The evening skyline of Magnitogorsk, Russia, hometown of Evgeni Malkin.
Traveling to Russia to cover the Olympics is not supposed to be hard. In fact, they really try to make it pretty easy on you. For journalists, your official Olympic credential functions as a visa and helps you maneuver your way through customs in Moscow and then on to Sochi.
Well, I just HAD to make it complicated, didn't I?
I just couldn't fathom going to Russia for the Post-Gazette and not traveling to Magnitogorsk
, the hometown of Penguins star forward Evgeni Malkin, to write a profile of him and his life there. To do that, I'd need a couple of things: a fixer/translator and a separate visa that would allow me to travel somewhere other than Sochi.
Finding a fixer turned out to be pretty easy, thanks to some good luck. The only thing I could find on Facebook about Magnitogorsk, which is a steel city modeled after the old Pittsburgh, was the town's steel and iron works. So I posted on their wall and explained I was looking for someone who spoke English to help me get some things set up there. This was back in September. Within a few weeks, a phone call came in with a weird number as I waited for my car to get an oil change at Jiffy Lube on Baum Boulevard. I answered, and there was a Russian man speaking perfect English on the other end of the line. Turned out, he was the chief communications officer for the Magnitogorsk Steel & Iron Works. He wanted to help me with my story and would be my translator. Wow! Done and done.
He gave me the lowdown on how to apply for a journalist visa and an accreditation card from the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs so that I could get behind the scenes access of the plant there. We had to write a letter explaining the purpose of my visit and send it to them, and then they would eventually send word to the Russian Consulate in New York that I was being invited on business and would need a visa.
Well, a few months went by, and I didn't hear a peep. And not just that, when I called the Russian Consulate, nobody ever answered the phone or it was busy. I couldn't get any answers.
Turns out, my fixer discovered I had sent my letter to the wrong address! So now it's late November, about two months out from my trip, and we have to start the process all over again. This time, my fixer would help see the thing through by keeping in contact with the MFA.
More waiting.Finally. Let's get this show on the road.
Finally, in mid-January, I got word from the MFA that my visa would be ready at the Consulate whenever I made the trip to New York.
It worked best with my schedule to leave Tuesday, January 22, from Pittsburgh and arrive at the Consulate when it opened on Wednesday morning.
I was under the impression that I would just hand them my passport, and then they would stamp in the visa right then and there. I couldn't have been more wrong. Despite the invitation from the MFA, I still needed a filled out visa application, a passport photo, and a money order. I scrambled around the Upper East Side frantically and got everything I needed by the 12:30 p.m. close of the visa office. They said that I could pick it up on Friday at 2 p.m.
Why in the world would I have been nervous about that actually happening?!
With my flight leaving for Moscow on January 29, I needed to at least be back in Pittsburgh by Monday night. So if the visa wasn't ready for some reason, I could still wait and get it on Monday.
Luckily, when I showed up on Friday, my visa was ready to go. I haven't been that relieved since the last time Michigan beat Ohio State in football.
Magnitogorsk, here I come.