Russians Down Under

From Here Now, 3:30 pm on 30 April 2018

The owner of an Auckland-based education consultancy for international students says he is seeing a spike in enquiries from people wishing to come to New Zealand from Russia, following ongoing turmoil between his homeland and the West.  But what is it really like to be a Russian in New Zealand, when tensions are escalating?

Five highly-painted wooden matryoshka Russian dolls lined up in order of height.

Five highly-painted wooden matryoshka Russian dolls lined up in order of height. Photo: Lisa Thompson

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The head of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, recently told the Security Council the Cold War was back – but this time without the mechanisms and safeguards that helped manage the risk of escalation in the past.

This bleak statement came as the relationship between Russia and the West reaches crisis point and threatens to topple beyond.

From the annexation of Crimea to suspicions of US vote meddling, to the Skripal poisonings and the chemical weapon attack in Syria, Russia is once again becoming the West’s pariah.

So what does it mean for Russians here in New Zealand?

Thirty-one year-old Dennis Vlasin, who runs his own education consultancy in Auckland, is matter-of-fact when it comes to talking about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s current relationship with the West.

A portrait of Immigration consultant Dennis Vlasin.

 Owner of Kiwi Education consultancy Dennis Vlasin Photo: Lisa Thompson

“They are fighting for something, for some benefits for them, not for the rest of the people in the country.”

But he is no more flattering about leaders on the other side of the divide. 

“We don’t have good sides, we don’t have good guys.  Only evil guys who are fighting against each other.”

Born in the Siberian city of Irkutsk in 1986, Dennis set his sights on living in New Zealand after being shown a tourist CD of this country when he was a teenager.

“I always felt like I’m not at the right place, I was a bit different, thinking about the whole world…travel…and the overall atmosphere in Russia was not for me.”

After more than seven years of meticulous planning, studying and saving, he arrived in New Zealand in 2011.

And Dennis says he is noticing the atmosphere at present in Russia is not for others either.

According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, there is a sizeable Russian community of around 15,000 people presently living in New Zealand.

And that number looks set to increase.

In March 2018, views of Dennis’s website Kiwi Education, which gives immigration and study advice to Russians wishing to come to New Zealand, jumped by over 50 percent.

From 700 page views a day, it leaped to 1000 after the Presidential elections and then 1500 following a devastating mall fire in the Siberian city of Kemerovo, which claimed over 60 lives.

Figures from Immigration New Zealand also show many more Russians seeking visas to work here.

Registrations of interest in New Zealand from Russians spiked in 2017 with nearly 28-thousand enquiries and are on track to reach similar levels this year.

As we sit in his office on Auckland’s Karangahape Road, Dennis tells me what a blessing it is to be on the other side of the world.

“New Zealand is far away from all of those problems, which I never liked.  And I don’t like the politics that is going on in Russia and I don’t like what is going on with the Western world – US, UK against Russia as well…

"It’s quite sad because I want my people to be more open to the world.”

He views New Zealand’s geographical isolation as a draw-card for those seeking security for themselves and their families.

“That is why now…I see some wealthy people, some businessmen…asking about Australia, New Zealand…where they can be safe.  Just in case.”

When I ask what it is like for Dennis having family still living in Russia given the current political climate, he doesn’t hesitate to tell me that he wants them here “as soon as possible.”

“Because you never know what is going to happen…maybe everything will be sorted out, but we cannot say it for sure.”

Dennis says he is happy to discuss Russia openly with me as he has “nothing to fear”.

But not everyone I spoke to in the Russian community here in Auckland find it as easy as Dennis to be open about the political situation back home.

Artist Dmitry Kotelevskiy came to New Zealand in 2010. 

Members of Russian newspaper team Our Harbour at the Mt Roskill Cultural Festival.

Members of Russian newspaper team Our Harbour at the Mt Roskill Cultural Festival. Photo: Our Harbour newspaper

Speaking with him at a recent International Cultural Festival in Mt Roskill, Dmitry becomes uncomfortable when I ask him about his thoughts on Vladimir Putin winning another Presidential term.

“I don’t like talking about politics because some people who don’t agree with me might get angry and very aggressive-making.”

He says New Zealand is home now and doesn’t feel it’s right to talk about Russia.

“I’m living here.  It’s not polite. 

"I need to be quiet about politics sorry!”

He patiently answers a few more questions before handing the microphone to the woman next to him and quietly slipping off into the crowd.

For translator Larissa Jivykh, making the move to New Zealand over two decades ago was an easy decision after experiencing travel with her work.

“No regrets, never! From the very beginning…so welcoming in different ways…very much grateful that this particular impression still with us.”

Larissa, along with Rimma Shkrabina, the editor of local Russian newspaper Our Harbour, were less hesitant to share their views – especially on Putin.

They tell me he fits the image of the ideal Russian leader - “strong” and “macho”.

And when I ask whether Russia is in a good place under his leadership, Larissa answers that he has kept the country “well exposed…good or bad.”

However, she hesitates when probed over her support for him.

“To be honest, I did not participate in the elections this year as I’m very confused…I understand I must participate but this time I took time out…"

"It’s difficult.”

But both women are optimistic that change is coming for their former homeland, with Rimma going as far as to suggest there will be a change in leadership before too long.

“Regardless of one person wants it or he doesn’t want it, changes are coming…maybe earlier than 6 years…”

Dennis Vlasin also shares their optimism.

“People are changing.  People in government, they’re changing, they’re dying, something happens to them sometimes and I’m talking about both sides, Russia, US, UK and so on.  And new people have new ideas of ruling.  New ideas of how to deal with other countries.

"So I’m an optimist, I still hope for the best.”