her in his first letter he was an average American guy with average looks
earning an average salary at the telephone company, where he'd worked for
"I have never been late in all those years," the steady-as-he-goes Howlin wrote the complete stranger, "and have only missed a week from work due to sickness."
Home was a new, paid-for, $20,000 trailer in average North Laurel. "I don't want for anything."
She seemed sweet, sensitive, caring.
And while she was a traditionalist in that she wanted marriage and motherhood, she'd found most Russian men domineering and arrogant. She wasn't about to mere settle.
It's a cold world out there, Tom Howlin found out when he tried to pick up the pieces following the breakup of his 18-month marriage.
A dating service he signed up with let him down. He tried the singles bar scene, but found most women were only interested in rich, movie-star handsome men. He tried a singles gathering at a local church, but was disappointed by the low turnout.
Nearing 40, he could feel the minutes of his life melting away. He wanted a family.
Then he stumbled upon an ad for Encounters International. The service run by Natasha Spivack, a former Russian language instructor in the graduate studies program at Johns Hopkins, puts American men in contact with Russian women and guarantees that clients who are serious about it will be engaged within one year.
She and the Howlins all note the happy medium that results from the pairing American men, who are looking for more traditional women, with Russian women, who want men willing to treat them as equals.
The women come to Spivack's Moscow office for interviews and are asked, among other things, how many children they have.
"One child is our limit, unless she is extraordinarily beautiful. Men don't want ready-made families."
Howlin knew this offbeat approach to forming a more perfect union would entail significant commitments of time, energy and money.
Still, "I had to roll the dice."
Spivack, 43, runs Encounters International out of her $500,000 Bethesda home. She and her first husband arrived in the United States from Russia with $70 between them.
He was killed in a car accident on his way to work one day, and she entered widowhood at 34 with two small children.
Suddenly thrust onto the brutal Washington singles scene, she signed up with one computer dating service after another. Mostly what she got was "ripped off," Spivack says now.
"It's a cold world out there."
Still, the experience "gave me bits and pieces of good information" for her own entry in the singles business.
She did marry again, by the way. Met her present husband, a government economist, at a Jewish social function.
In August, 1993, Howlin schlepped over to Spivack's. This was while she was still living in Rockville.
She collected a membership fee of $1,100 (it's since increased to $1,850), then snapped two pictures of Howlin in her back yard.
Howlin selected photos of five prospects from Spivack's notebooks. She told him he could choose from women in their 20s, 30s or 40s. He picked from among the youngest.
"They're the most attractive," the 40-year-old says with a shrug.
Later, Spivack sent Howlin's short introductory letter to her Moscow office, where her staff contacted the women he had selected.
Most of the return letters weren't warm and receptive," Howlin recalls. One of the women he fancied turned out to be interested in little besides wealth.
A service such as hers is bound to attract some gold diggers, Spivack concedes, although she does her best to discourage them.
"I don't want divorce." she says, adding that only two of the 70 couples she's matched have split.
Glimpses of a soul
One of the letters Howlin got back, though, was different. Olga Mamonova, a 20-year-old pre-school teacher, showed promise.
She wrote in her bio that she was 5 feet 7 inches tall and weighed 141 pounds. Her interests included music, sports, history of the arts, poetry, travel and animals.
She says she and her best friend signed up on a lark. The friend is now married and living in Chicago.
When Mamonova got Howlin's letter and found out he lived in a trailer, Spivack says, she was unconcerned. She wasn't a "princess" and had no need to dwell "in a palace."
.As their correspondence progressed over several months, Howlin began to look beyond her outer beauty as he caught glimpses of her soul.
She spoke about things like seeing a bird outside her window, about her grandmother's village outside Moscow."
Olga Mamonova Howlin, a brunette with penetrating gray eyes and smooth skin, is an only child whose parents divorced when she was 6. Her mother is a former actress-turned-legal secretary. Now 22, Olga earned a degree at 19 from Moscow Teachers College.
"I had my own apartment. I was all set."
She didn't want for boyfriends back home, either. "I thought I would marry and live in Moscow all my life."
But she wasn't confident such a life would be a happy one. In the typical Russian marriage. she says, the woman is a "slave". Russian men "are very rude. Almost all of them drink and smoke."
Spivack says Russia offers a rich harvest of "unclaimed" young women who adhere to traditional ways. After a woman had passed into her mid 20s, she says, most Russian men find her undesirable. And men are hesitant to commit because of Russia's shaky economy and the resulting uncertainty in their own financial status.
In Olga, Spivack saw a young, intelligent woman who was ready to fall in love with the right man
"She sensed in Tom a good family man. He could have been German or Australian. She said she didn't need a castle."
By December 1993, Tom and Olga had decided it was time to meet. He took a deep breath, opened his pocketbook wide, and set off in search of true happiness.
Howlin's mother, who was suspicious of the whole deal, worried to the point that she sent her husband, Howlin's stepfather, a seasoned traveler, along with him for the ride. Olga met them at the airport
When Spivack's couples meet, she offers to put them up in a separate rooms in a bed-and-breakfast she rents near Red Square. This neutral ground, she offers, allows the two parties to get to know each other on equal footing.
This time, though, Howlin's stepfather took the second room, and Olga stayed in her own apartment.
Howlin did some sight-seeing, but remained focused on his business there.
on the third day, Howlin took his intended to a popular local restaurant. Spivack and Howlin's stepfather sat at a separate table. As Tom and Olga dined on a typical Russian spread, including the obligatory caviar and vodka, Tom proposed.
""When he asked me to marry him, it was very logical," Olga recalls. "I had no doubts about it."
A few nights later, at Olga's apartment, Tom asked his future mother-in-law for permission to marry her only child. The memorable event is captured on videotape, which Spivack uses for promotional purposes.
On the tape, a confident Howlin can be seen raising a wine glass while asking for "her hand in marriage. I'll do my best for her," he promises.
Again, he got a yes.
After Howlin returned home, the two plunged into paperwork. He petitioned the Immigration and Naturalization Service for an alien fiancee visa. Meanwhile, Olga went to the American Embassy and picked up the required forms. She got the required medical checkup and a police clearance. Federal Express delivered to her an airline ticket to the states.
Three months later, in March 1994, Olga said good-bye to her native land. She arrived at Dulles International Airport, where Howlin was waiting.
Here first impression? "It was ... a very high, blue sky," she remembers. "In Moscow, the sky is always low and gray. It's an old city."
Howlin took the route through downtown Washington, past the monuments and the Capitol. "I had no second thoughts," his bride remembers. "I had made up mind."
In May, they were married in a Baptist church near Tom's mother's home in Alabama. They honeymooned in New Orleans. Last April, they became the proud parents of Alyna.
Asked if the 20-year age difference bothers her, Olga doesn't have to think long. She contends it has made her grow up. "I think I became an adult after I got married. I have to take care of my family, my baby.
Russian women are more mature. For an American man to catch up, he should be no less than eight years older."
A few Sundays before Christmas, the Howlins are puttering around their spacious trailer on Center Street, opposite Laurel Dodge. Olga, in white sweat socks, boils water at the stove and gets ready to go to her part-time job at the Cosmetic Center.
The living room walls have mementos: a class picture of her old pre-school class. Another of her mother holding Olga when she was a toddler. On the TV, the Giants are beating the Redskins.
At the kitchen table, Howlin is feeding Alyna vanilla custard pudding baby food. Father and daughter are all smiles, as the spoon makes one direct hit after another.
"We have a very stable life," Olga says, pulling up a seat before heading off to work. "In Russia, they live day by day and they don't care about what will happen tomorrow."
The transition to life in America hasn't been easy, she admits. "People here are very nice, but it's difficult to make friends. Everybody smiles, but they have no idea what it's like to be a real friend."
Howlin picks up the baby and gently tosses her into the air. He reckons his investment in happiness cost him between $3500 and $4000.
"It's definitely worth it," he says, holding a giggling Alyna. "But you have to be willing to commit yourself," and get used to the language and cultural barriers that are part of the package.
"It's difficult enough having a relationship with an American woman."
Howlin believes so strongly that he did the right thing, in fact, that he has taken it upon himself to show others the way. He has written a manual to help other American men through the complicated process of meeting, courting and bringing home Russian wives.
It's called, "The American-Russian Marriage Companion: What you should know about American-Russian dating services, paperwork and successful relationships."
The paperwork, logistical headaches and potential for fraud in such pursuit may be formidable, but Howlin says his booklet can help men in search of brides tame such hassles.
"You don't have to see a lawyer."
Before or after the wedding, if you're careful.