Natasha Lance Rogoff studied in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in college, and then worked in Russia as a journalist — often covering the underground music and LGBTQ scene — and then as a documentary filmmaker. But it was her attempt to bring America’s most beloved children’s TV show to the former Soviet Union that perhaps brought her closest to the Russian people.
“When you talk to people about their children, it’s so emotional, so intimate,” said Lance Rogoff, who’s American. “I thought, ‘This story really needs to be told.’ It revealed things about the Russian people and Soviet society in a way that I had not been able to capture while making documentaries there for 10 years.”
In “Muppets in Moscow: The Crazy Unexpected True Story of Making Sesame Street in Russia” (Rowan & Littlefield), Lance Rogoff chronicles her work with Children’s Television Workshop in the 1990s to create “Ulitsa Sezam,” a program to help Russian children adjust to life in their new world.
Although she had kept memos, journals, and videotape from those years, it didn’t seem like a project that could sell until the world changed again, with the rise of Putin’s power and the invasion of Crimea in 2014. “I started thinking, ‘We do not understand this country,’” Lance Rogoff said. Beyond the politics, she knew, “there were deeper differences, related to our history, our culture, our values. We were talking at cross purposes.”
In her book, Lance Rogoff recalls clashes over the color of a muppet’s fur, or a skit about children running a lemonade stand. “That’s an innocent idea for us, it teaches counting and team building skills,” she said. “And for them, you’re talking about their children standing on the street and selling goods, which was illegal under communism.”
The show was a huge hit, and it influenced a generation of young Russians, now in their late 20s and 30s. Lance Rogoff knows it had an impact on the Russians now protesting their nation’s war, and on the Ukrainians fighting back. “They’re the ‘Ulitsa Sezam’ generation. They grew up on the show,” she said. “It’s horrific what’s going on right now both in Ukraine and inside Russia, more horrific for the Ukrainians, but at the same time hope is still there. They’re human. I don’t think it’s possible for people to live without some hope.”
Natasha Lance Rogoff will read in person at 7 p.m. Monday at Harvard Book Store.
Kate Tuttle, a freelance writer and critic, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.