Nataliya Vasilyeva’s love affair with journalism started long before her first story appeared in a Moscow-based daily in 2007. In fact it actually began with a real romance when, as a 21-year-old student in Moscow, she briefly dated an Australian journalist and was fascinated by his job.
“At that point I didn't even dare to dream that I could make a career of those important things he did,” she admits. But in 2005, in her third year at university studying linguistics, she started working for the English-language website of Russia's leading business daily, Kommersant – and two years later realised she could no longer resist the urge to write her own pieces rather than translating someone else's.
She enrolled on the LSJ’s full-time course in September 2007, although she could still not quite picture herself doing the same job as her colleagues at Kommersant.
“The key thing I learnt from the course is persistence and understanding that journalism is about talking to people – or in some cases, nearly harassing them to give you information! I left behind a lot of inhibitions back then,” she says.
Anxious to get something published before the course was over, she successfully pitched a story to a former colleague covering how Russian Londoners voted in the Russian parliamentary election – and at the same time contacted Moscow's main English-language newspaper with a story about the challenges bilingual children face across the globe.
“Just as my tutors warned, the first story was the hardest. But again, as my tutors predicted, stories that followed were easy to pitch and write because the editors already knew me and I was more confident of my abilities.”
Finding a job in journalism was even more difficult than that first pitch, she recalls.
“I met AP's Moscow bureau chief six months before the course when they were looking for a new reporter, and I was clearly underqualified. When the course was over I sent him a note but there were no jobs. I kept on freelancing and took up a PR job to make a living. Fortunately, I didn't have to work in PR more than three months.”
AP offered her a job as junior business writer in June 2008. “Words can't describe now nervous I was on my first day,” she confesses. But it wasn’t long before she was working on major stories about Russia’s rapidly developing economy – and the country’s plunge into its worst economic recession for a decade.
Professional challenges have included developing strategies for dealing with rude and unhelpful government officials, coping with long working hours and covering the foreign and domestic trips of President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin, where meetings routinely run late into the night.
“My personal record is 16-hour day. And when you travel to some exciting place you often don't see anything except the airport, highway to the city and some conference hall.”
Other lessons included the realisation that it may be necessary to fight hard for promotion and better pay, even when you feel you are doing a “dream job”.
“I'd been asking for a raise and promotion for at least eight months before I got them, and I was even a few days away from accepting a job with a rival news agency. I was very happy I could stay at the AP but the long months of negotiations taught me that you have to push very hard and realise that media is a business like any other.”
She duly became a staff writer, and since August 2009 has been the Moscow bureau’s only business reporter – having also undertaken a hostile training course with the Royal Marines to prepare her to work in war zones.
But although she admits it was only natural for her, as a native Russian, to go back to work in Moscow when she finished her course in London, there are more opportunities there than people may realise.
“While I've been with the AP for more than two years I've received several job offers and witnessed the international media expanding and hiring locally – in a sharp contrast to what my friends and colleagues are witnessing in Western Europe and the US.
“Most British and American journalists who work in Moscow admit that they had no chance of getting a job with Reuters, AP or AFP in London, New York or Paris and I know a lot of people who established their reputation in Russia or another emerging economy before getting an excellent offer to move back to the UK or US.
“Some might say: ‘Hey, but you have to speak the language in order to get hired in some exotic location as this.’ That's not true.
“I've seen a lot of young journalists coming to Moscow with no more proficiency in the language than the knowledge of Russian equivalents of ‘Hello’ and ‘Goodbye’. So my personal view on the market right now is: yes, it's hard to get a job these days, almost impossible in developed nations, but is actually easy in developing economies such as Russia.”