Sesame Street Russia (1996)

As a grandfather of five all under the age of four I have become refamiliarized with Sesame Street.  Grover, Big Bird, Cookie Monster, Bert, Ernie, and the gang dominated my household when my children were growing up and now I find myself reengaged as my grandchildren have become transfixed.  When I came across the book, MUPPETS IN MOSCOW: THE UNEXPECTED CRAZY TRUE STORY OF MAKING SESAME STREET IN RUSSIA by documentary filmmaker and Harvard Fellow, Natasha Lance Rogoff my interest was piqued.  Based on her own life story, Rogoff, the producer of the Sesame Street adaptation for Russia and Mexico is the perfect author to tackle such a subject.  Based on her firsthand experiences, those of her colleagues, one of whom kept a daily journal of the process, interviews, documents and photographs, the memoir is deeply researched and well written.

In 1993 the Sesame Street Workshop hired Rogoff as the lead producer to adapt America’s most iconic television program for a Russian audience.  Rogoff points out that for the United States who at the time was involved in assisting the former Soviet Union in its transition to a more representative process it was a means of making the Muppets ideal ambassadors to model democratic values and the benefits of a free market economy to a new generation of Russians.  What surprised Rogoff the most was the resistance this would trigger in the post-communist state.  The process was difficult and dangerous as Russia suffered threats of violence and assassinations seemingly on a daily basis in the early 1990s on Moscow television.  Cultural battles ensued from scriptwriting to music, to the creation of the Slavic Muppets themselves.

BUSINKA GRAMMATIKOV Businka, a Muppet of a Russian version of the popular American children's television program, speaks at a news conference in Moscow . Soon Sesame Street characters will help to teach a new generation of Russian children to live in a free, democratic society. The show moves from a New York brownstone to a courtyard in Moscow and is the home of three new brightly-colored Muppets and a Russian family. In the background is Russian series director Vladimir Grammatikov
(Volodya Grammatikov and Businka)

Rogoff tells a remarkable story laying out the challenges in creating and producing Vilitsa Sezam.  The clash of views centered on individualism, capitalism, race, education, and equality reflecting the ongoing cultural discord between East and West that is present each day.  Rogoff held strong Moscow television connections having lived in the Soviet Union off and on for almost a decade.  She realized it would be an arduous project in a country embroiled in chaos and factional power struggles.  In the 1990s Russia was a country that was in political limbo, teetering between its communist past and an uncertain future under the corrupt government of Boris Yeltsin.

As Rogoff describes her creative journey she provides insights into the obstacles that a country emerging from its repressive authoritarian past presented for anyone who was perceived to be trying to alter the accepted way of doing things.  The first major issue Rogoff faced was how to finance and produce a television program in a country with no reliable banking system, no established rule of law, and unstable currency.  Funding did come from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), but a Russian partner was needed.  Russian oligarchs like Boris Berezovsky proved to be unreliable as did Russian television executives who were usually untrustworthy.  The second major issue for Rogoff and her colleagues was the threat of violence and assassination exemplified by a 1995 coup attempt that saw the seizure of Workshop offices.  Lastly, the difficulty of finding and hiring competent Russian professionals for the project who could work together and come to a consensus on a myriad of issues.

Natasha Lance Rogoff Author of Muppets In Moscow
(author, Natasha Lance Rogoff)

Along the way Rogoff encounters and works with a fascinating group of people.  On the positive side were Vladislav Listyev, one of the most respected Russian television personalities until he is murdered.  Midhat Shilov, the Director of Cultural Programming at Ostankino television.  Robin Hessman, a brilliant twenty-two year old graduate from the VGIK Institute of Cinematography who would save the day on more than one occasion.  Katya Komalkova, a classically trained musical composer who becomes the Director of Music. Dr. Anna Genina, Sesame Street senior vice-president of Global Education.  Maria Rybasova, a creative set designer.  Lastly, Volodya Grammatikov, Chief Ulitsa Sezam Director whose sense of humor is priceless.  Other personalities were not as cooperative.  Irina Borisova, the owner of Video Art, one of Russia’s top media firms made numerous promises dealing with funding and office space who did not deliver.  Kolya Komov, a celebrated Russian puppet designer, insisted on using older Russian puppet ideas that did not fit the project.  Lida Shurova, a television writer who refused to consider using American ideas and a host of others including Russian teachers and officials who were captive to older ideas emanating from the Soviet period and who feared any change that went against Russian cultural tradition.

The issue of cultural tradition fostered many roadblocks from designing new Muppets that did not conform to American ideals.  After back and forth consensus was reached on characters such as Zeliboba, a large floppy figure who lived in a tree house exhibiting traits such as “compassion, sweetness, and a spiritual approach to life.”  Businka, a female puppet, would be uncontrollable, impulsive, but loveable.  Kubik, a puppet with outsized ambition and obstinance like a child.  The problem was that Russian members of the team believed that Soviet children were typically reared to be silent, still, and obedient-the opposite of individualistic risk-takers and energetic pint-sized challengers of authority which the workshop hoped to convey.  Gender issues and colors of puppets were finally overcome after months of debate overcoming decades of Soviet educational aims and including Russia’s diverse ethnic groupings that encompassed eleven time zones.  The nature of Russian society made targeting an audience difficult – were sets to be rural, urban, socialist realism, Stalinist architecture, apartment complexes, historical sites, or some combination of all elements.  Amazingly, Rogoff led her team in such a manner that most obstacles were overcome by assistance from the Children’s Workshop in New York, and Rogoff’s newly minted husband, Ken.

A key component and one of the most interesting aspects of the book involves puppet development, puppeteer training, and all the technical work that went into the project.  It is fascinating as the Russian puppeteers are chosen and engage in the rigorous training that they must endure.  On screen Muppets appear to move effortlessly, but Rogoff’s description provides the developing skill set that is needed to complete a successful performance.  This aspect of the book is the most entertaining as one can see the satisfaction and camaraderie that develops among American and Russian puppeteers.

The difficulties Rogoff faced are exemplified by the concept of “sadness,” as Russian advisors insisted that for the program to be authentic it had to reflect this emotion which dominated Russian life and culture for centuries.   Rogoff’s tale is one of perseverance and creativity that illuminates how even the most disparate cultures and perspectives can find common ground even while you marry for the first time and give birth to a child in the midst of all the danger.  Regretfully, all the  creativity, and sacrifice trying to take into account as many aspects of Russia’s past was destroyed by the Putin regime as the program which ran from 1996 to 2010 was cancelled.

Sesame Street Russia (1996)


(Colditz Prison today)

If one is interested in spy craft and traitors during World War II and the Cold War there are few authors that have produced more satisfying works than Ben Macintyre.  Macintyre is a writer-at-large for The Times (U.K.) and has written monographs whose narratives include the history of the British SAS; deceptions that encompass plans to misinform the Nazis in the lead up to the invasions of Sicily and D-Day; well-known spies such as Kim Philby, Oleg Gordievsky, the woman known as Agent Sonya, Eddie Chapman; and his latest the escapees from the Nazi fortress, Colditz.  Whether describing and analyzing the actions of double agents loyal to the United States, Britain, or Russia or other topics Macintyre’s approach to conveying espionage history is clear, concise, entertaining, and remarkably well written.  All books are based on sound research and his readers will welcome his latest effort PRISONERS OF THE CASTLE: AN EPIC STORY OF SURVIVAL AND ESCAPE FROM COLDITZ, THE NAZIS FORTRESS PRISON.

As in all of his books. PRISONERS OF THE CASTLE tackles subject matter with gusto and goes beyond the conventional story that may have been told before.  In his latest effort he breathes new life into one of the greatest war stories ever told as over a period of four years allied prisoners tried to escape the impregnable Nazi fortress.  Macintyre traces the evolution of World War II from within the prison to the point of liberation when inmates feared their rescue would not come quickly enough to save them.  As described by the author, the prisoners were an amalgam of self-identified “communists, scientists, homosexuals, women, aesthetes and philistines, aristocrats, spies, workers, poets, and traitors” who created their own replica of pre-war society and culture within the prison as a means of survival.

Caught in the act, this Allied prisoner can be seen poking climbing out of a sewer after guards at Colditz Camp in Leipzig, Germany had caught him trying to escape. Only the most high risk Second World War prisoners were sent to Colditz - a converted castle built on rocky terrain in eastern Germany
(Escaping through the sewers)

There are two components that dominate Macintyre’s monograph; the replica of the British social class structure that dominated prison life, and the integration of an eclectic and diverse group of prisoners whether British, Dutch, French, Polish, or American.   There are other themes that the author introduces that include the Nazi leadership that ran Colditz, the ebbs and flows of the war which prisoners were able to keep up with by building a surreptitious radio, the planning of escapes and what happened to the escapees, the plight of Prominente – a group of influential and famous prisoners whom the Nazis sought to maximize a return, and how Berlin reacted to what was occurring in the prison.

Running through the heart of Colditz ran a wide and almost unbridgeable social class divide.  This was a camp for captured officers, but it also consisted of a fluctuating population of orderlies, and prisoners of other ranks who performed menial tasks for the Germans, but also served as personal servants for officers.  Only officers were allowed to take part in escape attempts and orderlies were not expected to assist them.  No orderly tried to escape because if caught the consequences could be devastating.  If an officer was caught he was returned to the prison usually unharmed.  There was a working class of soldiers and orderlies, and an upper class of officers, reflecting the class structure of the time. 

The officers had a British “boarding school mentality.”  They tried to recreate the traditions of Eton and other private schools coopting behaviors such as bullying, enslaving individuals on the lower rung of society, “goon-baiting” of Germans, and diverse types of entertainment.  Those who did not attend a boarding school were rarely included.

Spot the dummy?Allied soldiers had a handmade dummy they would use during parade head counts to fool guards at Colditz. While the figure had no legs, prisoners could hold it up and hope it would, at a cursory glance, appear as one of their fellow inmates
(Creating copies of uniforms, including the use of dummies)

Macintyre describes the prison infrastructure that the prisoners studied assiduously to determine weak points and when they might escape.  For most prisoners escaping became their life’s work and interestingly the different nationalities kept a score card highlighting successful escapes.  The food was abysmal, but edible and it was offset by Red Cross packages of food, clothing, toiletries and other important items.  Many packages contained objects hidden in food and other articles that might assist an escape.  Prisoners cooperated in digging tunnels, one of which was known as Le Metro dug mostly by the French, performing logistics, obtaining and making tools, and often attempted an escape that involved substantial number of men.  On the other hand, there were prisoners who worked alone and wanted no part of being in a group.  The prisoners created numerous committees to regulate prisoner life and tried to produce a sense of normality.  One in particular was most important – if a prisoner wanted to try to escape he needed the approval of an Escape Committee headed by the highest ranking officers.

Macintyre’s attention to detail is a strength of the book.  He delves into strategies developed and objects needed, i.e.; the “arse keeper,” a cylinder to hide money, small tools and other objects in one’s anatomy was most creative.  The prisoners were geniuses in developing tactics to confuse their captors, and instruments that were used to make their escape attempts possible, a including a glider that was completely built, but never used..  The author also includes how prisoners tried to keep themselves sane by developing their own entertainment.  They set up theater performances, choirs, concerts, bands, jazz ensembles, plays etc.  Sanity was a major issue and for those who remained at Colditz for years PTSD was definitely an issue.

Captured soldiers were no strangers to using tunnels for their great escapes, but it was highly unlikely they would make it all the way out to freedom. During the Second World War 32 PoWs escaped from Colditz, of which only 15 made it across Europe to safety
(The French “Metro” Tunnel)

The characters Macintyre describes are a diverse and fascinating group.  The following stand out.  Alain Le Ray, a French Lieutenant in an elite mountain infantry force, and a self-contained individual who planned and tried to execute numerous escapes.  Captain Pat Reid, a gregarious member of the British Royal Service Corps who shared his plans and was involved in many escape attempts.  Joseph Ellison Platt, a self-righteous Methodist preacher tried, and usually failed to keep prisoners on the straight and narrow.  Airey Neave, wounded at Calais used planning escapes as a tool to ease his depression. He would finally escape and work for MI9 to assist other prisoners.  Birendranath Mazumdar, an Indian doctor and an officer who was treated poorly by his British “allies” reflecting the racist attitudes of British officers.  He turned down working for the Germans but was still a victim of his compatriots.  Giles Romilly, a nephew by marriage of Winston Churchill, was journalist and communist captured in Norway.  Christopher Layton Hutton designed and developed numerous escape kits and other inventions for prisoners.  Michael Sinclair escaped from Poland who was obsessed with escaping and reuniting with the Anglo-Polish Society, a secret resistance network – he would make seven escape attempts dying on the last one..   Julius Green, a Jewish dentist from Glasgow developed the most prolific code-letter system and treated Nazi patients who disclosed valuable information that he was able to forward to the right authorities.  Checko Chalovpka, a Czech pilot whose affair with Irmgard Wernicke, a dental assistant in town who a spy who fed information provoked awe.  Walter Purdy, a British supporter of Oswald Mosley turned against his fellow prisoners and made radio speeches condemning the allies – his fellow prisoners wanted to lynch him.  Wing Commander Douglas Bader, a double amputee fighter pilot who was held in high esteem by most prisoners. Lee Carson, a beautiful and fearless journalist who traveled with American troops, who was known as the “Rhine Maiden.”  There are also important Nazi figures highlighted by Lt. Reinhold Eggers, the Supreme Security Chief at Colditz who tried to be fair to the prisoners and was often overruled.  Eggers is extremely important in that he maintained a written history of the camp that Macintyre had access to.  Eggers appears almost as a background narrator of the story presenting his battle with prisoners and the thinking of the German occupiers.

The turning point for prisoners came after D-Day.  As long as the German Army was in charge of the camp treatment was palatable.  However, as the war turned after D-Day and the July 1944 Plot that failed to assassinate Hitler more and more the SS and the Gestapo under Heinrich Himmler took over the camp.  Escapees were warned, if you were captured you would be shot, not just returned to the barracks as before.

Prisoners, including some dressed in women's clothes and make up, can be seen here performing in a show. Guards at Colditz organised concerts and shows as a way of keeping prisoners occupied so they could not plan any escapes
(Prisoners created their own theater)

I agree with Andrea Pitzer’s September 29, 2022, Washington Post review as she writes, “Macintyre tells the story of the POW camp that had more escape attempts than any other during World War II. He parades a brigade of officers, some of whom have since been lionized or found postwar fame through film, television and multiple books. Ultimately, Macintyre offers a more complete and complex account than is typical in popular histories from the Nazi era. Read in that light, this is less a fairy tale than an honest account of heroic but fallible men in captivity, made more compelling through the acknowledgment of their flaws and failures.”

The strength of the book lies with Macintyre’s unique ability to weave a story involving so many different characters, not allowing individuals to get in the way of his material.  Macintyre writes as if he is aware that his story is not a literary one, but a recounting the stories of many important men and stitching together their experiences from the disparate historical record. 

(Colditz Prison during WW2)

THE MAGICIAN by Colm Toibin

Der deutsche Schriftsteller Thomas Mann
(Thomas Mann)

How does an author of historical fiction do justice to a subject who must be considered one of the greatest writers of the 20th century?  In his latest work, Colm Toibin, the author of THE MASTER, BROOKLYN, NORA WEBSTER and nine others takes on the challenge and has produced a work of biographical fiction centered on the life of Thomas Mann, THE MAGICIAN.  The book is a deep dive into the German Noble Prize winner’s life, highlighting his work, sexual proclivities, and the dysfunctional nature of the family with his fascinating wife Katia and his independent and unruly children.  The book reads like an actual biography, but without the narrow biographical strictures of more traditional works like Ronald Hayman’s THOMAS MANN: A BIOGRAPHY, Donald Prater’s, THOMAS MANN: A LIFE and Nigel Hamilton’s THE BROTHERS MANN.

Toibin’s effort is engrossing as he is able to apply a literary brush to a life that is not fiction and appears as a true biography.  Toibin’s imagination is combined with empirical research that allows him to capture the essence of Thomas Mann, his family, and the characters he dealt with during his lifetime.  Mann himself was a complex individual who hid his artistic and literary ambitions from his father and his homosexual feelings from everyone, though he would still marry and raise six children.

Photograph: the Mann family
(The Mann family, Munich, 1932)

Mann, a 1901 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature had his family serve as a model in for his first novel, BUDDENBROOKS, Katia’s stay in a sanitorium is recounted in fiction for THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN, and DEATH IN VENICE brought out his hidden homosexual fantasies among his works.  By 1933 he realized remaining in his beloved Munich was untenable; he and his family began a journey that would take them across Europe to France, Sweden, England, the United States, and finally to Switzerland.  THE MAGICIAN is an insightful novel that focuses on Mann and his family as they made there way through the World Wars, the rise of Nazi Germany, and the Cold War.

Toibin offers an intimate portrait of European society that is about to be destroyed by Hitlerite aggression. The norms and accepted principles that dominated northern Germany in the late 19th and early 20th century are on full display.  The Mann family life is recreated, and Toibin’s treatment of Thomas’ relationship with his older brother provides an important window into the dynamics of the family.  Throughout Toibin juxtaposes how the brothers react to each other citing their similarities, but more so their differences from their views of who should take over the family trading business, their attitude toward the rise of Adolph Hitler, and how they should navigate World War II and its aftermath.  A tender relationship is evident despite the harsh treatment they afford each other at times.

Image may contain Tree Plant Shelter Outdoors Nature Building Countryside Rural Yard Housing and Tree Trunk
(The Mann home in Pacific Palisades, CA)

The Mann family dynamic forms a core of the novel.  The six children that Katia and Thomas produced are made up of strong personalities with disparate beliefs.  Klaus and Erika, who some thought had an incestuous relationship were anti-war radicals who opposed the rise of Hitler and pursued ideals that at times were an embarrassment to their staid father.  Elisabeth, the youngest who was the favored child took care of their parents until she shocked them by marrying the anti-fascist writer of literature, Giuseppe Antonio Borgese who was a little younger than her father, Galo, strong willed remained in Europe until the last minute, Monika whose boat was torpedoed by the Germans in 1940 as she tried to reach her family in the United States suffering the loss of her husband as she survived, and Michael the sensitive musician. 

The driving wedge within the family emerges with the rise of Nazism in the 1920s.  Klaus and Erika were adamantly public about their opposition to Hitler, but their father, typical of many Jews of his generation, was in denial.  Thomas Mann believed that the Hitler phenomena was temporary and German culture would override his popularity.  As time went on he began to realize the danger that Hitler represented but feared speaking out as it would endanger his German reading public, the safety of his brother Heinrich, Katia’s parents, his publisher, even after he himself became a refugee from Nazi Germany.  Toibin conveys Thomas Mann’s tortured emotions as he knew at least in his subconscious that Germany was lost to him, though for years he could not admit it.  He could not accept that once his books were banned in Germany the only access his readers would have was through translations – something he could not accept.

  • Deutschland Literatur Geschichte Thomas Mann mit Familie am HiddenseeTHE (UNBELIEVABLE TALENT OF THE MANN FAMILYThe Manns: Dad was in chargeIn his new biography on the Mann family, Tilmann Lahme writes that Thomas Mann’s children never managed to free themselves from their father’s influence. The book begins in the 1920s, when all six of them have already been born. Pictured with him in 1924, from left to right: His wife Katia, with Monika, Michael, Elisabeth, Klaus and Erika Mann. Golo is missing in the photo.)

Mann’s same-gender attraction is treated honestly and with care.  There are many scenes that reflect Thomas’ desire, particularly when confronted with attractive young men.  The presentation is conveyed with taste even as Thomas fantasizes because of these encounters, though most were not carried to fruition.  Katia’s approach to their marriage and the needs of her husband are interesting and without her openness and sensitivity the marriage would never have lasted.  Mann wished to play the role of the bourgeois head of family in the context of his homoerotic fantasies which his wife accepted as long as her husband did not put their domestic life in jeopardy. 

Thomas Mann’s fears of the Nazis learning about his same-gender attraction is highlighted by his obsession with his diaries.  Though, his son Galo was able to send most of his books and papers to Sweden his diaries which included his fantasies and other thoughts about boys and young man were almost lost to the Nazis who would have liked nothing better to publish them and ruin him, particularly when he finally denounced the regime.  As Jay Parini writes in his September 19, 2021, New York Times book review the diaries reflected his dreams about mostly handsome young men. “His homoeroticism had many mansions, and he roamed their corridors in his dreams with impunity.”   Further, “Toibin delves into the layers of the great German novelist’s unconscious, inviting us to understand his fraught, monumental, complicated and productive life. It’s a work of huge imaginative sympathy.”

Toibin is at his best when describing some of the interesting characters that Mann dealt with during his lifetime.  The author resorts to an entertaining mocking style as he discusses Heinrich Mann’s wife Nelly who many labeled as a “floozy,” and Alma Mahler, the obstreperous wife of the late composer Gustav Mahler.  These are examples among many including other family members and associates of Thomas who become victims of Toibin’s sardonic pen.

Toibin expertly conveys the desperation of emigres trying to leave Europe for America to escape the rising tide of Nazism.  The gravity of the danger is fully explored, along with the bureaucratic roadblocks that people were forced to overcome.  Toibin focuses on his own family members which is a microcosm of the problem for hundreds of thousands feeing Hitler’s genocide.  Toibin’s analysis fits in with the current airing of Ken Burn’s latest documentary, an excellent piece of work entitled, US AND THE HOLOCAUST.

Thomas Mann and his wife Katia
(Katia and Thomas Mann)

Toibin deftly navigates the origins of some of Mann’s most important novels.  BUDDENBROOKS  is a commentary of Jewish assimilation in Germany in the latter part of the 19th century which draws on the family trading business and Thomas and Heinrich’s desire to have no part of it once their father dies.  DEATH IN VENICE is formulated based on a visit to Venice in 1911 where Mann encountered a beautiful Polish boy who becomes Tadzio in the novel. THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN is centers on a Swiss sanitorium where he takes the inconsequential actions of an x-Ray technician transfigured into art.

The novel conveys how politicians tried to manipulate and control Mann for their own devices as they implored him not to speak out against Nazi Germany before the United States could enter the war because of isolationist sentiment.  Later, he refused to go along with American diplomats who wanted him to refuse an invitation to speak at the 200th anniversary of Goethe’s birth in East Germany.  When he refused to cooperate, he ruined his reputation in the United States, and this would foster his move from Los Angeles to Switzerland for his final years.

Overall, Lucy Hughes-Hallett is correct in her The Guardian review of September 17, 2021, as she states “The Magician is first and foremost a portrait of the artist as a family man; there is comparatively little in it about Mann’s development as a writer or about his status in the literary world. Rather, it places him at the centre of a panoramic vision of the early 20th-century German cultural scene….This is an enormously ambitious book, one in which the intimate and the momentous are exquisitely balanced. It is the story of a man who spent almost all of his adult life behind a desk or going for sedate little post-prandial walks with his wife. From this sedentary existence Tóibín has fashioned an epic.” 

Image result for thomas mann novelist