The problem of creating ‘Sesame Street’ for Russians


When the Russian model of “Sesame Street” (“Ulitsa Sezam”) first aired in Russia in October 1996, there was a premiere occasion at a Moscow theater. The star muppet got here out — Zeliboba, an 8ft hound-like animal tree spirit who might odor music and was even taller than Big Bird, his American counterpart. “The kids went wild,” remembers government producer Natasha Lance Rogoff. 

Rogoff’s new e-book, “Muppets in Moscow: The Unexpected Crazy True Story of Making Sesame Street in Russia” (Rowman & Littlefield) recounts the 5-year journey of bringing “Sesame Street” to post-Soviet Russia, and adapting it to a Russian viewers. 

“There were so many challenges. The worst of it was in the beginning when our first investor’s car was blown up and I had been in that car 3 weeks before,” says Rogoff. “Over the next year, our broadcast partners were assassinated one after the other. I had become close to these people.”

Over time, Rogoff assembled a crew of over 400 Moscow-based artists: filmmakers, writers, puppeteers, set designers, and musicians. “The people I worked with were passionate about their desire to improve the lives of children through the tv show,” says Rogoff. 

Author Natasha Lance Rogoff
Author Natasha Lance Rogoff
Courtesy of Natasha Lance Rogoff
Muppets in Moscos: The Unexpected Crazy True Story of Making Seasame Street in Russia by Natasha Lance Rogoff

Still, there have been the tradition clashes round present programming and content material. 

“We were all throwing around ideas about what the show should teach post-Soviet children about tolerance, and how to survive in their budding free market. I suggested a scene in which children run a lemonade stand,” she says. “This suggestion was met with horror. One man said, ‘It would be shameful to show children selling goods on the street!’ Another said, ‘Only criminals do that!’ One physicist said, ‘You are tasking us with coming up with a curriculum for a show that will help our children thrive in an open society. But we don’t know what an open society looks like. At the end of the conference he said, ‘I thought this was hopeless, but I didn’t realize that by bringing together all these different points of view, we were able to come up with a curriculum that suited our values and history.” 

“Ulitsa Sezam” went off the air in some unspecified time in the future within the mid-2000s, as Vladimir Putin elevated management over unbiased tv. 

“I’m really proud of my team and everything we accomplished,” says Rogoff. “It’s impossible now to have Sesame Street in Russia, but I hope someday that we get the chance to do that again.”


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