Okay. Take a lookat these lyrics:
“Sweepin’ the clouds away
“On my way to where the air is sweet
“Can you tell me how to get,
“How to get to Sesame Street? How to get to Sesame Street?”
The odds are great that just about every reader now has an earworm. And for most of us, it’s a welcome one. It reminds us of our own childhoods, or of our kids’; it’s a song of hope and joy and love, conditions and emotions that are far more available to children than to adults, and in perhaps imaginary historical periods that are not this one.
“Sesame Street’s” siren sound was even more potent for Natasha Lance Rogoff, who brought the show’s Muppets to Russia in the late 1990s. Ms. Lance Rogoff wrote a memoir, “Muppets in Moscow,” that chronicles her work with “Ulitsa Sezam,” as the mythic street is known in Russian, as well as her life. The book touches on questions of cultural appropriateness, Russia’s place in the world, its self-image, what children want and what they need, how to deal with corruption and fear, how to fall in love, how to make love work. (Not that it necessarily has answers for all of these questions.)
Ms. Lance Rogoff will talk about her book, on Zoom, for the JCC U at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly on Thursday, February 15. (See below.)
Her story begins in Mamaroneck, across the Hudson in Westchester County, where young Susan Eve Lance grew up. (Her older brother is Andrew Adam. The theme is clear.)
Her father, Sheldon Lance, who was born in 1917, was entirely self-made. “His mother left Poland, and he didn’t have a father, and so he wasn’t able to go to college,” Ms. Lance Rogoff said. “At first he sold rags, and then car covers, made out of parachutes, I think from World War I.” Eventually, he owned a business, Defender Industries, that sold marine supplies.
“My father worked very hard, and he was very focused on repopulating the world with Jews,” she continued. He trained pilots for the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II; in 1948, he went to Mandatory Palestine to train pilots for the IDF. “Later, he sponsored Israelis to come to America,” his daughter said. “He had all these letters from Israelis he had sponsored; I only saw them when he was 90. He never mentioned anything about any of it.”
Sheldon and Charlotte Rosnick Lance had five children; Susan was the second-born.
She went to Rye Neck High School — “the district where they basically carved off all the Italians, Blacks, and Jews so they wouldn’t have to have them in Rye,” the pure WASP district, she said — where she developed her lifelong — and life-changing — passion for Russian literature, and through it for Russian culture.
Why? “At that time, I think it was a pretty common part of the curriculum to study Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy as great literature, before the move to the literature of indigenous peoples,” she said. “So I studied it in class, and I was hooked.” It was the dark, dangerous, charismatic romance that pulled her. (She was young!) “I thought it was the most incredible culture,” she said. “The writing was brilliant, the characters were romantic and cruel. It seemed to capture the deepest aspects of what it means to be human.”
She was inspired by her maternal grandfather, Nathan Rosnick, who emigrated from a small Belarusian shtetl called Yanova to Germany and then to Springfield, Massachusetts, where he owned a butcher shop.
She was so enthralled by Russia that when she was 16 she changed her name to Natasha. “I just didn’t like my name,” she said. “I felt that Susan was the wrong name for me, so I changed it legally.
“You’re very dramatic and emotional at that age,” she added.
Ms. Lance Rogoff had a taste for adventure. When she was 15 she went to South America on an exchange program; at 16 she went to Luxembourg with the American Field Service program. She lived with a family there and learned French and German.
Next, she went to college at the University of California at Berkeley, “where most of my professors were socialists,” she said. “It was the early ’80s. In terms of history, we didn’t study Locke or Rousseau; we studied Marx and the Frankfurt School.” (To those readers who are not familiar with the Frankfurt School, we offer this explanation, lifted straight from Wikipedia: “According to the now canonical view of its history, Frankfurt School critical theory began in the 1930s as a fairly confident interdisciplinary and materialist research program, the general aim of which was to connect normative social criticism to the emancipatory potential latent in concrete historical processes.” You’re welcome.)
“Essentially, I was fascinated by communism, and by dictatorships,” Ms. Lance Rogoff said. “And I was obsessed with World War II, and I read everything I could find about it. I found it utterly incomprehensible — and I still do — that humans could treat other humans in that way. I just couldn’t grasp it. That’s why I studied dictatorships — China and Chinese history, Russia and Russian history.”
All of this leads to Ms. Lance, as she was then, spending a semester in the Soviet Union, as it was then, in 1982. She was 22 and a college student. “And then I ended up staying,” she said. She studied film and became a documentarian; “somehow I was able to wangle visas,” she said.
“I was utterly fascinated with the culture and the country and the people,” she said. “It was all-consuming. It was a very romantic and also exceptionally cruel place, and it was the juxtaposition between the private — which was incredibly intimate and warm — and the public, which was state Communism, and terrifying.
“It was that juxtaposition, compared to the relatively peaceful life we were experiencing in America, even with all the racial problems, and the problems of inequality, that kept me there. I had really good friends there, and boyfriends, and it was my whole life at the time.”
Being Jewish “was very relevant to my life there,” she continued. “It would come up many times. There was definitely antisemitism.” Jews had “Jew” stamped in their passport in the section for nationality.
“I did not have to deal with that indignity,” she said, because she had a U.S. passport, but “I had many Jewish friends and a lot of artists.” All of them had a hard time in the Soviet Union. “But I don’t think I faced antisemitism there at all, because most people didn’t know that I was Jewish. I was blonde, my name was Lance, and most people assumed, from my accent, that I was from the Baltics or from Georgia. I have a pretty good accent in Russia, but it’s not a Moscow accent. Because of what I look like — I have kind of a large nose, an angular face, and I’m swarthy — people would assume that I was Georgian.
“Because I was in a precarious situation as a documentary filmmaker, I always told people that I was Italian,” she said. “I was once at a rally where hardline fascists were spouting antisemitic, anticapitalist vitriol, and you’re sitting there as a Jew, and it’s really terrifying.” But eventually her work became a film called “Russia for Sale,” which she made in the early 1990s.
But this gets us too far ahead in her story.
Back in the 1980s, when Ms. Lance Rogoff wanted to move on from Russia, “I took the Trans-Siberian Railway across Russia, and then I took a boat across the Sea of Japan.” To be precise, she boarded the ship in Nakhodka, in Siberia, and took it to Yokohama. “From Japan I went to Hong Kong, and from Hong Kong to Guangzhou, and then, in 1983, I was in Communist China for three months. It had just opened” to the outside world.
Natasha, did you do this alone? “Entirely alone.”
Did you speak Chinese? “I learned some on the train; I had a book, and when I was on the train, people would teach me enough to get by.
“But it was also pretty problematic for me, because foreigners hadn’t visited these cities for 40 years, and I looked pretty strange to them. Sometimes 50 people would surround me, just looking at me. I learned how to say ‘Excuse me, but it is not polite to stare’ in Chinese.
“I was 23 then.”
The world was different then too, she said. “No cell phones, of course. No internet. You could be really off the grid. You could totally immerse yourself in the culture. Of course, at that time, in China, people weren’t allowed to fraternize with foreigners. So the people I’d come in contact with were mostly English language teachers who would pull me into their homes to talk to me about the West. They’d hide me in their houses, and we’d talk.
“It was an amazing way to get a feeling for living in a communist society.”
She would stay in “special hotels for foreigners,” she continued. “There was a special currency only for foreigners.”
After China, Ms. Lance Rogoff went to India and Nepal, “and I hiked up Annapurna,” she said. “It was a totally different time then.”
Her adventures didn’t end well, though. “Because of all the hiking I did, I got very sick. I had amoebic dysentery. I was in Delhi, India, and I was so sick that the place I was staying called the U.S. embassy. I was 23, and I almost died. And the experience of being so close to death affected me profoundly in terms of how I lived my life from then on. And I still remember what that near-death experience felt like.”
Because she was so busy experiencing the world, Ms. Lance Rogoff hadn’t yet graduated from college, so after her year-long recuperation she went back to Berkeley and earned her bachelor’s degree.
Her career flourished. She became a filmmaker and a Russia expert, beginning as a freelancer, “writing mostly about underground culture,” she said; among her work then was a documentary called “Rock Around the Kremlin.” When she was 25, “I was on air as a Russia expert, which when I think about it was pretty funny,” not because she wasn’t genuinely an expert — she was — but because of the deep earnestness 25-year-olds convey.
And she had a very real sense of purpose. “There were so many of us over here really focused on seeing what we could do to help bring freedom to Russia, in whatever way was possible. There was a lot of crossover between people working in the refusenik community, carrying samizdat, doing whatever they could. There was a strong Western community that was focused on exposing the horrors of living in the Soviet Union as an artist and as a Jew.”
That all culminated in the mid-1990s, when Ms. Lance Rogoff, who had never worked in children’s television and didn’t know very much about children, was asked to take the lead in creating “Sesame Street” in Russia.
Her book details an extraordinary series of meetings and deals and friendships and miscommunications and backstabbing and lots and lots and lots of vodka. Most of those machinations could happen in the United States, just as they did in Russia. But they also had to deal with assassination attempts and actual assassinations, of an understanding of childhood as dark, grim, regimented, and as stripped of spontaneity as possible — an approach to childhood diametrically opposed to “Sesame Street’s” joy, silliness, bright colors, giggles, sunny earnestness, and deep understanding of the need to question in order to learn and grow.
The book chronicles “Ulitsa Sezam’s” improbable success; as we read it, it’s not a surprise. There’s no tension about the outcome, because it’s not that kind of memoir. But Ms. Lance Rogoff makes the uncertainty and tension that “Ulitsa Sezam’s” producers and their employer, the Children’s Television Workshop, felt. It all could have been a flop and a disaster.
But it wasn’t.
During her time as Ulitsa Sezam’s producer, Natasha Lance met Kenneth Rogoff, the brilliant former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund who later became a professor of economics at Princeton and now holds that same position at Harvard, where he is the Thomas D. Cabot Professor of Public Policy. He’s a chess grandmaster. According to Ms. Lance Rogoff, he’s also a sweetheart, a genuinely kind man. The two fell in love and married during the production of the first season of Ulitsa Sezam, and the first of their two children was born soon after that season ended.
Since then, Ms. Lance Rogoff has gone on to have a sparkling career; she’s now, among many other things, an associate in Harvard’s art, film, and visual studies department.
There is much to mourn in looking back at “Ulitsa Sezam,” if you see it as representative of the Western hope for Russia’s future. The show did manage to meld Russian folklore with Muppets, and to temper Russian darkness with New World sunshine. It made a generation of children very happy in its 30 or so years.
Now Russia has gone very dark; its invasion of Ukraine and Putin’s grasping for more, more, yet more power signal a change in global politics. But Ms. Lance Rogoff sees hope, and she certainly speaks from knowledge.
“It is incredibly heartbreaking to see where we are today and where we were 30 years ago,” she said. “I am in touch with many of my former colleagues, who had to flee overnight because they had been speaking actively against the war and against Putin. And at the same time, I see this story about the making of ‘Sesame Street’ there, where we enunciated many of the themes that resonate with what’s happening today — issues like Russian pride, the sense of Russian cultural superiority. And this is at the same time when we encounter many hundreds of Russian artists who were very open and passionate about building a better future for their society, and better life for the next generation.
“It is really bittersweet to write this book and have people across the United States and internationally connect with it. I have had so many emotional conversations with Russians, Armenians, Ukrainians, and Georgians who grew up with the show.” Their memories are sweet.
“It is really sad to see this, to know it, and then to read about Putin meeting with the leaders of Iran and Hamas.
“The consequences of our deteriorating relationship with Russia will have far-reaching consequences.”
Still, she feels hope. “I believe there is so much reason for hope,” she said. “This generation that is fighting in Ukraine — some of them are older.” (That’s because the younger generation of Ukrainians rushed to defend their country when Russia invaded on February 24, 2022; most of them are dead, disabled, or too exhausted to fight now.)
“They all grew up on ‘Ulitsa Sezam.’ Zelensky” — that’s Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky — “did too. This is the ‘Ulitsa Sezam’ generation.
“Many of the million and a half or so people who have walked out of Russia because they don’t want to support the war also are part of that generation. They are also part of the ‘Ulitsa Sezam’ generation. There is a huge diaspora of Russians who still are very patriotic, very passionate about their country.
“I have a lot of hope for these people. I also have a lot of hope for those people who are silent. I talk to them on the phone or on WhatsApp. They have to be silent, but they are there.
“So the idea of the whole country supporting Putin and the war is absurd to me. It doesn’t reflect an understanding of why people feel they can’t express themselves freely. In a dictatorship, it is dangerous to do so. If you have young children or elderly parents, you can’t afford to go to prison for 15 years for opposing the war. So people do what they have to do, to survive living in a dictatorship.”
But Ms. Lance Rogoff thinks it’s entirely possible that the values that “Sesame Street” taught them — the values of friendship, openness, silliness, playfulness, and community, as well as the importance of recognizing letters, which lets you read and gives you access to the whole huge world — is motivating them even today.
That means that she’s helped make our world a better place.
Who: Natasha Lance Rogoff
What: Will talk about her book, “Muppets in Moscow”
Where: Online, in a JCC U talk for the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly
When: On Thursday, February 15, at 11 a.m.
How much: $12 for JCC members, $15 for everyone else
To learn more and register: Go to jccotp.org and click on Adults, on the menu bar at the top. Then click on Lectures and Learning and then on the JCC U. Or call Marisa at (201) 408-1456.