Business Proposal

At Encounters International in Bethesda, American men are paying to mix and mingle in hopes
of finding the perfect wife -- from Russia.

By Rob Hiaasen
Sun Staff

March 21, 2001

BETHESDA - Cruising a video library, two older men sit behind a strategically placed bookshelf. Beyond this partition, a party is in full swing, people mixing with their mixed drinks in a room where a full-length bearskin hogs a wall. But the television screen is the focus, lighting the faces of the men as they stare at a young Russian woman, who, for business purposes, is known as No. 2.

No. 2 sways on a stool, posing. Beautiful, no? The men picked her out from a photo album. Finding the corresponding tape, the men then plugged in the video. The Russian woman looks 20 but might be younger. It's claimed she was once Miss Moscow. Beauty pageant winner or not, the volume of her audition speech has been turned down.

She is just a pretty young face smiling for men to see in the United States, men in a corner at a certain party.

Some men just like the quiet type. And the Russian type.

The Russian mail-order bride and marriage agency industry continues to thrive not only on the Internet - an estimated 400 sites - but also in such suburban landscapes as Bethesda, where matchmaker Natasha Spivack has been running Encounters International since 1993.

For $1,850, American men join Encounters International to meet and marry Russian women. E-mail addresses, photos and videos are available. Package tours to Ukraine and Russia are arranged. Spivack's company guarantees clients will be engaged to a Russian woman within 12 months of joining. (She's returned money to two clients, she says.) At any one time, Spivack has between 80 and 100 clients and a database of 400 would-be Russian brides.

"Men ask me what they'll get for $1,850, and I tell them a wife," Spivack says. "All men are marriage-minded."

While proxy marriages are as old as American history, the modern mail-order bride business exploded in the 1970s, as men sought refuge from the new realities of the feminist movement in the United States. And since the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991, tens of thousands of Russian women seeking U.S. citizenship have signed up with marriage agencies, flooding into a business previously dominated by Filipinas. University of Florida researchers estimate as many as 6,000 marriages annually are arranged by these match-making services - with an estimated 150,000 foreign women listed annually.

The Web is ripe for bride shoppers. "Still looking? Know why? They're in Siberia!" says On a Web site with a "Ladies Gallery," a 21-year-old Russian woman named Kate writes, "I will be an ideal wife, best friend, affectionate lover and good mother for our children." Like many potential brides, Kate doesn't smoke, has no children and speaks only basic English.

For those who want to plunk down $3,000 to $4,000 on a trip to Russia, match-making trips abound, along with "Love Boat" cruises. "Today, more and more American men are just saying 'NO' to commercialized American women and 'YES' to Russian women who still believe in what used to be traditional American family values," notes the news release from a company called the Marriage Connection. Its Russian cruises start at $3,895.

Getting in the mix

For those who prefer browsing by land, monthly mixers are held at Spivack's Bethesda home - the only residence on the block, safe to say, that doubles as an international match-making service. The only residence with wall clocks that give the time for Washington and Moscow. Her clients are typically divorced men or middle-aged bachelors, all sick of the bar scene, all dissatisfied with American women.

Other clients might have Russian roots themselves. Still others have disabilities. A Vietnam War veteran with one leg called her to inquire about finding a one-legged Russian woman, Spivack says. "I told him, 'Well, we don't have one-legged Russians, but we'll get you a two-legged woman who will like you for who you are.' "

At one of her mixers in February, 62-year-old Victor Syracuse of Virginia sits alone, sunken into a cushy black couch. He doesn't really want to be here, doesn't have a reason to be here. He already has a Russian bride. Her name? "Natalia - like a hundred others."

They met six years ago through Encounters International, his alternative to roaming AOL chat rooms. Syracuse, whose first wife had passed away after 33 years of marriage, saw a picture of his bride-to-be and was hooked. It was her smile, her Russian blue eyes. They were married, and they both soon learned what culture shock meant.

"The first six months she cried every night," Syracuse says. "These guys better be ready."

A club regular, 45-year-old Gene Tighe of Virginia, commiserates with a pod of other men. "There are TOO many men here. That's the problem," Tighe says over the disco music. Spivack, ever circulating and snapping pictures, introduces Gene to a strikingly tall Russian named Inna. They say hello. They part. Gene says he hasn't met his Russian match yet, but he's not so discouraged that he would defect from this scene.

"American women are competitive," he says, adding: "They are gold diggers.

He and other men here seem to fit the national profile of men using marriage agencies: white, educated, politically conservative, financially secure men seeking younger, "traditional" women, meaning women who are not career-minded or independent.

At the mixer, the word "traditional" is overheard often - as is "girls." In the crowded kitchen, men bump into each other as they mix drinks for the "girls" - the single Russian women on hand - at the party. On a wall in a hallway, a large U.S. map features miniature, heart-shaped pictures of Spivack's 250 married or engaged couples - each pinned to their respective home states. She is proud of her success rate - only 13 divorces, she says.

Rules and regulations

Bill Dembeck, a 51-year-old data processor from outside Philadelphia, stands alone with his drink. Domestic marriage agencies had left him dejected. So, through Encounters International, he traveled to Ukraine in May and met a woman named Olga, 20 years his junior. "I describe her as a very glamorous woman." They began a friendship. A serious relationship must be built on friendship, Dembeck says.

"I didn't go over to sleep with Russian women," he says, sternly. "I went over there to find a wife."

That's something else one hears at these match-making parties - "You been over?" or "When you going over?" It's a rite of passage in this universe.

Before a Russian woman can apply for what's called a fiancee visa, the prospective husband must travel to her country to meet her in person. A photograph of the couple suffices as evidence. Once they are together in the United States for 90 days, they must marry, or she must leave the country. After the government determines the couple is legally married, the woman can then apply to be an alien spouse and permanent resident. If all goes as planned.

The mail-order bride business has long been under scrutiny and investigation. Some mail-order bride businesses reportedly have been used as fronts to recruit Russian women for the sex industry. Some of these marriages have ended in violence. In a widely reported horror story, a Filipina mail-order bride in Seattle, seven months pregnant at the time, was murdered by her American husband in 1995.

In 1993, the Immigration and Naturalization Service was asked by Congress to create regulations forcing agencies to inform women about legal residency, marriage fraud and domestic violence issues.

Stories appeared of men abusing or enslaving their new Russian wives, who were afraid of deportation if they reported the abuses. American men, meanwhile, reported how once they were residents, their new Russian brides would leave them cold.

The regulations have not been completed, as these match-making businesses remain unregulated and difficult to monitor, says a government official.

"We don't know the universe of this industry," says INS spokeswoman Elaine Komis in Washington. "Who knows how they conduct their business?"

In response to reports of abused mail-order brides, Congress in 1996 passed a provision in its Violence Against Women Act to allow battered children or spouses to self-petition the government to become permanent residents. The husband's participation was not required. The idea was to lift the fear of deportation and free immigrant women to report abuses and stay in the country. (The INS set up a telephone information line for battered immigrant women: 802-527-4888.)

From 1997 to 2000, 11,758 women self-petitioned for permanent residency and 6,576 were accepted, according to the government.

"You don't have to be a slave in an abusive marriage," Komis says.

The search continues

Back at Spivack's Valentine's Day mixer, a 20-year-old college student from Kiev named Elena Belay moves through the crowd of Americans. She's temporarily staying with friends in their Anne Arundel home. Belay, like the other 400 women listed with Encounters International, hopes to meet a husband.

"I want to fall in love and be swept off my feet," Belay says, blushing.

With her long hair and cherubic face, Belay would seem to epitomize a club member's dream bride. Her English is solid. She plays the piano, studies Russian history, doesn't smoke and wants to marry an older man. And she doesn't think 20 is too young to get married - more time to spend with her husband before they have children. There is something delicate and demure about her manner. She makes a point of saying she is not independent.

American men e-mail her regularly, and Belay has dated a few. Russian men hold no interest for her.

"It's not their fault," she says. "They don't believe in themselves. They don't believe they have a future. They don't have a way out."

She does - it's just matter of time, opportunity and chemistry, she hopes. Until then, Belay takes walks in her temporary neighborhood, reminding her of the long walks she took in Kiev. No one walks in this country, she complains: "It's a city of ghosts." She wants to see the Bay Bridge after reading about it in a Tom Clancy novel. She wants to be swept away.

In the meantime, she attends Spivack's mixers and tries to avoid men whose first question is how many children she wants. "What about the music or museums I like?" People try to pretend it's just a party but everyone is looking, she says.

She posted her picture with the agency, but stopped short of providing a video. There's something too obvious or personal about that. She sees the men watching and rating "girls" from the videos.

"I think they could do it without the women around," she says. "It's like exhibitionism."

Back in the corner of Spivack's living room, more men wander by to select videos. They ask each other when they're going over. Men already engaged to Russian women still look at the photos and videos. It doesn't hurt to have a back-up girl, they say.

On the TV screen, Miss Moscow - No. 2 - has been freeze-framed.

Beautiful, no?

Encounters International
Phone: (301) 530-7759
Fax: (301) 789-2508