Life & Culture

Muppets in Moscow Book review: When Kermit and Miss Piggy went to the Kremlin

A fascinating account of how an American TV classic was exported to Russia


Muppets in Moscow
By Natasha Lance Rogoff
Rowman & Littlefield, £20.99

After the USSR disintegrated in 1991 and Soviet communism was declared dead and buried, there was a mad scramble from Western businesses, economists, consultants and the like to build a capitalist economy from scratch, while making a few million for themselves on the way.

But it is doubtful whether those who looked forward to building a new Utopia in Russia had imagined they were creating a world fit for The Muppet Show.

That, however, was indeed the case, as Jewish television producer Natasha Lance Rogoff’s new book makes clear.

In 1993, she had just made a TV documentary about the new Russia when she was signed up by the producers of Sesame Street, starring the Muppets, to create a version of the legendary American children’s series for the Russian market.

She kept a detailed diary of how she went about it, which forms the basis for her book. It is perhaps a little late in the telling but for students of those extraordinary years in the new Russia it makes for fascinating reading.

The project had captured the attention of the US government, which saw the Muppets as an excellent way of promoting its values to Russian children, and was ready to invest millions of dollars via the US Agency for International Development (USAID).

Influential figures in the Russian government thought the same way. Rogoff had never worked in children’s television but she spoke Russian and had worked in Moscow.

She knew that the key to working in Russia was to have good local fixers, and those she signed up proved invaluable in helping her to navigate the turbulent waters of 1990s Moscow.

The Russian show would have 60 per cent local content, the same sort of ratio that had seen the format successfully exported to countries around the world.

Yet initial optimism soon turned to despair at the impossibility of getting anything done.

Potential backers were sounded out, including the Jewish oligarch Boris Berezovsky, who had just been granted control of a popular television channel and was casting around for new product.

Rogoff supplies a wonderful description of dinner with Berezovsky, who is sceptical until she mentions USAID’s promised dollars, at which the oligarch’s eyes light up. He sets the deal in motion and all is going well until he barely survives being blown up in his car and goes into hiding: the deal disappears with him. (He died in mysterious circumstances in exile in Surrey in 2013.)

Death is a constant backdrop. Rogoff meets Vlad Listyev, a popular TV presenter who becomes head of the state TV channel ORT, to discuss their project. Soon after he suddenly bans advertising on the channel, he is shot dead outside the channel’s offices.

Rogoff ploughs on undaunted, though the problems pile up, not helped by corruption, arbitrary tax demands, a lack of local funds and the innate conservatism of the Russian artistic establishment, whose vision of the Russian Muppets is hopelessly old-fashioned.

The company I worked for at the time, Reader’s Digest, suffered all the same difficulties when trying to launch a Russian edition of the magazine, including the Post Office expropriating $25 million sent in by customers on the grounds that “we need it more than you”.

The business was saved by a bright young man in accounts who devised a payments system, using the new private banks and bypassing the PO.

Similarly, Rogoff finds talented young freelance designers and puppeteers outside the system, their enthusiasm and work gets Ulitsa Sezam on screen. It is a huge success and runs until 2010, coinciding with the country’s most successful post-Soviet years.

Alas, the free and democratic country that The Muppet Show’s makers hoped to help create has not transpired. Instead, it’s muppets of a very different sort who are running the show.

Natasha Lance Rogoff is speaking at Jewish Book Week on February 26

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