Finding Home: Migration, Exile, and Belonging Essay Salon


Migration is the story of the search for a better life.


I am a Kazakh playwright living in Russia. I moved with my parents from Kazakhstan to Russia when I was 6 years old. We lived in a united country – the Soviet Union. In 1991 this country was divided into several independent states. I graduated from Moscow high school and the Russian Economic Academy. I have a Russian education and mentality. I have Russian friends. I write my plays in Russian. I love the place where I live now. But where is my real home?

Playwriting is my life. I tell people the stories about human victories and defeats, hopes and hurts, good and evil. But there is one topic that is the most important to me: national identity.

In my first play, “The Earplugs,” I tell the story of two brothers who are natives of Kazakhstan, living in a small and cramped apartment in Moscow. They have financial problems and have to share the same room. They have different dispositions. They constantly quarrel and argue with each other. Eventually one brother dates a Russian woman and he wants to marry her. However, he does not know that his girlfriend is sleeping with his brother…

The play shows not only the family problems and the problems of personal relationships but also the problems of national identity. The brothers moved to Russia from Kazakhstan in childhood but they do not feel loved in their new homeland. At the same time the brothers have lost touch with their old homeland. It causes depression and adds another problem to their situation. They feel like strangers in a strange land. But they do not want to go back to where they were born. So, where is their home?

Modern time is a time of migration. A hundred years ago people lived in one place for a lifetime. They did not tend to migrate. Today people change their place of residence many times. Migration is the story of the search for a better life. It is the modern story. In the old days people did not have the internet and they did not know as much about other places. They did not have the temptation to leave. Nowadays people are looking for a better life. They want to move to rich countries and cities. “Grass is always greener on the other side of the fence”.

But the reality of living your life in a new place is sometimes cruel. A few years ago I heard about the fate of migrants from Central Asia who worked in a small grocery store located in the Golyanovo, one of the remote regions of Moscow. For almost ten years, the store’s owners – a husband and wife – hold the women from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan hostage. The owners force the employees to work around the clock, feed them once a day, torture and mock them. The salesgirls live, work and even give birth in captivity. The customers did not know or didn’t want to know about what was going on in the store. Only in the fall of 2012 did Moscow Human rights workers free these migrants. Under the pressure of public opinion, Russian prosecutors opened a criminal case but it was closed and the store’s owners avoided punishment.

I wrote the play about these events – “The Store”. This play is the combination of documentary material and fiction. I tried to understand why the salesgirls had left their home for life in a foreign country and why they suffered so many years of pain and humiliation. Why?
I guess they wanted to be happy. We all want to be happy. Maybe it is part of Soviet mentality that we are willing to suffer for the sake of happiness. The salesgirls from Central Asia worked in the store and believed a better life was in store for them in the future. They suffered and believed. Today thousands of migrants from the former Soviet republics continue to work in Russia. They suffer and believe.

I often travel to Kazakhstan. I meet with my relatives and I feel good. I love the place where I was born. Is it my home? I do not know. I love Moscow. I used to live in this city for many years. Is it my home? Maybe. But I do not know exactly. I probably try to answer this question through writing my plays.

Some time ago I came up with a suitable metaphor for my situation. My name is Olzhas. But Russian people pronounce my name as Alzhas. Within the first letter of my name in Russian is an unstressed vowel. So it sounds like Alzhas. The Kazakh language has no unstressed vowels. Kazakhs pronounce my name correctly, as it is written – Olzhas.

This is the metaphor of my national identity. In Kazakhstan I am Olzhas. In Russia I am Alzhas. I have two identities. My home is both Russia and Kazakhstan. It does not divide my personality in half. It makes my personality better.

I have long understood the importance of being open-minded in the modern world. Especially if you are a man of art. Art blurs the boundaries between countries. Art helps to understand where your real home is. I think your home is in your mind. You can be happy in any place if you are happy in your mind.

People want to be happy. People are looking for a better life. They change their place of residence many times. And if people are not satisfied with their situation they begin to ask themselves: “Where is my real home?” But the truth is simple: your home is where you are happy.



OLZHAS ZHANAYDAROV was born in Almaty, Kazakhstan, in 1980. His father was an army officer. In 1987 his family moved to Moscow. In 2002 he graduated from the Russian Plekhanov’s Academy of Economics with honors degree and started working. He worked as a manager in a tourist company and as an administrator in a hotel. Six years ago he started his dramaturgy career.
For now he has written 8 plays. The plays were awarded Gran-Prix of International competition of Modern Drama “Free Theatre”, First Prize of International playwrights’ competition “Eurasia”, National Theatre Award “Golden Mask” for the Best Play (The Store) and so on. The plays premiered at theatres of Moscow, Saint-Petersburg, Novosibirsk, Ufa, Astana, Almaty and other cities. The texts of the plays have been translated into English, German, French, Kazakh, Bashkir, Polish, Czech, Turkish and other languages.



Ruth Margraff is a playwright and writing program chair at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Margraff's plays, poetry and opera works include Anger/Fly; Three Graces; Temptation of the Fresh Voluptuous; Cafe Antarsia Ensemble; Seven; Stadium Devildare; The Cry Pitch Carrolls; The Elektra Fugues; Night Vision; Deadly She-Wolf Assassin At Armageddon, Voice of the Dragon 1,2,3; Judges 19: Black Lung Exhaling; All Those Violent Sweaters; Red Frogs; Night Parachute Battalion; The State of Gristle; Centaur Battle of San Jacinto; Wallpaper Psalm. Her work has been performed at various festivals and venues throughout USA; UK; Canada; Russia; Romania; Serbia; Hungary; Ireland; Italy; Greece; Turkey; Slovenia; Czech Republic; Croatia; France; Austria, Sweden; Japan; Egypt; India, Azerbaijan. She is recipient of numerous awards from institutions including Rockefeller Foundation; McKnight Foundation; Jerome Foundation; National Endowment for the Arts; Theater Communications Group; Fulbright; New York State Council on the Arts; Illinois Arts Council; Arts International; Trust for Mutual Understanding of New York, CultureConnect. 

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