These are trying times for Odessa. After the annexation of Crimea, pro-Russian forces are stirring tension in this Black Sea port, and there are weekly standoffs between demonstrators who want to be part of Ukraine and those who want closer ties to Russia. But for all the political and economic chaos that has engulfed Ukraine in the past three months, one industry is still thriving: the internet romance trade.
The economies of several Ukrainian cities are boosted by the surreal and disingenuous online bride business, and Odessa is the biggest hub. It does not take long for a visitor to the city to stumble upon an “international date” – there are legions of western men in town meeting with young women they have met online, usually with the conversation facilitated by a translator. At internet cafes and homes across the city, thousands of women spend hours each day chatting to prospective suitors online.
There is nothing like the prospect of economic hardship to facilitate intercontinental liaisons, and so, far from business drying up in recent months, the romance and “bride” trade is booming. If anything, there are now more western men planning trips to Odessa than there were last year, when I accompanied a “romance tour” to Ukraine for a magazine story. I spent a week in Odessa with 29 men, all of them hoping to find a wife during their trip. They were mainly Americans, but there were also Brits, an Italian and a Saudi on the tour.
I went with a company called Anastasia International, which is no grimy basement operation, but a huge company with a projected revenue last year of $140m (£84m). It has thousands of women in Ukraine and across the world on its books, available for chats and in-person meetings with lonely bachelors across the world looking for a wife.
As internet dating has gone mainstream over the past decade, Anastasia is attempting to rebrand what was once called the “mail-order bride” industry as something modern and progressive. This is no longer the preserve of seedy and exploitative men seeking vulnerable women from impoverished backgrounds to work as a longterm sex slave, the marketing suggests. This is “international dating”, a civilised way to find romance without borders.
Except that the branding is still somewhat disturbing. The men pay for every minute they chat online to a woman, something that it becomes clear is a dangerous part of the business model. The company claims on its website that finding a woman in Ukraine is like “dating a model, but with the values of your grandmother”. The men featured in testimonials are sick of western women, whom they insist have forgotten “family values”.
‘This is game time’
Armed with this information, I was fully expecting to spend a week being nauseated by odious men preying on vulnerable women, and there were certainly a few on the trip whose misogyny reached prize-winning levels. But the overall story was far more complex.
“This is game time and they’re blowing me off,” Todd told me, mystified, one day over breakfast. It took the 43-year-old bread-delivery man from Delaware several months of working overtime to be able to afford the tour to Ukraine; he often clocked seven night shifts a week in order to save the roughly $5,000 (£3,000) he paid to spend a week in Odessa, and hopefully find a wife.
Todd, who had not succeeded in finding his other half at home, had something of a compulsive side to his personality. He spent months methodically whittling down 1,500 possible brides on Anastasia’s site to two top candidates. He then spent thousands of hours and thousands of dollars chatting with them online. Things were going swimmingly with both women. He assumed that his trip to Odessa would involve picking the one he liked most and taking her back with him. But when he arrived, neither of them answered his calls.
While Todd’s expectations for what a Ukrainian bride might offer were patently unrealistic, it was troubling to watch him venture ever further down the path of disappointment. Many of the men on the tour were less sympathetic characters than Todd, but all of them were lonely. Some of them were disillusioned with dating scenes in the west, where women did not give them a look; others recovering from a divorce or the death of a spouse.
Another man I spent a lot of time with was Stephen, a 62-year-old from Texas, long-divorced, who was on his 11th trip to Ukraine with the desperate hope of finding a wife.
“I want a companion, because there are things I would like to do back home, but I don’t want to do them alone,” he told me. “I want to see the Grand Canyon, but I don’t want to see it on my own. I’m tired of having nobody to share my life with.”
Stephen ended up meeting a pianist named Elena on the tour. On date two she told him she thought he could be her soulmate. By the end of the week he was sure he had found his future life partner. It was an expensive week, with the dinners, taxis, and payment for a translator all adding up, but Stephen was delighted that he had found love.
But love in Odessa is not all it seems. Perhaps 10 years ago, the scenario had been what I imagined, with men swooping in, and women keen to swap the hard grind of poverty-stricken Ukraine for a new life in the US, even if it was a ramshackle house in a North Dakotan town or a sleepy midwestern farm, rather than a Manhattan penthouse or LA beachfront home.
Now, it seems, things are different. None of the men I became close to on my tour ended up in lasting relationships, and the majority appeared to fall victim to a number of sophisticated scams.
I left Stephen ready to propose, but two months later he told me by email that it had all unravelled. The woman let him know she needed more time before making a commitment, but suggested that he return to Odessa and continue their expensive platonic dates.
Todd did not even get to the date stage; in retrospect, perhaps a lucky escape. The women took their cut of cash for chatting with him, but did not answer his calls when he arrived. He later wrote to me: “It took me about a month to process what happened and get over it. I’ve decided to close that chapter in my life and move on. I am now concentrating on me and my life and to do things that make me a better person. And to pursue the other hopes and dreams that I have. Will I ever find my other half? One can only wonder. At least I can say I tried. If I die a bachelor, so be it.”
I was able to uncover exactly how the scams work due to a chance encounter with Alina, one of the women involved, who felt weighed down by her collusion in what she called “emotional prostitution”. She explained the whole sordid array of techniques, from a light impersonalised online-chatting version to a full-service chauffeur-driven platinum fraud, where men are rinsed of cash for a full week in Odessa, thinking they are cementing a lifelong relationship while actually they are being strung along on platonic dates that end with them dispatched to the airport with heavy hearts and empty wallets. Many of them come with ridiculous expectations, of course, but I am not sure that anyone deserves this treatment.
For the women as well, although hundreds of them make a living from the scams, it is not an easy psychological burden to bear. Alina was evidence of that, and 29-year-old Chris, the tour’s youngest member, found that when he confronted his date with accusations about the nature of the business, she burst into tears and said she felt awful, but needed the money to support her mother after her father had died. Other women were genuinely looking for a young and interesting partner and wanted to leave Ukraine, but spent hours chatting with elderly men in order to make money.
Anastasia International, while not directly colluding in the scams, runs a highly profitable business model that allows them to flourish. While real and lasting liaisons do occasionally form through the site, more often it only serves to increase the concentric circles of mistrust, disappointment and heartbreak for all involved. Anastasia insists that it weeds out scams whenever it finds them, and has banned some women from the site. It also says it will reimburse clients who fall victims to scams, and provides advice on how to avoid them.
Larry Cervantes, the company spokesman, wrote to me after the tour: “It’s true that some of these guys are spending money they don’t have. But guys go broke in the US chasing American women, as do Brits chasing Brits. So what’s the difference? Throughout history men have pursued the unattainable, and throughout history they’ve made fools of themselves. How is this any different?”
But the difference, of course, is that the company is making a huge profit from the men making fools of themselves, and while many women are making money out of the schemes too, it is not clear that it is beneficial to them in the longer term.
Far from ending the practice, the recent unrest in Ukraine has only enhanced it. Alina told me that her friends working in the business are expecting several American men to arrive in the coming days, while the less discreetly named sugardaddyforme.com says it has seen record numbers of Ukrainian women sign up in recent months. The new Ukrainian government has rather a lot on its plate, but ending the trade in emotional exploitation is something they should tackle sooner rather than later.
Shaun Walker’s ebook on the Ukrainian marriage industry, Odessa Dreams, is available to order online for £1.99