sesame Workshop nearly cancelled the project.
The show’s own production office at the TV station suffered an armed takeover by Russians with AK-47s. And in the four years it took to develop the new show, not one but two of Lance Rogoff’s high-level media partners, prominent TV executives who had been advising her production team, were assassinated.
Eventually, they found a financial backer who ran her own advertising agency and shared the team’s goal of creating a better future for children across the former USSR. It was a shaky alliance, not least because her company’s clients often defaulted on payments, but everyone held on. “The structure for financing television production was evolving day by day,” says Lance Rogoff. “We Americans had advertising businesses going back decades, but advertising in Russia had been legalized only three years earlier.” Through it all, the creative team, which included top Russian directors, musicians, animators, set designers and writers, continued developing the show, even when their salaries had to be delayed several months.
The greatest challenges, however, were cultural. Lance Rogoff encountered initial resistance to the design of the Muppets themselves. “We were talking about changing something that was sacred to them. Russia’s wooden puppetry traditions date back to the 16th century,” she says. “I shared with my team that the Muppets and “Sesame Street” were not immediately accepted in the US either—in the late 1960s you had ‘Mr. Rogers,’ where the pace of the show and even the puppetry performance was much slower, and ‘Sesame Street’’s humor and music were so edgy. I had just anticipated the Moscow creative team would look at the Muppets and think they were absolutely adorable and cute, but no. The fact that the show originated in America was also complicated, because of my team’s own sense of pride, coupled with humiliation at the collapse of their superpower.”
Even though she’d lived in Russia for a decade, Lance Rogoff says, she still had a lot to learn. The creative team argued amongst themselves over what kind of content and characters the show should have—whether it should feature classical or contemporary music, and whether girl Muppet characters should be passive or active. In one debate, they consulted Vasily Kandinsky’s 19th century theories to determine the “right” colors for the Slavic Muppets. Initially, “Ulitsa Sezam”’s directors also chose a slower pace for the show. “They thought that ‘Sesame Street,’ and American TV in general, was so frenetic that it would make their children insane.”
During auditions for the show’s non-Muppet roles, Lance Rogoff says, nearly every child chose to sing a mournful song about World War II. The show’s renowned cinema director, Volodya Grammatikov, insisted that such songs were comforting. “ ‘The children’s grandmothers sing these songs to make them feel cared for,’ he told me. And he wanted to include similar sad themes in ‘Ulitsa Sezam’,” Lance Rogoff says. “I was shocked. I thought, on a children’s comedy show? Are you kidding me?”
What settled many of these arguments was Sesame Workshop’s focus on research. Dr. Anna Genina, the show’s Russian educational research director, shepherded the initial goal-setting workshop for educators from across the former USSR and helped them resolve ingrained differences in a way that upheld “Sesame Street”’s values of openness and inclusion. She also tested individual scenes with child audiences to see how effective and engaging they were, and often smoothed the waters with the creative team.
“Dr. Genina was incredibly brilliant and understood children really well,” says Lance Rogoff. “She understood her own culture and was a superb diplomat. I think in the beginning, there was a great deal of suspicion of the whole research division, but over time, Volodya and Anna and I became very close. When I was last in Moscow in January 2020, I had a long discussion with Volodya about his trip to a small town where he had observed the research testing sessions. He was just astounded at how effectively they measured children absorbing the educational goals in each segment.”
Lance Rogoff also brought the Russian production team to “Sesame Street”’s New York City headquarters to meet and train with their American counterparts and to watch research testing for the American show among children in Harlem. One day, a group of young men on the street caught sight of the “Sesame Street” logo on the back of Lance Rogoff’s bomber jacket, surrounded the Moscow visitors and as Lance Rogoff translated, began regaling them with their favorite Muppet characters. “If I ask any one of my team today what was their favorite time, they would probably say that visit to Harlem and meeting the young men on the streets of New York City.”
“Ulitsa Sezam” became a lasting success, airing from 1996 until 2010 on Russia’s largest TV station in prime time, and like the teenagers in Harlem, many young adults in Russia and in Ukraine still fondly remember their favorite characters and songs.
What led Lance Rogoff to write “Muppets in Moscow,” almost 30 years on, was observing the chilling effect of Putin’s repressive regime on ordinary Russians and the growing rift between Russia and the West. “I started noticing from about 2010 how Putin’s crackdown on independent media and the invasion of Crimea in 2014 were changing the country I loved. Putin uses the 1990s, the same period that we had made ‘Sesame Street,’ as a narrative of chaos to justify the invasion of Ukraine and aggression against the West. When I went back to Moscow in 2016 and made a short film called ‘Russian Millennials Speak Openly About America,’ I realized that young people were now self-censoring. Putin’s propaganda was very successful.”
On the American side, she says, “Every show on Amazon and Netflix with Russian characters caricatured them as corrupt oligarchs, prostitutes or gangsters. They just did not reflect the diverse group of passionate and committed people that I had worked with in Moscow, many of whom wanted a different, more democratic future for their country and had been willing to fight for it for many years.”
In reality, she says, “So many people contributed to the production of ‘Ulitsa Sezam’ on both sides of the Atlantic. What we were doing was for children living in post-communist Russia and in the new independent countries. Because life is so difficult, the way many Russians view childhood is quite emotional: they look back at their childhoods as a time before they understood the greater corruption of their own society, a time of innocence that should be protected. And more recently, that looking back is bittersweet. It occurred to me that this experience that we’d had, with so many Georgians, Ukrainians, Russians, Armenians and others working together in peace, was remarkable and offered a sense of hope for the future, something we desperately need today.”
Natasha Lance Rogoff will present ‘Muppets in Moscow: The Unexpected Crazy True Story of Making Sesame Street in Russia,” at the Jewish Book Festival on Saturday, December 2nd at Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center. For more information or to register for this event, visit www.jewishsgpv.org/jewish-book-festival or call the Jewish Federation at 626-445-0810.
Deborah Noble is a Jewish Book Festival committee member and is a contributing writer to jlife magazine.