The world's eyes are on Russia for Monday morning's Fifa World Cup final. But many New Zealanders have been living there for years. Michael Burgess meets Kiwis making a life in the largest country in the world.

Adventures with polar bears and reindeer

When you ask Rodney Russ about his time in Russia, one of his favourite sayings springs to mind.

"They say here that nothing is allowed but everything is possible," he says, laughing. "I think it sums things up well. There are a lot of rules and regulations, and it can drive you crazy sometimes.

"But there are so many opportunities. It's an incredible part of the world."


Russ has seen more of Russia than most Westerners, including pretty remote areas. His company Heritage Expeditions has access to the far east, and Russ has even lived with reindeer herders and whale hunters.

The father-of-two's foray into Russia began in 1993, when he chartered an ex-Soviet polar research vessel to run expeditions through the sub-antarctic islands of New Zealand.

A relationship grew and in the early 2000s, Russ leased the ship full-time, with a view to running trips through the Russian far east.

"A few companies had tried and failed," says Russ. "It had always been a closed area under Soviet control, due to the presence of military bases and the proximity to the US. We were the first company to take people in there and go across the top of Russia."

But how did Russ, heading a small New Zealand company, manage to gain permission?

"The key was getting locals involved," says Russ. "We wanted to form a joint venture. We have Russian ships, employ Russian crews and have local guides where possible."

Even after more than 15 years, the process of negotiating access and permits remains onerous.

"It's very complicated, more complicated by the day," says Russ, who is based in Russia between April and October, and Christchurch the rest of the year.

"The process starts months in advance. We have to get a blanket permit from Moscow, including the military, the fisheries and the natural reserves.

"Then we negotiate with local and regional authorities. And over-reaching it all is the FSB, the modern KGB. They are still fairly paranoid about foreign companies."

But it's worth it. Russ' tales of his experiences remind of Roy Batty's soliloquy speech in the original Bladerunner.

"I've done 50 trips to Antarctica and more than 100 trips to the southern islands, but the Russian far east trumps that," says Russ.

"Once, going through the northeast passage we saw a lot of white dots on the hillside. As we came closer we realised there were about 180 polar bears feeding on a dead bowhead whale.

"Those photographs went viral.

"I've seen Soviet military bases on islands in the middle of nowhere, that have been abandoned since the early 1990s, and we once saw 14 blue whales on a single leg."

Russ also had a stint living on Wrangel Island in the far north - "they call it the polar bear maternity ward" and last year the company made a transit of the northern sea route, across the top of Russia.

Over the past 15 years Russ has lived on his custom-designed ship from May to September. It carries 22 crew, including chefs, doctors and lecturers, and 50 passengers.

Underpinning his work is a strong belief in environmental advocacy. "That has driven my career," he says.

"If people can experience it, they will be more likely to want to defend it. You need to get people to see these places."

And sometimes his work has a direct impact.

"There is an endangered bird called the spoonbilled sandpiper which only breeds in Russia," he says. "We helped to find two new populations of the species."

Russ has also done his own exploring.

He travelled 6500km across Siberia on a snowmobile, living with reindeer herders and whale hunters. On another journey he drove 11,000km from Moscow to Valdivostok in a Land Rover.

He has traversed the northern end of the Road of Bones, where the Soviet Government shipped an estimated two million people to work on the gold mines in the 1930s.

"Russia is an amazing country," says Russ.

"The landscape is incredible, the wildlife is amazing, the human history is incredible.

"Business here has its challenges - there is corruption; it is possible to do well without getting involved in all of that, but it takes a lot of work.

"It's an amazing country, with amazing people but doing business here is not for the faint-hearted."

Never-ending Russian love story

Craig Curphey's 25 years in Russia began when he fell in love with Maria. Photo / Supplied
Craig Curphey's 25 years in Russia began when he fell in love with Maria. Photo / Supplied

Love took Craig Curphey to Russia, and the adventures and opportunities in the vast Eurasian country have kept him there for 25 years.

"It's always interesting here," he says. "There are certainly more surprises in life and you get a bit hooked on that. I'd say Russian people are more colourful and less inhibited than Westerners. They live for the moment, and are less risk-averse.

"And my daughter is more Russian than Kiwi, so this is probably home."

Hastings-born Curphey studied at Massey University before a two-year working holiday in London.

On his return, he got a job with the Dairy Board subsidiary Sovenz, which managed exports to the Soviet Union.

That sparked his interest in Russia, but his life changed one morning at work, when he met Maria Sokolov. She was beautiful, interesting, and happened to be the daughter of the last Soviet ambassador to New Zealand.

"She was at university, and came to visit her parents," recalls Curphey. "One day she came into the office with her father."

Curphey and Maria started dating but it was complicated, especially in the political climate at the time, wasn't that simple. Former Prime Minister Rob Muldoon had expelled a previous Soviet ambassador in 1980 and David Lange sent home a senior Soviet embassy staffer in 1987. Relations weren't great between New Zealand and the USSR.

"We couldn't leave Wellington without getting prior permission from one of the ministries," says Curphey.

After the USSR collapsed in 1991, the couple, who have a daughter, relocated to Moscow and married. It was a tumultuous time, as Russia began the painful transition towards a free market.

"The 1990s were mad, completely crazy," says Curphey. "There was a lack of infrastructure and a society that was changing rapidly. I remember sitting in my office one Saturday and I heard some loud bangs outside. There were two cars racing down the road, then a shootout at an intersection."

Curphey had taken a job with DHL and rose rapidly through the ranks. "There were very few expats here, and I got more and more promotions because there was literally no one else," he says.

"By the time I was 32 I was managing more than 600 people. Those opportunities wouldn't happen in New Zealand."

In 2002 Curphey set up his own logistics and fleet management company, later merging with a leasing company. They won big contracts, including a deal to provide 200 Chevrolet Tahoes, with drivers, for all of BP's foreign staff across Russia.

Things went well, but the 2014 sanctions imposed by the United States hit hard. "We probably lost half our business," says Curphey.

"It changed our client base, as we had a lot of US companies. It goes in cycles; we have grown fantastically, but there have been several crisis situations."

The company now manages a fleet of almost 5000 cars, although relocation can be challenging across the vast expanse of Russia.

"It can take six days to move a car from one town to another," says Curphey. "Cars can get stuck for a month in remote places, waiting for the roads to freeze or dry out."

In contrast to Western stereotypes of Russian people, Curphey finds them friendly and with a great sense of community.

"People look after each other," he says. "If you break down on the road, it won't be long before someone stops to help you. I remember being at a remote service station in winter, when I locked my keys in my car. Within 15 minutes people had mobilised to help."

Last year, when Curphey's car became stuck in heavy snow driving through the Ural mountains, he was rescued by a passing truck.

"They were rushing to work at an oil facility, but couldn't leave us there," said Curphey. "They spent about 20 minutes towing us out and the tow rope snapped twice. It was minus 20, howling wind and snowing, if we had stayed there it would have been life or death at same point.

"They had to delay their shift change at the facility to do it but it's like an unwritten code. They don't leave people behind."

The Mother Teresa of Vladivostok

Rachael Pearce at the charity organisation she founded. Photo / Supplied
Rachael Pearce at the charity organisation she founded. Photo / Supplied

Rachael Pearce went to Russia for a three-month volunteer stint, and ended up staying for more than a decade, changing - and often saving - hundreds of young lives.

Some she has helped refer to her as the Mother Teresa of Vladivostok.

Pearce brushes off such comments, but it's clear she has had a profound impact on a generation of the homeless, the lost and the desperate.

"It started almost by accident," says Pearce, "but once it began, I was driven to keep going, to do as much as possible."

"Often I just wanted to leave - it was hard - but I knew deep down that I couldn't."

Pearce's journey started in 1997, when she went to Vladivostok as a volunteer for three months to teach English. She was invited back for another year, and started to understand the reality of life in the remote city, almost 10,000km and seven time zones from Moscow.

"It was during the breakdown of Communism," says Pearce.

"It was a society struck by hopelessness and 70 per cent of the city were unemployed. There were all kinds of social issues, including alcoholism and homelessness.

"It was particularly bad for the kids, a lot of them sleeping rough. In winter some would sleep in the sewers, next to the centrally heated hot water systems."

When an 8-year-old attempted to steal her wallet one day, her initial anger morphed into extreme pity; "I'll never forget those big, empty eyes, I've never seen such desperation or hunger."

She brought that child some food, and the next day made sandwiches to hand out on the streets.

"At first, we just started feeding the kids," says Pearce.

"We made sandwiches, then after a while set up a mobile soup kitchen. In time we had a weekend camp, then a day shelter.

"It was the first shelter for street kids in Vladivostok."

Pearce formed a charity called Living Hope, which developed into a permanent home for children on the streets. But it was far from easy.

"Vladivostok was an outpost, almost like another country," she says. "Even the Russian Government had forgotten about it."

In the early years Pearce faced constant scrutiny from the authorities, including the KGB.

Her phone was tapped, she was followed and they broke into her apartment on several occasions.

"There was a lot of suspicion," she says."They couldn't understand what I was doing. They didn't know what my motives were, why I wanted to do this.

"They thought there was something behind it."

Pearce, who now lives in Tauranga and is a mother of one, describes her time in Russia as one of the best periods of her life, but also the most challenging; both heartwarming and heartbreaking.

"Over the years we have had thousands of kids on our files," she says.

"It was amazing to see how their lives worked out, what they made of themselves from absolutely nothing. But some didn't make it, they were unable to break the cycle of drug abuse or alcohol. It was so sad to see, as they had never really had a chance."

Pearce's work left a significant footprint, and has helped changed the destiny of countless individuals.

Her greatest legacy is that the local government has since taken over the orphanage and social services she founded, and there is now also a home for young mothers.

"It has been a massive change from when I first arrived," says Pearce. "Huge progress."

Pearce will return to Russia for Living Hope's 20th anniversary next year, and is looking forward to catching up with some of those she has helped.

"I still keep in touch with a lot of them," says Pearce. "It will be great to see them. Some are doing amazing things now."