Three of the previous nine Confederations Cups have been won by the host nation and Russian Federation, playing in the tournament for the first time, impressed with victory in Saint Petersburg.
Midfielder Denis Glushakov flicked the ball over goalkeeper Stefan Marinovic in the 31st minute as New Zealand defenders rushed back to try to clear it off the line.
(AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky). Russia's Denis Glushakov, center, scores the opening goal during the Confederations, Cup Group A soccer match between Russia and New Zealand, at the St.Petersburg stadium in St.Petersburg, Russia, Saturday, June 17, 2017.
New Zealand's Michael Boxall got a touch on the ball and was credited with an own goal. The European champion opens its Group A program on Sunday against Mexico in Kazan.
Russia's win eases the pressure on winning its second game, against Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal in Moscow on Wednesday.
It was the ideal start for the Russians in a game played at the new Krestovsky Stadium, where President Vladimir Putin and Federation Internationale de Football Association chief Gianni Infantino both gave speeches before kick-off.
Putin, who urged Russian Federation to improve their performances in the build-up to the tournament, seemed to enjoy the match and was seen happily applauding Smolov's strike as he sat in the stands alongside FIFA president Gianni Infantino.
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The hosts had a positive start to the tournament which serves as a test run of facilities ahead of the FIFA World Cup to be hosted them in 2018.
"We knew the scenario with who was coming to the game", New Zealand coach Anthony Hudson said.
"When the president of your country comes out to make a speech this mobilizes us", Russian Federation coach Stanislav Cherchesov said through a translator.
In the only match played Saturday, Smolov took his chance to shine. Russia, a record low 63rd in FIFA's world rankings, face Portugal on Wednesday and New Zealand play Mexico the same day.
It helped the Russian team to seize the lead after twice having shots stopped on the line.
The All Whites survived until halftime but the largely one-sided nature of the match continued after the restart and in the 68th-minute a slick build-up resulted in an easy finish for striker Fedor Smolov at the back post when the Kiwi defence was again unable to clear a unsafe ball into the box. He prefers ice hockey and saw a team that carried fervent hopes of an Olympic title lose on home ice in the quarterfinals at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
Russian Federation are automatically part of the Confederations Cup as they're hosting the tournament, as well as the 2018 World Cup.