We Dare You Not to Smile at Mister Rogers as the Ultimate Cold War Diplomat

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"Budyesh ty moi sosyed?" Fred Rogers sings to the host of "Spokoinoi Nochi, Malyshi," a Soviet children's program whose title translates to "Good Night, Kiddies."

"Won't you be my neighbor?" he then translates, melodically.

Rogers tackled a lot of sensitive issues in his time as host of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." The Cold War was just one of many.

He told kids about divorce at a time when the subject was taboo even for adults. He talked about mental health and kids with disabilities. Amid the civil rights movement, he cast a black actor to portray a police officer -- and even shared a wading pool with him onscreen.

Rogers also addressed the prospect of nuclear war with the Soviet Union.

In one episode, King Friday, ruler of the Land of Make-Believe, became nervous that a rival king was building bombs to attack his kingdom. So King Friday began to build bombs of his own. But the rival kingdom wasn't building bombs; it was all a misunderstanding. It was building a bridge.

Rogers wasn't afraid of anything, even the Soviet Union.

So when he had the opportunity to put his perspective into action, he seized it. In 1987, during some of the most tense days of the Cold War and the waning days of Soviet power, he packed up his trademark cardigan and brought Daniel Striped Tiger to Moscow.

The idea came from neighborhood delivery man, Mr. McFeely -- or rather the actor who portrayed McFeely, David Newell. Newell was also Rogers' public relations manager, and he wanted to do an East-West children's program crossover.

Needless to say, Rogers loved the idea.

Newell's effort didn't come about overnight. This was still the USSR, suspicious and wary of any American, even Mister Rogers, and giving the crew access to Soviet state television. But "Spokoinoi Nochi, Malyshi" and "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" had both been entertaining children since the 1960s, using puppets and imagination as a means of teaching kids about morals, manners and kindness.

Rogers' request was almost denied by Soviet negotiators when they demanded that "Tom and Jerry" accompany Rogers. But Rogers didn't like "Tom and Jerry," and he wanted to bring his style of teaching children to the USSR. Things were tense until he unleashed his secret weapon, the ever-shy Daniel Striped Tiger.

"Zdravstvuitye," the tiger puppet said, before hiding his head back into Rogers' sweater.

Just like that, the Soviet Union was defeated, no match for the American delegation's chief negotiator.

The two sides agreed to an appearance by Rogers on "Good Night, Kiddies," as well as Tatyana Vedeneyeva's visit to "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." The Americans were allowed to film a behind-the-scenes segment of Rogers visiting the studio where his Soviet counterpart was filmed.

Through a translator, Rogers is introduced to the Soviet show's host, Tatyana Vedeneyeva, as well as her friends Khryusha the piglet and Styopa the rabbit. The exchange is nothing short of heartwarming.

The crossover aired in September 1987 and, while the Cold War may have dragged on for a couple more years, all remained peaceful in the Kingdom of Make-Believe.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com.

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