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When the Muppets went to Moscow: 'It was incredibly difficult, but also dangerous'

At the end of the cold war the Muppets travelled to Moscow to show the Russian people how to get to Sesame Street. But they weren't prepared for assassinations, car bombings and AK-47s. This is the astonishing story of Ulitza Sezam

Producer Natasha Lance Rogoff on the first day of shooting Ulitsa Sezam

Producer Natasha Lance Rogoff on the first day of shooting Ulitsa Sezam in Moscow’s ORT TV studio in 1996, alongside puppeteers Elena Teschinskaya and Andrei Kuzichev with muppets Businka (left) and Kubik

In the early 1990s, following the historic collapse of the Soviet Union, American senators and executives from Sesame Workshop, the company that produces popular children’s television show Sesame Street,
envisioned the Muppets as ideal ambassadors to model idealistic values for the millions of children trying to adapt to life in post-communist Russia and across the former USSR. 

The Big Bird executives tapped me to lead a team of hundreds of Moscow artists – writers, musicians, filmmakers, producers, set designers, puppeteers and media professionals – to create an original production of Ulitsa Sezam (Sesame Street in Russian). Choosing someone with my background for this job seemed odd. Although I had spent a decade producing news and documentaries in the former Soviet Union for NBC, CBS and PBS, and spoke Russian fluently, I had no experience producing children’s television, and even less with actual children.  

Moreover, I quickly discovered that translating Sesame Street’s ebullient and idealistic outlook to Mother Russia was going to be not only incredibly difficult, but also dangerous. The atmosphere in post-communist Moscow felt carnivalesque, with everyone seeming to want something from this new Russia – money, sex, democracy, or the salvation of lost souls.  

I was thrown into this surreal landscape of Moscow television where bombings, murders, and the takeover of our puppet production office at Russia’s TV station (where we all worked) became our reality. Two of our Russian broadcast partners – our close collaborators who had helped me navigate Moscow’s inscrutable television industry – were assassinated one after another, and our initial sponsor of the show, a Russian media mogul, was nearly burned to death in a car bombing. Each time, my team and I were devastated, but somehow picked up the pieces and soldiered on, determined to bring hope and change to Russia’s children.  

But more was to come. One day Russian soldiers bearing AK-47s pushed into our production office and sealed our office shut for good – confiscating our show scripts, set drawings, and equipment – and even our adored life-size mascot. It was terrifying for my team, and for a while I thought it was game over.  But I underestimated the will and determination of this group of 400 creatives from around the former Soviet Union – including Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia and Siberia – to persevere against the darkness they had lived with all their lives and give something better to their children. 

The violence was not the only obstacle to our successfully completing the production. As told in the behind-the-scenes account in Muppets in Moscow, cultural clashes pitted Sesame Street’s progressive values against 400 years of Russian thought. Misunderstandings and disagreements touched nearly every aspect of the production, from the scriptwriting to the design of the new neighbourhood to the show’s educational content, and even to the design of the Muppets themselves! Initially, the Moscow creative team rejected the Muppets, insisting they had a revered puppet tradition dating back to the 16th century and they did not want American Muppets!  

I thought about quitting multiple times, especially after my colleagues, who had become my friends, were murdered. But I couldn’t quit. I admired my colleagues’ passion and their willingness to make sacrifices to make Russia a “normal country”, as they would often say. Their hope was for Ulitsa Sezam to create a better future for children across the former USSR – first on the television screen and then, hopefully, in real life. My experience in Moscow continually made me grateful for the stability we have in the west, even with the many problems we have related to racism, economic inequality and corrupt politics. 

While the western world celebrated the collapse of communism, citizens of the former USSR grappled with intense uncertainty about the future of their country and the humiliation of losing their superpower status. No one, including me, could predict if Russia would become a democracy, would adopt values of an open society, revert to communism or become something else entirely. 

And yet my team from both sides of the Atlantic embraced hope and clung to the possibility that the Muppets could help to model skills and values so children in the former Soviet Union could thrive.  

It’s heartbreaking today thinking about where we were 30 years ago. Ulitsa Sezam became a huge hit and ran for over a decade on Russia’s largest TV channel, broadcasting to millions of children across 11 time zones and well into Putin’s era. The Muppets were America’s first ambassadors, modelling tolerance, freedom of expression and peace. The Slavic-inspired Muppets: Zeliboba (the full-bodied Muppet), Kubik (the hand Muppet) and Businka (the rod Muppet) became as popular as Elmo and Big Bird are in the US. And the values and culture that shaped and defined Ulitsa Sezam provide deep insights into the conflicts between Russia and the west today.  

Muppets in Moscow by Natasha Lance Rogoff

Muppets in Moscow: The Unexplained Crazy True Story of Making Sesame Street in Russia by Natasha Lance Rogoff is out on January 23 (Rowman & Littlefield, £20.99). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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