In 1993, commercial planes landing in Moscow were crowded with churchmen and businesses eager to establish a foothold in the rowdy and risky atmosphere of the new post-Soviet Russia. Among the influx of hopeful strangers was an intrepid American television producer named Natasha Lance. As a teenager, Mrs. Lance was so enamored with Russian literature that she changed her name from Susan to the more romantic, Chekhovian alternative. Fluent in Russian, having studied in the Soviet Union, Ms. Lance arrived in Moscow with a curriculum that fell somewhere between commerce and the religion of her fellow travelers. At the request of the children’s television workshop, she was commissioned to create a Russian edition of “Sesame Street”.
The popular educational program had transformed children’s television in the United States after its launch in 1969, and as these planes entered Russian airspace in the early 1990s – when Boris Yeltsin was president and the world had no not yet heard of Vladimir Putin – the creators of “Sesame Street” had already built up a fleet of nearly two dozen foreign co-productions. Adjusted for local tastes, the American show’s cheerful and progressive mix of short lively segments , live-action actors and idiosyncratic Muppets appealed to families in countries as far afield as Israel (“Rechov Sum”) and Mexico (“Plaza Sesamo”). What delighted children elsewhere, it was thought, would surely delight children of post-Soviet societies. Specifically, for policymakers, a Russian “Sesame Street” was a way to spread American values such as racial and ethnic tolerance, legitimacy non-traditional gender roles and the strength of an open society.