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.
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.
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.