World Cup: From Russia with love... Expats living in Northern Ireland say their country is playing a good game
Seeing their nation roll out the red carpet to welcome football fans from around the globe has delighted Northern Ireland's Russian community. Stephanie Bell chats with two of them.
‘This a chance to really show what we are all about'
Maxim Petrushkin (42), who is known as Max, lives in Comber with his wife Lesley (43) and their two children Emily (8) and Lara (11). He grew up in the austerity of the old Soviet Union and says the Russia of today is very different from the one he remembers as a child.
It was the Troubles that attracted Max to Northern Ireland - as a young student he wanted to study the conflict and became a volunteer with the Corrymeela Centre, our oldest peace and reconciliation organisation.
He says: "The late Rev Ray Davey ran the centre at that time. He had been a prisoner of war in Dresden and came back and started the centre. I always had an interest in Northern Ireland affairs and the British/Irish conflict from the socio-economic class struggle point of view as opposed to the religious conflict. I applied to work at Corrymeela and was successful. I think I was the first Russian to be a volunteer there.
"I'd done business studies in Russia but being at Corrymeela changed my career path and I went to the US to study conflict analysis and sociology."
Ironically, it was while studying in the US that he met Lesley, who happened to be from Northern Ireland. She was on holiday and the couple got chatting in an Irish bar in Washington DC. They started a long-distance relationship, with Max eventually returning to Northern Ireland when he finished his course to marry Lesley. The couple settled in Comber.
Max's mother and brother live in Russia and he and his family fly over every year to visit. His mum also enjoys annual trips here.
This week, however, he has been travelling alone as he headed back to his native country to enjoy the football festivities. Although not a huge fan, when he heard that his home town of Nizhny Novgorod was a host city in the World Cup, he applied for tickets.
Getting there entailed one of the longest journeys home he has ever undertaken. "The World Cup in Russia was to me the opportunity of a lifetime and not to be missed," he explains. "I'm staying there on my own for nine days and thankfully my wife is supporting me as I will be leaving her and the kids behind. I'm not particularly a football fan but I would like to see Russia do well. I am going for the atmosphere.
"I joined the lottery for tickets like everyone else and was lucky to get tickets to two games, Costa Rica vs Switzerland in my home town and the England game last Sunday.
"With the English fans travelling, too, it was not easy to book flights and my usual route was so expensive.
"In the end I got a flight to St Petersburg, which is 1,000 miles from home, then travelled by train on an overnight 14-hour journey."
Max has seen huge changes for the better since he left Russia 20 years ago and believes that locals attending the World Cup will be at the very least impressed by the warmth of the welcome and hospitality from the people.
He says: "Most of my adult life has been spent overseas and while I try and keep in touch with affairs in Russia, I mainly follow local politics.
"For years I thought our politicians were the worst, and then I came to Northern Ireland.
"Like everywhere else, politics here leaves much to be desired."
While Max detects a change for the better in Russia, he is not oblivious to the problems in his homeland.
"I know a lot of people still struggle and there are still many issues, but then we have issues in Northern Ireland too. It is fantastic Russia is hosting the World Cup - it is an opportunity for the world to see what Russia is about and not what the media leads the world to believe. Fans will get a first-hand experience and will be genuinely surprised by how welcoming and hospitable local people are.
"I have a couple of friends on Facebook who have been posting about how delighted they have been to interact with and engage with the fans. I don't see any negatives.
"For years people were told Belfast was a scary place, even in Soviet times, and my family had concerns when I decided to come here. But I've been here and experienced the Troubles and found a lot of hope and good folk, and in Russia it is much the same."
‘The atmosphere has spread throughout the entire country’
Anzhelika Voskanyan (44) is a language teacher and interpreter from St Petersburg. She has lived in Northern Ireland for 12 years with her husband, a Dublin-born solicitor, and their two daughters who are 11 and 14. The couple lived in Bosnia before moving here, when her husband got a job with a local firm.
"Northern Ireland is a really lovely place," she says. "It took me a while to get used to it but once you get used to it you find the people are extremely friendly.
"Russia has changed a lot since I left in my 20s. I just wanted to be a teacher and have a decent standard of living and I taught in university in Russia.
"At the time it wasn't a great salary and it wouldn't cover your daily needs, never mind any luxuries.
"But I go back home every year and I would meet up with old colleagues and I know from talking to them that things have really improved."
Anzhelika has just returned from a visit home, where she says the World Cup has brought a real vitality to the streets of Russia.
Indeed, she got a chance to meet and talk with fans from all over the world when she was forced to spend 48 hours in Moscow Airport when her flight was cancelled.
"I was stuck in Moscow Airport for two days when British Airways cancelled our flight to Heathrow twice. I was sitting with football fans and the impression I got was that they really enjoyed being in Russia.
"It was a strange experience because after two days with the same people it felt like we were all friends and knew each other.
"People would be walking past you and would say hello as if they knew you."
Anzhelika is from Krasnodar, a city in southern Russia which has its own Russian Premier League football team FC Krasnodar. Her mother was in charge of the club's grounds and so she spent a lot of her childhood at the stadium.
She shares her mother's affection for the game, saying: "I like football although I don't support any particular football team. Mum worked as grounds manager all her life in our local football stadium and I grew up there. I was very used to being in a big stadium.
"Even though our city didn't host any of the matches, the atmosphere has reached there too.
"My city would have very good connections with other cities so when you came out of the airport there were loads of stalls manned by volunteers issuing so-called 'fan passports'. These were passes given by the government to all fans so that they could use public transport for free.
"From what I could see everything was very well organised. Everywhere there was this colourful, lovely atmosphere.
"If you think of all the Russian stereotypes, they were there in the streets - people dressed as Russian dolls and people singing and it was just pure entertainment.
"A question Russian people are often asked, and it is a bit of a joke in Russia, is do we really have bears on the street, and while I was there last week someone actually put a circus bear in a car and drove it along the street, which was rather funny."
Naturally, Anzhelika is rooting for her home nation and admits to being surprised that Russia has done so wellthus far, winning two of the three group games and qualifying for the next round.
She adds: "Winning their second game was definitely a feather in their cap. I didn't expect them to do so well. I hope they get to the quarter finals, that would be really good."