TWO days after George Shultz and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard LShevardnadze announced their INF arms agreement, two other representatives of the superpowers locked in a warm embrace in Moscow. Far better known to their viewing public than either of the statesmen, the two belong to a growing number of citizen diplomats. The fact that they are puppets manipulated by grown-ups should not make their encounter any less vivid to the millions of children who will see it on ``Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood.'' For when the cheeky piglet, Hryushka, grabbed Daniel, the shy striped tiger, and chortled, `What a nice little one,'' the chemistry was instantaneous.
Hryushka is one of a mischievous Lband of puppets Lwho appear nightly on the Soviet children's program L``Good Night, Kids.'' When a short clip from this program was shown on Ted Koppel's ``Nightline,'' and the host compared it to ``Mr. Roger's Neighborhood,'' the seed for this cross-cultural exchange was planted.
Fred Rogers and his crew have just spent 12 days in Moscow filming segments that will be aired the week of March 7-11 in the United States. In addition to parts of a puppet show at the famous Obraztsov puppet theater, US children will be shown samples of Russian architecture: the domes of St. Basil's Cathedral and other shapes Lthat will attract preschoolers. The visit to the set of ``Good Night, Kids,'' including the puppet-to-puppet encounter, will be part of this series. A film of ``Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood of Make-Believe'' will be shown on the Soviet program.
Tatiana Vedeneeva, the willowy blonde who for seven years has hosted ``Good Night, Kids,'' will return the visit in November. A former film actress, her on-screen presence is less parental than Mr. Rogers's. Her ponytail and the conspiratorial twinkle in her eye give her the air of an indulgent older sister. But when she showed her guest around the studio during a taping session last weekend, the chemistry of the unlikely pair again seemed right. If it was all a bit loony for a glamorous Russian in a calf-length black leather skirt to be listening admiringly as Rogers crooned a Russian version of his theme song from the piano, it seemed the kind of looniness that children would appreciate. As Ms. Vedeneeva noted, ``Children are unspoiled. They take this kind of thing from the heart.''
Technologically, the meeting of the two production teams was a fairly even match. Studio 2 at the government television center Ostankino is equipped with automated lighting, made in the Baltic states, that can be controlled from one panel. The American director Paul Lally was impressed: ``They can light a program here in 15 minutes that would take us two hours to do at home.'' On the other hand, Vedeneeva was unused to the body microphone used for the PBS broadcast.
Puppetry was the common language that broke down the barriers for the two teams. LWherever he went, Rogers Lpulled out Daniel, his well-worn hand puppet, to strike up a conversation. ``Hello, I'm Daniel, the striped tiger,'' the squeaky voice would say. ``I'm shy and I won't hurt you.''
``There isn't anyone I showed my puppets to here who didn't just light up when they saw them - man, woman or child,'' he observed.
Rogers was reluctant to make comparisons of puppetry in the US and the Soviet Union, though. ``You can't generalize,'' he said. ``That's probably one of our problems in life - that we generalize about people and Lthings.''
The Russian puppets being introduced to US children - along with the piglet, a hare named Stepasha, and Filem the dog - may be retired soon after their debut on American television. (``Good Night, Kids'' has been running for 23 years, but with a changing cast of characters and presenters.) Puppeteer Galina Marchenko said that a struggle is going on among the television higher-ups over Lwhether the puppets should be replaced with new characters.
``Children will write in,'' she predicted, to complain if the old favorites go.
``And now perhaps some LAmerican children will write as well,'' added Vedeneeva.