khrushcheva162_Matthew SimmonsGetty Images_muppets Matthew Simmons/Getty Images

Russian Muppets or American Puppets?

In the 1990s, when much of America’s media and political class was delivering condescending lectures to Russians, the team tasked with bringing the children’s show “Sesame Street” to Russia embraced collaboration and sought to convey universal values. Their experience – and success – offers valuable insights into the Russian mind.

MOSCOW – Westerners have spent two decades wondering why the Russian people have fallen under the spell of Vladimir Putin. Diplomats, historians, economists, and pundits have all failed to provide a satisfying explanation. But where academics and strategists have failed, perhaps the denizens of Sesame Street, from Kermit the Frog to Elmo, might succeed.

It was 1996. My homeland was in the midst of “shock therapy” – the rapid liberalization and privatization of its economy by decree, after the Soviet Union’s fall – and I was at Princeton working on my doctorate. One day, a report about Russia on CNN caught my attention. Unusually, it was not about a killing or business takeover or an oligarch’s rise or fall – negative coverage delivered with a holier-than-thou tone that never failed to rankle. Instead, it is a seemingly positive story: the Muppets were headed to Moscow.

But listening to the CNN host’s arrogant commentary, my relief quickly gave way to frustration. The establishment of a Sesame Street in Russia was not, apparently, an example of cultural cross-pollination, enabled by the country’s opening. Rather, Miss Piggy and Big Bird would ensure that American democratic sensibilities took root in the hearts and minds of children across the vast post-Soviet space – not just in Russia, but also in Estonia, Ukraine, Georgia, and other former Soviet republics. I changed the channel.