The midfielders got on the scoresheet either side of half-time to kick-off their World Cup 2014 qualifying campaign in routine fashion at the Lokomotiv Stadium in Moscow
Viktor Fayzulin grabbed the only goal of the game in the first half after Alan Dzagoev had sprung Aleksandr Kerzhakov into space, the latter proceeding to pick out the goalscorer with a cut-back to the centre of the penalty area.
Fabio Capello's team dominated the Italian manager's first competitive game in charge but the Northern Ireland defence, led by Jonny Evans, held firm to restrict their chances.
They could offer nothing in an attacking sense, however, as an isolated Kyle Lafferty cut a frustrated figure in attack, and the result was made safe when Roman Shirokov scored from the penalty spot after Craig Cathcart's foul on Aleksandr Kokorin.
The Russian team had a familiar feel, with Dzagoev and Aleksandr Kerzhakov leading from the front, but with Andrey Arshavin out of favour and Yuri Zhirkov injured, Dmitri Kombarov and Vladimir Bystrov came into the starting XI.
Cathcart continued in an unfamiliar role at left-back for Northern Ireland. Lafferty was the lone striker, with Jamie Ward, Corry Evans and Chris Brunt closest in support from midfield.
There was a swift tempo to Russia's passing from the off, with Northern Ireland pressed heavily when in possession, but the centre-back partnership of Gareth McAuley and Jonny Evans was able to disrupt the hosts' play in the final third. Their first clear sight of goal came when Bystrov scrapped the ball across to Kerzhakov, who pulled a poor shot wide from 10 yards.
It seemed the visitors were growing more comfortable and Russia's early enthusiasm fading when Capello's team found their first-half breakthrough. A loose ball that had ricocheted in front of the Northern Ireland defence was picked up by Dzagoev, and after the playmaker slipped in Kerzhakov he cut the ball back for Fayzulin to finish into the top corner.
Matters could have become worse when Shirokov found himself in space in the penalty area after a superb flick from Bystrov, but Roy Carroll made an excellent save to deny the midfielder and Kerzhakov headed the rebound wildly over the crossbar.
Northern Ireland were restricted to one or two Corry Evans forway sfrom midfield and a long-range effort by Lafferty that was easily saved by Igor Akinfeev, with the Sion striker severely lacking help in the opposition half.
Capello's comfort was outlined by the way he withdrew Dzagoev not long into the second half in order to give 21-year-old striker Kokorin a run-out on the left side of attack.
Kerzhakov very nearly put the game to bed with a free-kick from the edge of the box which hit the post after Chris Baird had been harshly adjudged to have fouled Bystrov, but when Cathcart barged over Kokorin in the box there was less surprise when the referee pointed to the spot.
Shirokov stepped up and passed the ball to Carroll's left to end the game as a contest and secure Capello's first victory as national team coach.
Northern Ireland finally showed some attacking spark in the latter stages, however, with McAuley twice going close. The West Brom defender's header from a corner was cleared off the line before he saw a goal-bound volley similarly stopped.