T hese 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.
The men who go to Ukraine looking for a wife then fly home alone and broke
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.