"Sesame Street' may go to Russia

Published May 7, 1992|Updated Oct. 11, 2005

Sesame Street by any other name would be Sesamstrasse, as it's known in Germany, or Plaza Sesamo, the show Mexican children flock to every day. Arabs call it Iftah Ya Simsim, and instead of Big Bird watch a camel named No'Man. Israeli TV's Rechov Sumsum features Kippy Ben-Kipod, a hedgehog prickly on the outside but sweet on the inside, and considered symbolic of the national character.

And now there is talk of moving Sesame Street to Russia, too.

"If we do not reform our education, we can hardly hope that we will reform our society," Elena Lenskaya, a director in the Russian education ministry, told a Senate subcommittee Wednesday. "Not Terminator, not Rambo, but Sesame Street."

Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., called the hearing to float the idea of exporting the landmark series to the former Soviet Union. A staple of the American preschool set since 1968, today its 13 foreign language versions draw a bigger weekly audience abroad than the 7-million who watch it here.

"The only thing that makes Sesame Street unique is its ability to be customized," said Baxter Urist, an executive at Children's Television Workshop, which produces the series for PBS and would provide a consultant for a Russian version.

Proponents suggest splitting the $20-million cost of producing two years of episodes, with the American half coming from the $640-million aid package now before the Senate. But Wednesday's session was low-key, and senators did not mention figures.

"My hope is that Sesame Street is not a one-way street but a two-way street," Sen. Hank Brown, R-Colo., told the visiting Russians. "The American education system has a great deal to learn from you."

Exactly what did not emerge. The reformers on hand had little to say for the educational system their predecessors larded with the most humorless Soviet dogma.

"It was for a long time considered a major crime in our country to combine education and entertainment," said Lenskaya, smiling a little.

Rather than Sesame Street, Soviet children were directed to Pavlik Morozov Street, the Moscow boulevard named for a little boy who betrayed his father to the secret police. For mentioning his opposition to collectivization over the kitchen table, the father was executed. Outraged villagers in turn killed little Pavlik.

Not only does Oscar the Grouch look cheerier by comparison, his series is suffused with values consistent with democracy. Lenskaya said it teaches self-esteem and respect for diversity at an age when children are particularly sensitive to such concepts.

Children educated under the Soviets could stand a few lessons in individual rights, she added. In kindergarten, Lenskaya said, "Someone says, "Let's play hide and seek!' The other children say, "Yes, let's.' Tanya says, "I don't want to.'

"What kind of girl is Tanya? Seventy-five percent of kids said Tanya is a bad girl because she doesn't want to do what the other kids want."