Sesame Street became a rocky road when she moved to Russia

When the man who promised to have her show aired on one of Russia’s top TV channels was murdered, Natasha Lance Rogoff realized she was no longer in Kansas.

Sure, this wasn’t the first example of the chaos and corruption endemic in post-Soviet Russia in the 1990s — before that, an oligarch who had pledged to fund the show survived his car explosion and fled the country . Later, Lance Rogoff’s production studios were taken over by the military, all had to be evacuated and denied access to equipment and

scripts. Another TV executive who agreed to air her show was also murdered.

All because Lance Rogoff wanted to bring it Sesame Street on Russian TV.

But it was the murder of Vlad Listyev, says Lance Rogoff, that “raised in me serious doubts as to whether Russia was ready for this Sesame Street. “Listyev, a journalist and head of the ORT television channel, one of only two broadcasters in the country, was, says Lance Rogoff, “Our confidant wanted to air the show and when he was murdered in cold blood, it was so brutal .He was the kind of man who would lead Russia to a brighter future; he fought corruption in the television industry.”

All this and more is covered muppets In MoscowLance Rogoff’s fascinating and at times chilling look at the clash of cultures and political instability she has had to navigate as executive producer Ulitsa Sezamthe Russian version of the popular American show.

Lance Rogoff, a filmmaker and journalist who is fluent in Russian, had no experience working in children’s television when she approached her Sesame Street Executives after a screening of a documentary she had made about the country. She was eventually tasked with finding a local co-production and broadcast partner and overseeing the hiring of actors, writers, directors, puppeteers and other staff.

“The cultural differences and technical know-how were profound,” says Lance Rogoff of the experience. For example, although Russian film directors such as Sergei Eisenstein and Andrei Tarkovsky were world famous, “Russian producers and directors had very limited experience in the production of multi-episode, dubbed-sound dramatic television. Through all the discussions about the creations of the [Russian] Muppets, which the Russians wanted to reflect their old puppet tradition (Russian dolls were made of wood, not the Muppet’s foam) and other subjects where they played to their strengths, was for many a humane response to a society had been in for years lived in constant turmoil. Their insecurity stems from the fact that they support the West but do not know where their country will go in the future.”

“One of the authors thought it would be a great idea to teach the letter D as in “D is for depression”. ”

Some of the cultural differences were so blatant that in retrospect they seem downright humorous. A colleague told Lance Rogoff that “happiness is not a Russian concept,” and she discovered that this was true on several levels. For example, when there were auditions for the role of the show’s lead, the songs the children performed were almost always sad tunes with tragic lyrics. A Russian staffer demanded that the show include Baba Yaga, a witch who eats children. The music director disapproved of all music except classical, deeming rock music “polluting”. There was strong opposition to including ethnic minorities such as Chechens and Kazakhs in the shows. And one of the writers thought it was a great idea to teach the letter D as in “D is for depression” (Lance Rogoff said she wouldn’t have been surprised if a script had been submitted of a Muppet throwing herself under a train a la Anna Karenina, to illustrate “J is for Jump”). None of this was exactly optimistic Sesame Street Material.

“The theme of sadness is deeply rooted in Russian culture, music and literature,” says Lance Rogoff. “Sadness is an inherent part of Russia, it is a society of contradictions. They are passionate, artistic people, and perhaps their genius comes from their sadness. For centuries this land has lived in turmoil and bloodshed. You have a tragic history.”

And there was always a problem with planning. Anything could happen back then. Outdated equipment could break, actors could arrive drunk, people could go weeks and months without pay, there could even be a coup d’état. “Every conversation I have with my Russian colleagues feels like hurt pride,” says Lance Rogoff in the book. “The desperation to preserve the country’s history and identity makes it difficult for them to create anything new.”

But accept it, they finally did. Baba Yaga never made it into the final mix, but Businka, Zeliboba and Kubik, adorable new Muppets created specifically for it did Ulitsa Sezam, did. Ethnic minorities emerged. The music director stopped by after meeting a very scholarly Russian rocker who convinced her that pop music wasn’t all bad. And although the early scripts were dejected and depressing, they eventually incorporated humor and an original writing style with stories sweeter than those in the US but not falsely sentimental.

During all of this, Lance Rogoff spent a lot of time and energy finding a Russian investor and broadcast partner. Added to this was the political chaos in the country Sesame Street Executives in America are wondering if they should just ditch the show. Lance Rogoff too had to contend not only with Russians, who were unaccustomed to a female boss in a patriarchal society, but also with increasing criticism from the Russian media, which opposed the Americanization of society, as reflected in the spread of US Companies like Pizza Hut showed up and McDonalds.

In addition, as a colleague told her: “All Russian deals are mafia deals. There is no other way.”

“Why teach values ​​like justice, ethics and the rule of law when we first work with Russians who violate the same principles?” says Lance Rogoff in the book.

“There are people in Russia who are committed to change, and many of these people have had to flee Russia because they have been vocal against it [Ukraine] war on social media.”

— Natasha Lance Rogoff

But in the end everything worked out. Ulitza Sesame debuted on Russian television in October 1996, was an instant hit, and ran until 2010, when Putin’s people stopped supporting it on the channels. Almost thirty years later, Lance Rogoff decided to write about her experiences because “I thought writing this story would give people an insight into Russian culture that influences our relationships today. And I’d worked with brave people who made sacrifices to make this show and worked as hard to build an open society as we did.”

Obviously, this open society did not exist. Lance Rogoff is still unsure why all the violence surrounding her show has taken place — she believes she’s caught in the middle of a power struggle for control of Russia’s two main TV networks — but the experience helped her understand “that there are people in Russia who are committed to change, and many of those people have had to flee Russia because they have spoken out loud against it [Ukraine] War on Social Media.”

The bottom line is that Lance Rogoff wants readers Muppets in Moscow “Thinking about this incredible story of people who shared their values ​​and tried to create another Russia and how our societies differ, the way the stories in the book anticipate differences that continue to this day. “ Sesame Street became a rocky road when she moved to Russia

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