It was only a matter of time before Hollywood saw the tragicomic potential of the Russian mail-order bride business.
But while the recently released film "Birthday Girl" predictably focuses on the perils of marrying a stranger, some dating agencies claim that it needn't be such a risky business. The answer, they say, is for potential couples to meet face to face rather than via a computer interface.
Arizona-based A Foreign Affair is one of a rapidly increasing number of agencies that organizes trips for Western men to visit Russia and former Soviet republics, where they can get to know a variety of women recruited through the local press.
John Adams, owner of A Foreign Affair (www.loveme.com), says dating tours have taken off since he founded his agency in 1995. He uses his own happy marriage to Tanya, whom he met three years ago while leading a tour to St. Petersburg, as an example of how well the trips can work.
Adams believes that the increasing popularity of these tours, where Russian women are invited to social events such as "Hollywood Nights" to meet Westerners, stems from Western male confusion.
"The roles in the West are so muddled, but in Russia men and women's roles are much more clearly defined; you don't have to worry about offending a woman if you open a door for her," he says. Michael Berkowitz, a 54-year-old California businessmen who is hoping to marry a Russian woman he met on a tour to Moscow, agrees.
"I like Russian women more than American women," he says. "It seems as if Russian ladies are more involved with the relationship; you are not just a money tag and they are willing to put themselves out for their man."
American television series such as "Ally McBeal" and "Sex and the City" might imply that there are thousands of desperate single women looking for husbands in the United States, but Adams says this is not the case. Successful men in their late 30s and 40s hoping to start a family can't find a partner because older women have decided they don't want children and twentysomethings are too busy establishing a career, he says. In Russia, on the other hand, younger women can't find a stable partner.
"The fit between Russian women and American men is very good right now," he says.
Sabina Kuliyeva, 24, who joined A Foreign Affair in Moscow a month ago along with her twin sister Nazira and best friend Irina Gazaryan, 32, says she is attracted to American men mainly because they offer the promise of stability.
"We live different lives and according to different rules than in America," she says. "There you have stability and Americans always try to plan their lives. Russians never plan anything because we don't know what we will face tomorrow. I was surprised to learn that foreigners even plan when to have children!"
Kuliyeva and her sister say the next most important things in a man are kindness, honesty and openness. Money, they claim, is less important.
Anna, a secretary at the Gimeney marriage agency in Moscow, says that while wealth never hurts, the Russian girls on her books are not interested in money or appearances but simply in finding a well-educated, kind man with a good job. Most also hope to move to the United States, she says.
All the same, money can be an issue, as Greg, a 42-year-old from Vancouver, found out. Greg went on a tour organized by the Anastasia agency to Kiev, where he met a girl he describes as "kind of young." Upon his return to Canada, Greg sent the girl money, which he admits was a mistake. "She wasted it and kept wanting more and more," he says. "In Kiev, the women are poorer and more desperate, and I am now more suspicious of women who come from these poverty-stricken areas."
Greg is coming to Moscow this week to take a girl he met on a tour organized by A Foreign Affair to Italy for a week. He says she is independent and earns her own money and so believes that when she makes a decision about marriage it will be for love.
While money is seen as an attractive feature in the men, looks are all-important for the women. Kuliyeva, for example, describes herself, her sister and best friend as "very beautiful."
Gimeney's charming motto is "Everybody who is seeking love is beautiful," but this does not stop it running screening tests. Most agencies claim to accept only a small percentage of the women who apply, while Womenrussia.com puts it more brutally on its web site: "Most photos received by agencies in response to ads feature ordinary women, and there are no doubts why these women are alone."
Alex, who works at A Foreign Affair's Moscow office, says foreign men are attracted to Russian women partly because they are very beautiful but also because they epitomize the fading dream of the immaculately made-up 1950s-style housewife.
Greg agrees, saying, "Russia is just like the '50s, when women cared about their appearance. It's all tattoos and body piercings where I live. It's really kinda neat being able to be masculine -- not chauvinist, but just act like a guy and not have to worry about being politically correct."
Berkowitz adds, "Russian women are very feminine looking and acting, and they walk in a very feminine way, swinging their hips." As well as being more feminine, Russian women are also seen as more attentive than their counterparts back home.
Greg says of his first tour, "I had a great time and fooled around a lot. It's kind of like being Hugh Hefner for a week, because you become far more popular than before." Nevertheless, good manners are still important, Greg insists.
"You have to be wise when you are going through the ladies and be a gentleman," he says. "I don't push anything because I don't want to feel guilty in the morning. My suggestion is that we be ambassadors for our country."
But while American men might see themselves as well-mannered, not all Russian women are impressed, says Anastasia Ivanova, manager of the Best dating agency in Moscow. Ivanova says girls often call her after a date to share their impressions and claim the men are not cultured or well-educated and sometimes stingy -- under the impression that all the girl wants is money.
Ivanova says these men are mistaken. "Russian girls want real love and romantic commitment," she says. "But between cultures there is often a very different mentality and the girls sometimes have to explain the concept of love to foreign men."
Ivanova says the men are also afraid that the girl will use them as an exit visa, while the girls are often equally suspicious of men looking for a partner 25 years their junior. "But if Russian girls are not married and with babies by 25, they panic," she says.
Diana Sadykova, a Russian woman living in Brussels, says that even emancipated, well-educated Russian women think it important to have children, but that Russian men often don't make ideal partners. "Few are eligible for marriage as they are unemployed, too fond of their drink, and some prefer to have many women at once," she says.
Sadykova says, however, that Russian women would prefer to have a nice Russian husband than a Western husband because it is easier for them to communicate with each other. It is only when they cannot find a suitable partner at home that women start to look to Western men as a way out, she says.
"I think the myth of the wonderful Western life has faded, but the dream of at least an economically stable life remains, and the chance to have a man who will respect and support you drives Russian women to the agencies," Sadykova says.
Copyright Moscow Times, 2002