Bird in the USSR: Learning from the (Canceled) ‘Big Bird in the Soviet Union’

Published: March 2, 2022
Categories: Commentary, Feature

In 1983, Big Bird went to China. Naturally, we all know how this resulted in one of the most classic Sesame Street specials of the era. But there was a deeper, arguably more important result from Big Bird in China, from a global viewpoint. With the country previously closed-off from the Western world, this special was instrumental in giving Americans a glimpse into Chinese culture and providing a further understanding of our neighbors in the East.

Just a couple years later, Sesame Street attempted to repeat their success. With the United States locked in a cold war with the Soviet Union, it seemed like a brilliant idea to help bridge the gap with another ambassadorial excursion from Big Bird. This time, Big Bird would travel to the USSR to show that we’re not so different after all.

It’s not known why the special was never made, but we do know that they got pretty far into development before pulling the plug. Jon Stone and Joan Ganz Cooney made several trips to the Soviet Union for fact-finding, location scouting, and meetings with local production companies. Had the special been filmed, who knows what sorts of conflicts could have been avoided?

As I write this article, Russia is in the midst of invading Ukraine and practically daring the rest of the world to enter a global war. It goes without saying that we at ToughPigs abhor these violent actions, and what Russia is doing goes against everything we’ve learned from Jim Henson and his greater works.

Ah, if only Big Bird in the Soviet Union existed, maybe we would all understand each other a bit better and learn through the teachings of Big Bird and his pals. Maybe all of this bloodshed could’ve been avoided, and we wouldn’t be so worried about World War III. Yep, all because of Sesame Street.

Beyond all of this geopolitical speculation, you’re probably wondering what Big Bird in the Soviet Union would’ve been. Well, we’re proud to share the story as we know it, direct from the treatment written by Sesame Street writers Jon Stone and Mark Saltzman.

Our story begins as Big Bird and human child “Keesha” prepare to depart Sesame Street to head south for the winter. (There are no notes for who Keesha is, but it’s possible this is a misspelling of The Cosby Show star Keshia Knight Pulliam, who appeared periodically on Sesame Street in this era. The role seems to call for a young African-American female with some acting experience, so the clues seem to fit.) Big Bird and Keesha hail a cab to take them to Georgia, and Oscar picks them up in his taxi. Rather than head south, Oscar takes them up through Toronto, across Canada, into Alaska, across the Bering Strait, through Siberia, and arriving at the Soviet Reublic of Georgia.

As Big Bird and Keesha contemplate why they didn’t notice they’d driven for about 6 1/2 days in the wrong direction, Oscar opts to strand them in the middle of nowhere. (He’s off duty.) The next segment plays out similarly to Big Bird in China with the duo exploring their surroundings, taking in the culture, and interacting with the locals.

Eventually, our heroes meet two new characters. First is “Gogi”, a seven or eight-year-old boy who speaks no English. Later on, he’ll bond with Keesha, despite the obvious language barrier.

The second new character is “Praskovia”, a Russian sorceress and fairy godmother-type. The treatment identifies Rhea Pearlman as portraying Praskovia, but of course we have no idea if this was fantasy casting or if Pearlman was already on board. Praskovia deduces that the tourists speak English (after trying a dozen other languages) and agrees to help them get back home. But first, they have a problem they need help with.

You see, Gogi is from a small village, which has been shrunken and stolen by the evil witch Baba Yaga, and it’s now being held inside a small crystal teardrop. So, she’s basically a magical Georgian Brainiac.

Oh, also Praskovia has a magical Russian nesting doll, which allows them to teleport anywhere they want (once for each layer of the doll). Pretty convenient, considering how massive the USSR was.

So of course, they all take this moment to sing a song – a parody of Cole Porter’s “We Open in Venice” where they list off a bunch of locations in the Soviet Union, and then they end with a traditional Russian dance. Exactly the sort of thing you’d expect from a giant bird, a sorceress, and a little boy who lost his entire family.

The team uses the magical nesting doll to follow Baba Yaga to Red Square in Moscow where they take in more of the local culture. Once they catch up with the witch, Baba Yaga reveals that her house is held up with chicken legs, and that she wants Big Bird’s legs to help make her house sturdier. So she takes another crystal teardrop, zaps Big Bird inside it, and disappears.

Not gonna lie, Baba Yaga sounds terrifying. If Sesame Street wouldn’t re-air the Wicked Witch of the West episode, I can’t imagine this one would’ve been any safer.

Praskovia, Gogi, and Keesha teleport to Baba Yaga’s hut to try and rescue both Big Bird and Gogi’s village, and we see the terrifying witch hut held up with a pair of giant chicken legs.

Keesha and Gogi sneak into the hut to grab the crystals, and Keesha unsuccessfully throws water onto Baba Yaga ala The Wizard of Oz. Eventually, they manage to trap her in one of her own crystals, but Big Bird’s crystal falls and crashes to the floor. Lucky for them, that’s how the spell is broken, and Big Bird is back to normal! Gogi plans to take the crystal containing his village back to its original location before giving it a good old smash.

Boy, the third act of this story really loses track of the original premise, doesn’t it? Somehow we gave up on learning about Soviet culture in favor of witches and teleportation and magical shrinkage.

Anyway, they all return to Georgia, embiggen Gogi’s village, and they have a big party with all their new friends. Praskovia transports Big Bird and Keesha back to Sesame Street just as Oscar is explaining to the rest of their neighbors about why he’d abandon them on the other side of the planet. And that’s the end!

There’s obviously a lot to unpack here. And not just with the weird deviation into a chicken-legged house. There was a lot of potential in allowing American kids to peek into the lives of their Soviet counterparts, and I adore the idea of Big Bird traveling across the globe to promote world peace and diplomacy. But mostly, it’s interesting and terrifying to see an incredibly powerful Russian take advantage of the people and cities they claim as their own property, stealing and inciting violence with threats of terror. It’s quite the metaphor, and it’s awfully fitting.

While we may never learn more about Big Bird in the Soviet Union, we can take what we can learn from it and hope that the current conflict in Ukraine ends quickly and peacefully. That’s what Big Bird would want.

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by Joe Hennes –

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Written by Joe Hennes

Co-owner and Editor-in-Chief.
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