Talking Across Borders: An Interview with Russian Playwright Olzhas Zhanaydarov
Lark Global Exchange Apprentice Maia Safani talks with Olzhas Zhanaydarov (pictured left) about his play, THE STORE. An English translation of the play will be read at The Lark on November 4th, at 7pm, as part of the Russia/U.S. Translation Exchange Program. Reserve your seat now,
all tickets are free!
Maia: This play is based on true events. How did you first hear about this situation and why did it inspire you to write a play?
Olzhas: I knew about these events from a magazine which was given to me by my friend, who is also a director. When I started to study this situation I was emotionally stirred. I was not able to talk to the participants of these events, but I got the information from Moscow Human rights workers. I was shocked. I had no idea these things were possible in our modern world. Slavery still exists today around us, and I wanted to tell people. I tried to write the story about the migrant world which is a part of our lives. This world may be strange and frightening but we have to understand it. Such situations happen where we live and we should know about them.
My play is a combination of documentary and fiction. The real events which formed the basis of the play were dramatic. The grocery store was located in the Golyanovo, one of the remote regions of Moscow. For almost ten years the store’s owners held women from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan hostage. The owners forced their employees to work around the clock, fed them only once a day, tortured and mocked them. The salesgirls lived, worked and even gave birth in captivity – and all the customers were unaware or didn’t want to be aware. Finally, in autumn of 2012, Moscow Human rights workers discovered the fate of the migrants and freed them. Under the pressure of public opinion Russian prosecutors opened a criminal case, but it was closed and the store’s owners avoided punishment.
The fact that nobody was punished is sad. My play is an attempt to restore justice. I want people to not forget this story. Yes, it caused public scandal three years ago. But I think mass media information does not make strong and lasting impressions the way art does. Every day people watch the news, read the articles about crime, natural disasters, military conflicts and so on. And people get used to it. In general, it is of little concern to them. People care only about their own lives. I hope that my play makes people think about the world they live in.
M:Have you had your work translated before? What excites you most at the prospect of sharing this play with an American audience?
O: This is the first translation of my play in English, which excites me very much. When I wrote this play I hoped that it would be for a wide audience.
I think the theme of The Store will be very close to American audiences. My play explores the issue of migration. Russia and the United States are the two countries with the largest number of migrants in the world. Russia and the U.S. face up to the problem of migration, they try to solve it and to understand the psychology of migrants. For Russia, there are several obstacles in the way of solving this problem. A difficult economic situation, police corruption, and cultural and religious differences between local people and migrants, to name a few. My play shows these obstacles. I hope it will be useful for an American audience to know this information and to compare the situation to their own.
Another issue which may hit home is that of modern slavery. Slavery is a reality and not a phenomenon of old times. The play explores the causes of slavery: economic, psychological, and so on. Why did the salesgirls suffer for so long time? Why didn’t the local people care? What was the nature of the owner?
I tried to write the play with universal concepts. It is a story about the fight for freedom. It is a play about human survival.
M:While reading The Store, I was surprised to find myself empathizing with both Ziyash, the captor, and Karlygash, the captive. I was wondering if you sat down to write this play with the intention of showing how both of these women are trapped? Or, when writing The Store, did you surprise yourself by discovering certain themes or aspects of the humanity of these characters that you did not anticipate when you first put pen to paper?
O: Yes, I am glad you empathize with not only the captive but the captor as well. It was important for me not to show Ziyash as a devil in human form. She is a complex and contradictory personality. She wanted to be a law-abiding person. But she was arrested and her first store failed. So Ziyash changed her behavior. I think in other circumstances she might have had a different fate. She might not have been the captor.
As for discovering the humanity of the characters while writing, I found curious and thrilling observations on human nature. People can be cruel, indifferent, mean-spirited, dishonest without limit. Fedor Dostoevsky and his literary style are close to me. He studied humanity in his novels. I think The Store can introduce the audience to the fabulous side of human nature.
M:The children’s swing set serves as both a physical and metaphorical place for these characters. What is the significance of the swing set and why choose this as the convening point for these two women?
O: Yes, the swing set is an important metaphor. It comes into the play during times of decision. I think the swing is similar to a human life with its ups and downs. You live passing through successes and failures. When you are at the top you are happy. But when you are at the bottom you scared. Swinging is the same. People feel a variety of emotions while on a swing, and you may fall off at any moment.
The swing set is also a symbol of fate. Sooner or later the swing stops. And human life ends sooner or later. You cannot change this.