Russia was formerly one country of many incorporated in Tsarist Russia and then the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR, 1922–1991). The USSR, or Soviet Union, broke up in 1991. At this time many countries which had been republics within the Soviet Union, including Russia, the Ukraine, and the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, became independent. Almost all immigrants to New Zealand from countries that were formerly within the Soviet Union have come from these five countries. Some have also come from two other countries of Eastern Europe, Belarus and Moldova, but very few from the countries of the Caucasus or of what was Soviet Central Asia.
There were almost certainly Russians among the gold miners who flocked to New Zealand in the 1860s, but the first group to arrive in numbers were Jews escaping persecution. Some of the Jews who reached Australia, like the gold miners before them, travelled on to New Zealand. The Manoy brothers, Motueka businessmen, were New Zealand-born of a Jewish Russian father and an Australian mother. Their parents came to New Zealand in the 1870s.
The Melbourne-based artist Nicholas Chevalier, born in Russia of a Russian mother and Swiss father, spent long enough in New Zealand in the 1860s to leave a significant pictorial record of the country.
Through the last two decades of the 19th century and the early 20th century, people born in Russia (including people from the Baltic states, Ukrainians and Volga Germans – ethnic Germans from the Volga valley) arrived in steady numbers, bringing the total to 1,242 in 1916.
During the 19th century, Russians were seen by many New Zealanders as potential aggressors. From the 1850s, when England and Russia fought against each other in the Crimean War, unannounced visits of Russian warships to Australasian ports caused anxiety in New Zealand.
In 1873 an Auckland newspaper editor alarmed townsfolk with a false report that the crew of a Russian warship had seized gold and taken the mayor as hostage. The scare became known as the ‘Kaskowiski’ (cask of whisky) hoax, after the name of the fictional ship.
The later Russian scare of 1885 grew out of Anglo–Russian rivalry in Afghanistan and led to the building of major fortifications along New Zealand’s coast.
From 1918 to 1939 few Russians came to New Zealand. One who did emigrate in that period, Victor Zotov, arrived in 1924 as a teenager. He went on to become a leading New Zealand botanist. Harry Seresin, though born in Germany, was of Jewish Russian background. He came to New Zealand in 1938 and played an energetic role in New Zealand’s cultural life from the 1950s to the 1980s.
Refugees of the Second World War era included White Russians, supporters of the Tsarist government who had been living in exile since the Russian Revolution in 1917. Those living in Prague fled when the Soviet Army approached in the war’s closing months. Some came to New Zealand.
After the war some Russians arrived in New Zealand as displaced persons – people unable or unwilling to return to their home countries at the war’s end. Their arrival raised the total number of Russians in New Zealand: at the end of the war in 1945 there were 348; in 1956 there were 740. (These figures probably included a number of Ukrainians.) In 1965, about 80 Old Believers – members of a Russian Christian sect who had been living in China – settled in Southland and Christchurch. In the 1970s and 1980s, close to 300 of the Jewish people permitted to leave the Soviet Union came to New Zealand.
Fifty years after they arrived in New Zealand in 1948, members of a White Russian family gathered for a reunion. They had been living in exile in Prague since the Russian Revolution and fled to New Zealand after the Communists took over in Czechoslovakia. One daughter remembered: ‘My father, before he died, he said, “At least I have achieved what I promised – you will have your own roof over your heads and nobody will ever chase you out.”’ 1
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 the flow of people from Russia to New Zealand increased. The 2013 census counted 5,469 people born in Russia, of whom very few had arrived before 1990. Some women entered New Zealand as the wives or fiancées of New Zealand men.
In the early 21st century the Russian community, including first-generation children of Russian parents, was about 6,000 strong. About one-fifth of them were associated with the Russian Orthodox Church in Auckland.
Many of the Russians who came in the 1990s were professionals seeking economic opportunities and freedom from political restraints. Some had difficulty getting their qualifications recognised, and returned to Russia. But some 1990s Russian immigrants who stayed on weighed the setbacks against the pleasure of being free to leave their passports at home rather than carrying them for identification.
Some Russian seamen from freighters or fishing boats stayed in New Zealand after marrying New Zealand women. In the 1990s the Russian community in Wellington became concerned that ship-jumpers were giving all Russians a bad name, but the problem was short lived.
Like earlier immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe, some late-20th-century immigrants from Russia found New Zealand still a disconcertingly ‘new’ country and missed the museums, galleries, theatres and sense of history they had left behind.
Only when the Soviet Union broke apart in 1991 did many New Zealanders appreciate properly that the union had included many other nationalities besides Russian. The second largest Slavic group, the Ukrainians, had a long history of subjection before the Ukraine became independent in 1991.
There had been a few Ukrainians among the displaced people who came to New Zealand after the Second World War. In the 1990s there was a further small influx. The 1,350 people born in the Ukraine living in New Zealand in 2013 were enough to support a Ukrainian association in Auckland and a small club in Wellington. Contacts were maintained with the larger community in Australia, particularly through the Ukrainian Catholic Church for Australia, New Zealand and Oceania.
In the early 2000s there were very few immigrants in New Zealand who had come from other former Soviet republics, such as Belarus (201) and Moldova (84).
The Baltic states – Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia – were occupied by Germany, and after the Second World War by the Soviet Union. But when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991 they regained their independence. Fabian von Bellingshausen, the ‘Russian’ explorer who visited New Zealand in 1820, was born in Estonia.
Small numbers came from the Baltic states before the end of the Second World War. Karl Pallo, an Estonian engineer who arrived in 1929, succeeded in business. The father of another businessman, Woolf Fisher, who was born in Wellington in 1912, was a Latvian Jew. Alexander Astor, New Zealand’s leading rabbi for more than 40 years, had Latvian and Lithuanian parents.
Barrett Crumen, who arrived from Latvia in 1912, was just one of several New Zealand swaggers (tramps) known as ‘Russian Jack’. This name was given to anyone on the road who had a thick accent. Another ‘Russian Jack’ who walked the roads around the Canterbury town of Methven was said to have been a ‘real Russian’ who had fled across Siberia, presumably after the 1917 Russian Revolution, and then jumped ship in Auckland.
People from the Baltic states came to New Zealand in significant numbers only after the Second World War, when they were preferred by the New Zealand government over other displaced persons. Between 1945 and 1956, Latvians in New Zealand increased from 65 to 538, Estonians from 45 to 240, and Lithuanians from 24 to 207. One Estonian who arrived in 1950 as a displaced person, Ortvin Sarapu, dominated chess in New Zealand for a full generation and was awarded an MBE for his services to the game in 1980. The New Zealand communities of all three nationalities were less than one-tenth the size of those in Australia. From the 1960s the groups slowly declined as the few new arrivals failed to replace those who departed or died. By 2013 the number of Latvians had fallen to 300, Lithuanians to 189 and Estonians to 141.
Like the Ukrainians, the small New Zealand communities of all three nationalities maintained ties with their Australian counterparts.
The New Zealand census figures listed here show the number of residents born in Russia, Ukraine or Baltic countries.
In the 2006 and 2013 censuses, people were asked to indicate the ethnic group or groups with which they identified. The numbers include those who indicated more than one group.
Greif, Stuart William, ed. Immigration and national identity in New Zealand: one people, two people, many peoples? Palmerston North: Dunmore, 1995.
McGill, David. The other New Zealanders. Wellington: Mallinson Rendel, 1982.
O’Grady, R. M. The Old Believers. Christchurch: National Council of Churches, 1972.