Kyiv Post Archive on line
April 10-16, 1997. Issue 15
Story by Lily Hyde
|Lena, a Ukrainian woman enrolled in the Kyiv
club run by Encounters International, looks through photographs of potential husbands while manager Ludmila Igolkina, right, inspects a dress sent from America by one of the club's suitors.
( Kyiv Post photo by Sergei Dolzhenko.)
He is quiet and unassuming, with thick glasses, thinning hair and a paunch. She is slim, resplendent in lilac, leather and lace. She gazes into his face with confident adoration. He looks nervous.
When he speaks, the room of chattering women grows quiet. Their rapt attention says it all: is this going to happen to me? Will my man ever arrive like this, with roses and a proposal in a foreign language?He is Steve Meyers, a 50-year-old divorcee from New Jersey. She is Margaret Vatolkina from Kyiv, 39, also divorced. This is the first time they have met, but they are considering spending the rest of their lives together.
Meyers and Vatolkina are visiting Encounters International's Kyiv club. This American marriage agency, founded in Washington and Moscow over three years ago, aims to bring together men from the States and women from Russia and Ukraine.
Dozens of similar agencies are cashing in on the collapse of the Iron Curtain to forge marital links between East and West. Judging by their proliferation, the most successful export of the former Soviet Union is its women.
Natasha Spivack, founder of Encounters International, claims that the beauty of Soviet women was the best kept secret of the Cold War. Other agencies stress their women's loyalty and old-fashioned qualities, which include devotion to husband, children and home.
"They've got more soul, more emotions, deeper human qualities," said Ludmila Igolkina, director of Encounters' Kyiv branch. "(Western) women are primitive. So if men are looking for depth in relationships they can find it here."
Advertising for Ukraine Girls International on the Internet's World Wide Web is more blunt. "They act like women and they make a man feel like a man," it says. Ukrainian women are more artistic, more submissive, cheaper, and have better legs, if you believe the hype.
And it seems that men do. Searchers for a lifetime mate can opt to pay a few dollars for an address from a catalogue, or hand over up to $2,500 for more personalized services including translation and interpreting, guaranteed delivery of letters and gifts and a preliminary selection of women designed to suit each man's requirements. Encounters International goes a step further to offer a guarantee- a wife within the year or your money back.
Spivack says her male clients all have one common factor; dissatisfaction with their own culture's women.
Men with strong family traditions look for wives abroad because they are alarmed by the high divorce rate in America and want to find a partner with more traditional ideas of family. Recent divorcees want a replacement for family life without the effort of dating.
Bachelors with very high marriage expectations hope to find someone younger and more beautiful to fulfill their ideals.
Most of Spivack's clients are between 35 and 45. However, the women they chose from can be as young as 17. Overweight women are not eligible. While younger women are accepted with no English so long as they can prove a motivation to learn, women over 30 must already have a demonstrable knowledge of English because, Igolkina says, men are more likely to want to converse with them.
Male clients are not subject to such conditions, but then, they are the ones who have to pay. Encounters' membership fee is $1,850, which Spivack feels discourages all but genuine applicants.
"Nobody who is not serious, who is just a window shopper, who just wants to try how different Russian women are from American (will pay our charges)" she said.
Both men and women are required to prove their motivation by writing at least five letters a month.
Steve Markos' agency, Ukraine Girls International, has no such screening procedures. An address from Markos' Internet site costs $10.
Meyers joined Encounters International last autumn to find a family-oriented women because he felt that there was no opportunity to find such a partner at home. Disliking both bars and churches, which he said were the only meeting places in the States, he preferred to use an agency.
Meyers, who described himself as "very traditional," was looking for a women in her 40s and thought that American women this age were too independent to be interested in marriage. His first marriage broke up because his wife chose to work, although they had a son and Meyers was earning enough to support them both.
Other clients are more prosaic in describing the qualities they seek in their ideal bride.
Norman May, 39, who is corresponding with two Ukrainian women in their 20s, said he wants a slim non-drinker and non-smoker between 5 feet 5 inches and 5 feet 9 inches (165 and 175 centimeters.) When pushed, he added that he would like her to be quiet and introvert.
"Russian and Ukrainian women are not as talkative as American women" he said. " They are better looking and not so feminist, they don't try to be the boss"
May plans to visit his favorit girl in June.
"I chose her because she looks like my fantacy", he said.
Many agencies allow their women little chance to be so specific. While a male client has a wide choice, each girl is only exposed to a limited number of men. However, while agencies like Encounters keep close tabs on their female members, others admit that their women may also be members of many different organizations. One of Markos' girls apparently received 400 letters before she finally found the right man through Ukrainian Girls International.
Members and organizers acknowledge that women have primarily economic reasons for joining these organizations, and that the often desperate circumstances in Ukraine force them to be uncritical of anyWestern husband.
"Some of (my clients) are unattractive and they just want a pretty wife. These girls don't care who they get," admitted Markos, who recruits many women personally by simply approaching attractive girls on the street to tell them about his service. He said that about 50 percent of those he approaches are interested.
Igolkina agreed, saying that "Our girls, because of their great needs, agree to almost everything."
Many women look upon American as a land of opportunity, but while they seek economic well-being, they stress that they want a man who is not only solvent but reliable, responsible and supportive.
"Ukrainian men do not want to commit themselves to a family," said Spivack. She said that the economic polarization of society had left Ukrainian women stranded.
"There are the Mafia, who don't need marriage because they have enough lovers, and poor guys whojust can't afford to have a family. Girls are between a rock and a hard place, and so they are looking abroad," she explained.
Single women or, more commonly, divorcees, complain of the difficulty in meeting eligible men. Larisa, a divorced club member who declined to give her last name, explained that women traditionally had to wait for an invitation if they wanted to go out and socialize.
" Women don't have companianship... They are confined to the frameworks of work and children," she said.
Victoria Lipnitskaya is praying that she will be lucky with Encounters, because her only aim in life now is to get married abroad.
Lipnitskaya is 23, with a 4-year-old daughter from her first marriage. Her husband has left and refuses to help her and their daughter financially, and she says that it is impossible for her to survive in Ukraine.
Lipnitskaya has lost many of the dreams that inspired her at 18, when she married for love without thinking about how she and her family would live. Now hardship has forced her to abandon ideas of romance, as well as a higher education or a career.
"Life made me apply (to Encounters), because my life hasn't succeeded here, she said. "I hope that someone will find me and I will beautify someone's life, I'm ready to give everything I can.
"Lipnitskaya's sad story is typical. Nevertheless, women in Encounters do not seem desperate or pitiable. The club offers them a place to meet, compare experiences, gripe and maybe, if they are really lucky, fall in love. Three days a week they come, accompanied by designing mothers and children checking outsnapshots of potential dads.
Encounters is unusual in that it offers its women a catalogue of men to choose from.
An employee of Encounters International in Kyiv
helps a member read a letter from a prospective husband.
"They can choose whom they like and write a letter. Our women aren't shy, and Americans say that it raises their opinion of women... They like it if women choose them," said Igolkina.Meyers is clearly delighted that Vatolkina initiated their correspondence, which lasted six weeks before his visit.
"She said she liked the look of my face," he said, apparently still surprised.
Many members of Encounters seem as interested in the companionship it offers as they are in the ultimate aimof marriage. Larisa, a translator and teacher of English, comes to the club for the joys of correspondingin English."The very process I see as very exciting," she said. "I enjoy writing to (the men). ...Happiness is when you strive for it.When you get it, you no longer see it as something valuable.
"Larisa is articulate about the drawbacks of the service. Although she was reluctant to call it a market, she admitted that such a description "shows the essence of what it is." She said many girls get involved in correspondences without really thinking about the consequences of eventually leaving their country to go and live with a man about whom they essentially know nothing. And she is skeptical that men are as genuine as Spivack claimed.
"I've been persistently reminded of the fact they pay money and they take it seriously, but I think ... for them it's like a sport," she said.
Other members were also less than respectful about the men they had to choose from. "Probably their own women rejected them and so they came here," said Lena Yegorova, 23. She is writing to three men for language practice and to find friendship, and said that if nothing works out with them, there was always the possibility of their sons being more interesting, since most of the men are old-enough to be her father.
Vatolkina, by contrast, said the agency has given her the means to meet the right man.
"I can find only one man for me. He could be in America or in my own country. Until this year, I couldn't find my man ... I think because I didn't have a club like this one," she said. After a month and a half of correspondence,she is already confident that Meyers is that man, and she is prepared to follow him unconditionally.
"For my man I will go anywhere, and my children are ready to go with me," she said.
The children, teenagers who don't speak English, are the sticking point. With the whole room of women hanging on his words, Meyers declines to fill out the papers for a fiancee visa to bring Vatolkina to America, saying he needs to think about children.
It seems unlikely that Meyers, and Vatolkina will become the 105th couple to be married through Encounters. But the Kyiv club's members are expecting another Prince Charming from America this week. He and his Ukrainian girl write amorous seven-page epistles to each other, which Igolkina proudly displays. Of the hundred Kyiv hopefuls - age 18 to 54 - at least one of them may soon be graduating from a mail-order club to membership in that most desirable society in the world, that of American wives.