An American man's fantasy is standing at the cooking island in Natasha Spivack's Bethesda kitchen, peeling potatoes. Divorced 28 years old, and blonde, Olga Marshukova is dressed in a black pantsuit, pearls, high heels, and full makeup. She has her own cosmetics import business, Olga explains. But what she really wants is to be June Cleaver.
Eric Walstein, a forty-something Montgomery County math teacher, is sitting at the kitchen table, tutoring Natasha Spivack's son, Michael. But what Walstein is really doing is watching Olga's every move. And who can blame him? Olga could singe the skin off a spud without really trying.
Natasha Spivack swears that the former Soviet Union is filled with Olga's -- young, beautiful, sexy, successful women who want nothing more than to peel potatoes at a cooking island of their own. Walstein, a bruised veteran of the dating scene, is hoping that's the case. He's paid Spivack $1,850 to find him an Olga of his own.
As she peels her potatoes, Olga is fueling Walstein's dream. The collapse of the Soviet economy has decimated the middle class, she explains. Many Russian men are either too poor and too drunk to support a family, or are newly wealthy and unwilling to commit to a monogamous marriage.
"I don't want to be a lover or wife of this guy who is very rich but not so moral," says Olga. "For me it was a bad problem. I'm not bad looking. I'm not so stupid. But I can't find a husband."
One woman's romantic dilemma is another's business opportunity. Natasha Spivack started Encounters International two and a half years ago to link American men with Russian women. Object: matrimony. Spivack claims a good batting average: 32 current engagements, 40 weddings, five babies born, and only two divorces. Her current rate of engagements is one a week.
Each man's $1,850 membership fee gives him the right to peruse Spivack's library of lovelies. More than 400 Russian women - from Moscow and Tallinn, Estonia, as well as some already living in this country -- are pictured and profiled in albums or videos at Spivack's house. Each woman describes herself, her education. her profession, and her personal interests. Most of the women are university graduates with professional credentials or students. Good looks and "loves cooking" are the other common denominators.
Spivack makes no bones about her emphasis on physical appearance. "The beauty of Russian women was one of the best kept secrets of the Cold War," she says. Russian women pay no fees to join Encounter International, but the women who range in age from teenage to 40-plus, must meet near-pinup standards. "We are looking for women who are beautiful on the inside only among those who are beautiful on the outside," explains the matchmaker. Many of the photos look like candidate for a "Sirens of the Steppes" pictorial in Playboy.
Spivack claims that American men aren't just trading one country's women for another's -- they are trading up. "They can get a better package" in Russia, she explains, and a lot of choice. World Press Review reported in 1993 that 10,000 Russian girls register with international marriage agencies each year and that many Russian mothers would like to see their daughters marry foreigners.
Once they sign up with the agency, Encounters International's male clients start faxing letters - at $3.50 a page - to women in Spivack's registry. Spivack advises them to write to several women in the beginning and to zip right through the introductory "like opera. love to dance" patter. What Russian women want to hear is that the men are financially and personally stable and looking for a wife and family.
When a letter arrives at Encounters International's Moscow or Estonia office, the recipient is called to come read it. She then responds, in English, by fax. Back in Bethesda, Spivack and her Russian Staff help interpret the replies. "She is polite but not interested," they will advise a client, or "That's not a kiss-off; she just needs a few more language lessons".
Couples who hit it off by fax often go on to letters and phone calls. The next move puts the man on a plane to Moscow for a visit of about eight days. For another fee, Spivack will arrange everything, including having the intended show up at the airport with an armload of flowers. Many men are so hopeful of a happy ending that they bring an engagement ring. Some even have the applications for their would-be fiancee's visa ready to be filled out and filed at the American embassy.
Do they live happily ever after? Encounters International and the marriages it has masterminded are still in the honeymoon stage. The three local couples we interviewed, all relative newlyweds, range from marriages of true minds to pragmatic mergers of common interests.
David Kulick, 42 and Yelena Bulekova, 28, were married on Valentine's Day near Sanibel Island, Florida, and have just returned from their honeymoon at Disney World. Their is the kind of story Natasha Spivack loves to tell. Kulick, a good-looking, ebullient salesman of biotech products with a master's degree in genetics, was living alone in Laytonsville and not loving it. When he isn't on the road, he works out of his house -- not the best arrangement for meeting women. He had been engaged, dated many women, and even placed an ISO ad in the Washingtonian. "I advertised for what I thought women wanted," he says puckishly. " 'Wanted: A woman to boss me around, spend my money, then leave me.' " Lots of letters, but no love.
Kulick's father, whose family came from Russia, suggested he look East for a bride, but David didn't much like the idea. "I don't want to meet a refrigerator with hair," he said. Then, in 1994, he saw an Encounters International ad, called Spivack, and got hooked by the albums and videos. At the very last, he could get a personal tour guide for a trip to Russia, he reasoned.
Yelena Bulekova was living at home and teaching elementary school in Moscow at the same time. She agreed to have her video and picture listed with EI, but she balked at contacting an American man herself. "I am a woman. I will wait, " she explains. She wrote to one man from EI but soon lost interest. When Natasha called to say that a client named David Kulick was interested, Yelena didn't jump with joy, but the matchmaker and Kulick persisted. After two unanswered letters, he sweetened the deal - he told her about his red Ferrari.
"I think he is a fast man; he is for me," she recalls.
Kulick began calling Yelena every week. A month later, he was in Moscow, drinking "Na zdorovye" with Papa and flaunting a few choice Russian phrases, such as "You light a fire in my heart". After his eight-day stay - which included a pre-arranged side trip to Tallinn to meet another woman I case he and Yelena didn't hit it off in person - David invited Yelena to come to Washington for a trial visit. "I said you must come first to see if you like it; then we'll get engaged", he recalls.
Back in Washington, Kulick wrote a song for Yelena: "My Kremlin Kutie." A friend recorded it, and he sent the tape to Moscow. By the time Yelena arrived in Washington on November 16, 1995, she had no doubts about David. "I bring things for life," she says.
As the two talk on, they beam at each other like lovers who think they invented the feeling.
Out in Germantown, Kristina and Robert Rosin - another of Spivack's matches - talk of their plans for life together as if they were business partners.
The Rosins are expecting a baby in August and plan to look for a single-family house in Frederick next year, but on the surface, their marriage seems a mismatch.
Kristina, 27, is lovely - tall, slender, and blue-eyed. An accountant with her own apartment in Estonia, she is an accomplished pianist and used to do gymnastics and track and field. Robert, 44, is graying, bearded, and bald. An assistant manager for Briggs Ice Cream in Hyattsville, he is a sweet, good-hearted guy who never mastered the style and social patter that Washington's fast -track singles scene requires.
Observers of the Soviet social scene say young Russian women don't look at men like Robert Rosin through American eyes. Russia does not share America's obsession with youth. American men have another advantage: Compared with Russian contemporaries who have shave suffered the effects of poor nutrition, pollution, and alcoholism, American men are Adonises. Reports that a famous Russian actress had married an unknown American accountant raised nary an eyebrow among Muscovites.
Add to this the way Americans treat the women in their lives. Kristina has compared notes with other Estonian brides in the Washington area and reports that they are astounded - all of their husbands can cook.
Appearances aside, the Rosins offered each other what each wanted: a family and security. She had been burned by a brief early marriage. He wanted children, but the Washington women in his age group had done the parent thing decades earlier or weren't interested in doing it at all. he needed a wife who liked the quiet life and loved pets. She was a city girl who loved the country and animals. he wanted someone to share his Jewish heritage, and she had a Jewish great-grandmother.
After five months of correspondence, Robert went to Tallinn with a ring. both say the meeting held no surprises - they had exchanged photos, and Robert had written very long letters. Before Robert's eight days were over, they had applied for a fiancée visa. Kristina arrived in October of last year, and they were married by a rabbi in his brother's Gaithersburg living room in December, before her visa ran out.
It would be easy to dismiss Natasha Spivack's set-up couples as insecure men and main-chance women looking for a ticket to the West. William Stambaugh, 59, and Oksana Gromova Stambaugh, 42, of Arlington don't exactly fit that stereotype.
Gromova was a prominent oral surgeon and medical school teacher in Moscow. By age 26, she headed a clinic with a staff of 70. Her reputation in her field was such that she was asked to perform a complicated procedure on the country's highest-ranking clergywoman - high surgical risk. At the end of the successful operation, church bells rang out in tribute to Dr. Gromova.
A petite redhead with great cheekbones and bubbly laugh, Oksana Gromova was also divorced, the mother of a teenage son, and no great fan of American culture. She had visited the United States once, and as she told a Moscow radio interviewer, she was less than impressed that American men did not stand when she entered a room and flew into a panic when she offered her hand to be kissed. Why then did she join up with Encounters International?
It was a joke, she says. but when the letters from America stared arriving, she answered - partly out of empathy for men who had gone to the effort to write and partly out of her lack of social options in her career-centered life.
"Women who are busy where I am, where can I find a man?" she muses. "Not in my work. When I'm pulling teeth from men, they all say 'you beautiful woman. Sometime you want to go ice fishing with me?"
Bill Stambaugh was also divorced, but he seemed an unlikely match for a Soviet surgeon who had been a committed communist for most of her adult life. A retired military officer with a doctorate in economics, Stambaugh is a political conservative who spent most of his adult life preparing to wage war against the Soviet Union. During the Cuban Missile Crises, Stambaugh was a member of the Strategic Air command, while Gromova's father, a Soviet airforce lieutenant colonel, was mobilized on the other side.
Telling their story, she looks at him with adoration that would make Nancy Reagan blush. "When we married and I came here, it was love. But not as much as now", Oksana says.
Instead of focusing on their differences, the Stambaughs found common ground. Both were products of military lives and shared many interests. They even found physical resemblance in their two disparate families. Seeing for the fist time a picture of her father in his uniform, Bill noted, "He looks like my Uncle Sherwood."
After months of letters, calls and gifts, Bill Stambaugh went to Moscow. Oksana was in the middle of a university reorganization and didn't know how much time she would be able to spend with him. He arrived on a Sunday in November; by Friday night they were engaged. The Stambaughs were married on April 29, 1995, at Bethel United Church of Christ in Arlington. Her son, Arkadiy, is now a student at Washington Lee High School and on the wrestling team.
The Stambaughs say they met at the right time in their lives. After working hard for more than 25 years, and being a single mother for more than a decade, Oksana had no qualms about giving up her career in Russia. "I had lived for my country, my son, my party, my students," she says. "I was ready to live for myself."
Bill is still active in local politics and consulting, but now that he's retired from active duty, the couple can concentrate on buying new furniture and building a life together. Stambaughs are known for their longevity, according to Bill. He has no doubt they'll celebrate at least a silver anniversary.
Natasha Spivack is herself a classic immigrant success story. Born in Moscow, she was an interpreter and lecturer at the Academy of Social Science when she met and married Boris Yudzon, a Jewish dissident. She immediately found herself unemployed.
After five years of waiting, the couple and their two children were allowed to emigrate to the United States. Boris went to work as an engineer for Pepco, and Natasha taught Russian at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Then, a year and a half after they settled here, Boris was killed in an automobile accident.
Determined to remarry, Natasha read books on single life, signed up with dating services, and joined every singles organization she could find - from the Tall Club to the Washington Ski Club to Parents Without Partners. "Many people rip you off." she recalls, but the strategy worked.
She met her second husband, Berel Spivack, at a Washingtonian singles dance. An economist with the General Accounting Office, he was divorced and a singles-scene veteran. They were engaged in four weeks and married eight months later, in August of 1991.
Natasha knew that single women in her native Russia were having an even rougher time meeting men than she had had in America.
She still had strong ties to Moscow, so she put her old contacts and her American experience as a single woman to work, and the business was born.
Encounter International cleared $90,000 in its first year of operation, according to one report. Spivack now has two offices overseas as well as her Bethesda home headquarters and about 50 active American clients. She is even on the World Wide Web, at www.encount.com - the site gives new meaning to the phrase "picture bride."
Critics might note that Spivack profits at every stage of the romantic process. In addition to membership fees and those $3.50 faxes, most clients use EI to arrange their Russian trips. Spivack counters that she offers lots of free services, including moral support and such concrete advice as the following romantic "do's and dont's" for wooing Russian maidens:
Don't ask if she wants flowers; just buy them. Flowers for her mother are also a good idea.
The language-teacher-turned-entrepreneur is also thinking of starting a course for American men in romantic Russian.
Spivack insist that she isn't in Encounters International for the money: "I see people who are unhappy. I know what I can offer," she says. And she is tireless about offering. When she learned that The Washingtonian's photographer and his assistant were both married, she told them not to forget about her - "in case it doesn't work out."
"I get my best clients after bad divorce," she confides
Reprinted with permission of The Washingtonian.
Visit the Washingtonian by clicking here.
Phone: (301) 530-7759
Fax: (301) 789-2508