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Interview with Stuart Prior, former New Zealand Ambassador to Moscow (2003-2006) Print E-mail

April 13, 2014 - 70th Anniversary of Russia-New Zealand Diplomatic Relations

Interview with Stuart Prior, former New Zealand Ambassador to Moscow (2003-2006), Honorary Consul for the Republic of Belarus in New Zealand, Chairman of Prior Group
Olga Suvorova conducted the interview at the request of the Editorial Board (Nasha Gavan #63)

1Q Mr Prior, how did you become interested in Russia?

I fell in love with the Russian alphabet at High School. A lady offered to teach basics of Russian in after-school classes. I went along out of interest. The alphabet was fascinating. Russian language was being taught at the University of Otago. I enrolled for Year 1 of Russian – and was amazed by the richness of the culture and thought behind the language, and the history of Russia through the eyes of my extraordinary Professor, an exiled “White” Russian, Dr Nicholas Zisserman.  He gave me knowledge and insights which have shaped my life and career. To him I have a huge debt which I shall repay as best I can.

2Q Has there been a “Russian theme” to your career?
Russia is a thread which pulls my professional work together. Thanks to my Professor I had the opportunity to lecture in Russian studies for three years (1973-1975). I then had a thirty year career in the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs (1976-2006) with two postings to Moscow, in 1978-1980 and 2003-2006. On the second occasion I had the immense privilege of being New Zealand Ambassador to the Russian Federation.  Since 2006 I have had extensive experience in the business world, with my company, Prior Group, which provides consultancy services and promotes value-added business links between New Zealand and Russia.
In 2012 I was asked by the Belarusians to become their Honorary Consul in New Zealand. I was privileged to accept. Among other things I have been given an opportunity to work with Russia as one of three members of the Customs Union.
3Q How and when did you become involved in Russia-New Zealand cooperation?
Shortly after joining the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1976 I was included, as a Russian speaker and junior policy adviser, in the negotiating team for NZ/Soviet discussions on meat, dairy and fish products. This continued into the period of the 1977 Law of the Sea negotiations about Soviet access to New Zealand deepwater fisheries. This practical experience of the difficulties New Zealand officials faced in negotiating with Soviet counterparts was helpful during my time at the New Zealand Embassy in Moscow in 1978-1980 when I found my duties expanding to take in the role of acting Trade Commissioner. I thought then, as I do now, that New Zealand could and should be doing much better in building reliable, long-term cooperation with Russia, and not just in trade. I have done my best to promote cultural and other people-to-people links over the years.     
4Q Do you have personal links with Russia?
Yes. My youngest daughter is a Russian citizen – and a New Zealander. She is baptized into the Orthodox faith. I am proud of her connections with Russia. My wife is Russian, with Russian and Ukrainian roots. She is a linguist and cultural anthropologist. We met in Moscow 10 years ago when she was finishing her PhD in Cultural Anthropology at Moscow State University. Now she runs her own company Russian Keys Limited. My in-laws live in eastern Ukraine now – they are from Transdniestria, a Russian-speaking enclave left alone after a national conflict with Moldova in the early 1990s…
5Q After forty years of learning about and working with Russia – do you see potential for New Zealand and Russia to work together?
Without doubt – all sorts of businesses, especially in the value-added and high-tech areas, primary industries such as agriculture, forestry and fisheries; education and training, especially work-related; the use of New Zealand as an entry point to the dynamically developing Asia-Pacific region; the potential for “triangular” and “quadrilateral” or “Malevich” relations for business – I like to think of the latter (e.g. New Zealand+China+Russia+Singapore) as a Malevich Black Square.
6Q What are the barriers?
The first barrier is conceptual. Neither of us understands how a “win-win” partnership is on offer which can help each of us to move towards achieving our own national goals. The second barrier is the lack of champions. There are few champions in the older generations. That makes the younger generation critically important. Nowhere in New Zealand or Russia – or at least nowhere which I know of – can young New Zealanders and young Russians learn about each other’s countries and peoples in a constructive, focused way, which makes them aware of the myriad possibilities for working together in today’s world of globalization and the extraordinary opportunities which exist. 
7Q What is to be done?
Ensure that young people in both countries have the opportunity to learn about each other’s country: that New Zealand is not “Hobbitlandia” and Russia is not a “den” in which lurks a big black bear. This means Government-level support – from both countries – for education and training, and providers in these sectors prepared to invest time and long-term effort in practically-oriented learning about Russia and about New Zealand, consciously linked into relationships which each of us has with the global economy at large. 
8Q Are you optimistic about the future of New Zealand-Russian relations?
Without doubt. My Professor gave me access to the incredible store of Russian knowledge and culture which can help New Zealand to develop the cultured, value-added society, which will make us a world leader. There are things which we can offer to help Russia to take its rightful place as a great global power. Where there is the will, we shall find the way.
9Q Finally, I should like to put some rather unexpected questions to you.
-  What are some of the features which, in your experience, make New Zealanders and Russians different?
Russians are NOT Anglo-Saxons in the way they think and express themselves – they are more Asian than European; they are also a collective people, more like Maori/Polynesians in my long experience; Russians prefer plain speaking (but there is a difference between plain speaking in the public glare and plain speaking behind closed doors);
- Are there similarities?
Yes. I have the feeling that we are, each in our own way, island peoples. Russians live surrounded by an ocean of land. We live surrounded by an ocean of water. Distance and isolation are realities for both of us. Our cities and towns are like “islands”. The way we think, work and network can be surprisingly similar, especially once you get to know people as people. “Distance looks our way”: strangely enough, Russia’s “horizontal geography” – over 10000km from Kaliningrad in the west to the Commander islands in the East - is just about the same as New Zealand’s “vertical geography” – from the Northern Cook Islands to Scott Base in Antarctica is also just over 10000km.
Thank you, Mr Prior, for finding the time to give this interesting interview. As a result, our readers have a chance to get to know you (albeit virtually).



Russia - New Zealand Video

To see the video of Stuart Prior, Prior Group Chairman, talking to National Business Review about Russia - New Zealand business opportunities please go to

Russia - New Zealand Quotes

When George Bernard Shaw visited New Zealand a reporter asked him his impression of the place and, after a pause, Shaw is said to have replied: "Altogether too many sheep".G.B. Shaw, 1934
Когда журналист спросил Бернарда Шоу о его впечатлениях о визите в Новую Зеландию, он ответил: "В общем, слишком много овец".Б.Шоу, 1934

Prior Group Market Reports

Russia - New Zealand History

We are having long lambskin coats made with outer surface of Gabardine. A good warm cloth overcoat is also recommended by Australian Legation which advises in addition, furlined coat. We have not examined cost of latter but have been informed by a local resident previously living in Russia that they are “de rigueur” for official classes, sheepskin coats being associated with peasantry…Fur caps and furlined gloves are recommended. Top hats are not being taken.
What a country in which the occurrence of queues outside shops is a sign of improving conditions.
It is the most wonderful springtime, the tenderest green on the trees. As always in Moscow, the spring is so fresh, it seems to be happening for the first time.
The Russian language is like a sack pulled over the head of the wretched foreigner. Those like Ruth Macky and me, who have cut an eyehole or two in the sack, have to lead by the hand those who are still living in the darkness. Curious, but the one who shows most promise of all the beginners is Mrs Boswell. For myself I reckon I’ll know Russian well in ten years’ time. It really is a monster of a tongue. Paddy Costello, New Zealand diplomat and linguist, Moscow, 1944

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