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On the great Ukrainian bride hunt

“These are not American women,” our guide was telling us. “They do not care about your age, looks, or money. And you are not going to have to talk to them for half an hour and then have your testicles handed back to you! Let me tell you: over here, you’re the commodity; you’re the piece of meat. I’ve lived in St. Petersburg for two years, and I wouldn’t date an American woman right now if you paid me!”

It was three weeks before Christmas, and I was sitting in a Ukrainian business hotel with perhaps thirty men, mostly American and mostly on the later side of middle age, listening as a muscular, impossibly loud ex‒radio D.J. who answers to “Dan the Man” promised that our lives were about to change forever. We were all strangers, but I knew at least one thing about these men: each was there because he was frustrated, angry, and tired of being alone. Each had decided that his best chance at happiness was to pay nearly $4,000 to a company called A Foreign Affair, which would ferry him through Ukraine on a two-week bride hunt, “like an alpha-male wolf,” as one testimonial for the tour giddily assured us, “having the sheep brought in.”

We were to be provided with cleanish hotels, temperature-controlled buses, a platoon of young female translators (most in miniskirts, each available for hire as a “full-time gal Friday” to manage our presumably busy dating schedules; Dan the Man warned that under no circumstances should we employ a translator whom we’d become attracted to, as she might want us for herself and sabotage our dates), and access to a “hospitality suite” within the hotel where we would find stacks of color-coded binders containing profiles of thousands of women in and around Kiev, each of whom had specifically expressed a desire to meet American men. In the coming days we would attend a series of social events engineered to bring our little group into contact with more than 500 of these Ukrainian Ladies—women, according to the tour agency’s literature, “prepared to leave the only life they have ever known.” This, then, was globalization’s answer to the mail-order brides of the Old West.

When the group had set out from JFK Airport the day before, it had not seemed like an especially friendly bunch. The first member I met, when I said it was nice to meet him, had shot me a challenging look and countered, “How do you know? I could be an axe murderer.” Fat-faced and bearded, he turned out to be a plaintiff’s lawyer with a fondness for describing his clients’ injuries in graphic, breathy detail (e.g., “The cops tasered a kid till they burnt the hair off his face”). Other attempts at small talk likewise fell flat until, finally, a few of the tour veterans—or “repeat offenders,” as one jokingly called himself—began to dispense advice. Some had been on as many as five of these trips before; at least two had brought home fiancées in the past, though they hadn’t actually married. They promised that we, too, would surely become repeat offenders once we saw what was in store. “Remember,” said one silver-haired gent in a well-cut suit and polo shirt, “they’ve only been liberated for ten years. They’re going through a social and sexual revolution like we went through in the 1970s.”

By the time of our orientation, my decision to come had started to feel like pure recklessness. Not only was I nearly ten years younger than the next youngest man on the trip; just three months earlier I had married the love of my life, and I couldn’t shake the sensation that my happiness and good fortune must be obvious somehow, dripping off me like exploding ink from a bank robber’s sack of cash.[1] Wanting to fit into the group as I’d imagined it, I had altered much of my grooming routine in the weeks before leaving. My beard was so untrimmed as to make me feel itchy and dirty; what little hair I have had grown longish, curled in unruly wings on the side of my head and the back of my neck.

Dan the Man smiled from the front of the room. He knew we were skeptical, a little scared, a little embarrassed to be here, and reasonably so. After all, what did our presence say about us? What could we possibly have in common, other than failure?

Tomorrow would be the first of our three “socials”: four-hour events with free champagne, where the ratio of women to men promised to be five to one or better. But today, we were reminded, was for relaxing, for settling in and getting comfortable with our companions. “Look around,” enjoined Dan the Man. “A lot of people come here thinking this is going to be some kind of loser patrol—but it’s exactly the opposite. These are professional, successful guys. These are great guys.” He suggested we each introduce ourselves, and we did.

“I’m a doctor, but I’m not a doctor anymore. Now I’m in the world of finance.”

“I raise avocados.”

“I’m a former soldier, a former professor, and now I’m a lawyer.”

“I’m a plumbing contractor.”

“I deal in finance.”

“I raise llamas, but I’m really a physician, and I have two beautiful boys and I think there’s nothing better you can do than raising kids.”

“I live in Texas but now I’m a welder in Iraq.”

“I own a construction company.”

“I’m a credit-card processor; I own two corporations.”

“I’m a farmer.”

“I work with real estate investments.”

“I write for a living—I’m a lawyer.”

I did not share the fact that I was a journalist, nor did I mention the wedding band concealed on a chain around my neck. Instead I stood and said: “My name is Kris, and I’m in advertising in New York City. I’m just here to see what happens, you know?”

Dan the Man nodded contentedly. “You see? I’m telling you, the camaraderie always ends up being a big part of this—I’ve had guys make half-million-dollar business deals on these trips,” he said. “Now, take everything you know about dating and throw it away. After a few days, you guys are going to become like American women! A woman you would have killed to have lunch with back in the U.S., she’ll be wanting to go out with you, but you’ll start noticing little faults—her ankles are too big, you don’t like the shape of her earlobes. And you will throw her back, because you have so many choices.”

Shyly, slyly, hopefully, the men around the table smiled; these damaged guys, so desperate to believe.

* * *

In one form or another, the so-called mail-order bride has been part of American life since colonial days. Even today, many of New Orleans’ older families claim to be descended from the “casket girls” Louis XV sent from France to wed Louisiana colonists in the early eighteenth century, the term derived from the chests the women were given to carry their few belongings. And although westerns and Harlequin novels have perhaps oversold the ubiquity of mail-order marriages on the frontier—much as the role of gunfighters in those days has been oversold—such unions, whether organized by religious groups or entrepreneurs, did take place throughout the pioneer era. Bachelor farmers wrote in search of wives not only to their support networks back East but all the way to the old country. The men’s magazines of the day advertised the services of marriage brokers right alongside ads for snake-oil miracle cures and such cutting-edge mechanical marvels as the chain-driven bicycle. In turn-of-the-century Chicago alone, police broke up as many as 125 fraudulent marriage agencies, seizing and burning “wagon loads” of photographs of fictitious brides.

During most of the twentieth century, however—what with manifest destiny having been achieved, and the focus of American life having shifted from mining camps and cattle ranges to cities, suburbs, and malls—the phenomenon all but died out, except for a small traffic, impossible to quantify, which seems to have focused on women from Southeast Asia. Companies like A Foreign Affair (AFA) have sprung up only since the mid-1990s, when their founders spotted vast opportunity in the contemporaneous collapse of the Soviet Union and emergence of the Internet. Whatever one chooses to call it, the bride’s road from Kiev—or Moscow, or Bangkok, or Odessa, or Cartagena, Lima, Krivoi Rog, Manila, and dozens of other places where the women are desperate enough to sign up—begins online, where a lonely man can search a functional infinity of inviting profiles and then purchase the contact information of the women he likes for a few dollars apiece (“ADD TATIANA (77631) TO MY ORDER”), or at a volume discount (“FIND MORE WOMEN FROM DNEPROPETROVSK”). From there, he can correspond with them via email or telephone, visit their country for the in-person meeting required to begin the fiancé visa process, and ultimately bring his chosen girl back to America within six to ten months. A full-service outfit like AFA can take a man from mouse-click to matrimony for less than $10,000, orchestrating everything from travel and hotel arrangements to legal services to home delivery of flowers and chocolate—complete with digital photos of the woman’s ecstatic reaction—while she waits for her paperwork to go through.

Steadily, the mail-order bride business has been industrializing, even as one recent poll indicated that three fourths of the American population is not aware that these so-called international marriage brokers (IMBs) can operate legally in the United States. The industry’s profile, however, has been raised considerably in recent years by, among other things, a number of well-publicized murder cases: in 2000, the killing of a twenty-year-old woman from Kyrgyzstan named Anastasia King, whose husband turned out not only to have had a restraining order against him from a previous mail-order bride but to be seeking a new, third wife through an IMB; in 1995, of a Filipina named Susana Blackwell, eight months pregnant, whose husband gunned her down outside a Seattle courtroom on the last day of divorce proceedings; in 2003, of a twenty-six-year-old Ukrainian named Alla Barney, whose husband stabbed her to death in front of their young son’s day-care facility.[2]

Today, it is estimated that well over 100,000 women around the world are listed on the Internet as available for marriage to Western men. (AFA alone lists nearly 30,000.) Wherever the women come from, such websites as A Special Lady, Chance for Love, and Latin Love Search tout their traditional values, their submissiveness, their willingness to put husband and family ahead of themselves. Google the seemingly innocuous search term “single women,” and five out of the first ten results will be websites offering to connect Western men with would-be wives from around the world. Unlikely as it might sound, at the outset of the twenty-first century, marriage brokering is growing increasingly less fringe, not more so.

* * *

We were lodged at the Hotel Rus, a massive structure perched on a hill at the edge of Kiev’s downtown, with a flashing neon sign on top and, as with nearly every establishment in Kiev, bouncer-doormen in black leather jackets. On arrival we had been told that, since the bouncers get a cut from the in-house prostitutes’ earnings, they would expect a $25 bribe if we wanted to bring any women back to our rooms during the course of the week; otherwise, the hotel would charge us for an extra guest. Our first two socials were to take place in the Rus’s banquet hall, which meant that in theory we wouldn’t have to leave the hotel for days, other than for dates.

As the orientation session finished, I noticed one of the men slipping out of the room, a hulking fellow in his mid-thirties with broad, goofy features and the kind of deep red sunburn one wears for a lifetime. He had introduced himself during the orientation, almost inaudibly, as simply “a farmer,” and now he was looking more than a little overwhelmed. I went after him and invited him for a beer at the hotel bar.

Over drinks he told me his story. He lived and worked on the family farm in the Southwest, where he had grown up and married very young, though his wife soon had enough of farm life and left him (“Guess that’s what you get when you marry a Mexican call girl,” he drawled with a mournful smile). Eventually, he had turned to the Internet and begun corresponding with a Ukrainian woman whose profile he had purchased from an online broker. She knew no English whatsoever, but they nevertheless wrote to each other for several months, running their letters through a translation website before sending them. It was an imperfect system, to say the least, and after a few major misunderstandings he had decided that if matters were to move forward they would have to meet. She was set to arrive at the Kiev central train station at 5:45 the following morning—at her own expense, she was taking a thirteen-hour train ride to see him. His plan had been to spend the first couple of days with her, missing the first social, and then, if the match didn’t work out, to try his luck along with the rest of the group. He was excited, he said, but what he had heard at the orientation had left him shaken.

If Dan the Man had hammered one point home during his talk, it had been to not get attached to any one woman before having gone to all three socials—and, above all, to not allow ourselves to be talked out of attending the full slate of events. We owed it to ourselves, he told us. Until we met a few dozen of these women, how could we responsibly make a choice? If there was someone we really liked, he suggested that we think of the socials as a barometer: “If you go through three socials and she’s still the one you’re crazy about, then that really tells you something. On the other hand, if you’re not still crazy about her, then that tells you something, too.” He warned us that he had seen it many times: men whose confidence had been so trampled upon by American women that they could no longer comprehend that they were worthy of stunning, intelligent, and much younger women. As if that were not enough, skipping the events would also be taken by Ukranian women as a sign of weakness. “They really like a guy that’s a guy here,” Dan had assured us. “If they talk you out of a social, they won’t respect you.” What we needed to do was to focus, to be disciplined. The really enterprising men would be going on six dates a day.

When Dan the Man swung by our table later that evening, my companion was apologetic as he inquired about arranging a taxi for his early-morning pickup: “I know I’ve done the opposite of what you said, but I can’t stand her up.”

Our leader sighed. “This is a long way to come for a blind date,” he said, his tone hectoring. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen this before.” After he drifted away, I bought us both another round.[3]

Later that night, after a few hours of note-taking in my room, I made one last pass through the bar and found another of our group, a Midwestener whose construction company built guard booths for the Army. Even though it was well past midnight on what had been a grueling day of travel, the tie under his sweater retained its crisp knot and his gray hair was immaculately parted.

“Looks like there are a few professional women out in the lobby,” he said at almost the moment I sat down to join him. “Do you know how much they are? Do you think $100 would do it?” When I suggested he simply go outside and ask, he walked off into the lobby to do just that—leaving me alone in mid-sentence—only to return moments later. “The pretty one got in the elevator,” he muttered. “The others were a little chunky. So you don’t know how much for one of them, huh?”

He told me with a clinical chill in his voice about the time he had gone to Mexico on business and seen “The Donkey Show,” in which a female performer fellates and then copulates with a donkey. “I didn’t know a woman could take a donkey,” he said. “But she did. She took it.” He informed me that in Mexico the hookers had cost $40. When I asked him if he was really here in Ukraine looking for a wife, he just shrugged. [4]

* * *

At the first social the next evening, most of the men were already there when I arrived; wearing name tags, they clustered around the bar, as the women—200 of them or more—massed in a long line at the door. AFA enforces a strict policy prohibiting local women from attending more than one social during any single tour, and so each woman’s registration must be checked before she is allowed in. Violators risk an out-and-out ban from future events.

Nearly forty minutes passed before the women, trickling in ones and twos past the unsmiling attendants at the door, began to outnumber our group—plenty of time for bluster and small talk. “You ready?” the men asked one another. “What kind of numbers you think you’ll get?” They looked less like globalized predators than dateless eighth-grade boys at a school dance. Some carried Polaroid cameras slung over their shoulders to help them keep track of the women they would meet; many held folios full of pictures from back home—the dog, the house, the car, the local supermarket.[5] Several of the men stood near the entranceway, scanning the line with a more specific anticipation than the others; AFA had allowed us, if we liked, to anonymously invite women from the website so that we could check them out in person without feeling obligated to entertain them. Women thus invited are often told that they have been requested but not by whom.

Wandering back and forth I saw one of the more colorful members of our group, a fish farmer whose wife had died five years earlier and who saw no prospects in the tiny rural community where he lived. Unlike most of the men, who were dressed up in one way or another—some in business suits, others in blazers or a shirt and tie—he wore a T-shirt (red, white, and blue horizontal stripes, tucked over his vast beer belly and into his jeans) and a pair of Wranglers. He clapped me on the back and gestured toward the doors. “Nice, watching the stock come in,” he said.

Ninety percent or more of the “stock” looked to be under the age of thirty-five, and more than half of them a good ten years younger than that. Most had dressed to impress, though there were a variety of styles in play, from the demure to the outrageous. Roughly half of the women, especially the older ones, came dressed in evening attire, business suits, or simply slacks and sweaters. But among the younger ladies, exposed midriffs and plunging necklines abounded. In the Ukrainian manner, there were miniskirts, fishnet stockings, and vertiginous high-heeled boots; ruffles, sequins, and sheer, frilly sleeves. A pair of girls, neither of whom could have been over twenty-two, were covered in glitter and wore their hair in identically cut Cleopatra bangs. Heavy makeup, especially around the eyes and cheekbones, was de rigueur. Almost all of the women had long, straight hair. I had the distinct impression that many were wearing their one nice outfit for the occasion.

As the room filled in earnest, I encountered Dan the Man, and I marveled to him about the sheer number of women who had come out for the event. Are things really so desperate for them here in Kiev? I asked.

The money, Dan told me, is only part of the problem. Even for the women who can make a good living, he claimed, it was all but impossible to find a good man. He gave me a practiced mini-seminar on the shortcomings of Ukrainian and Russian men—how they drink, philander, alternately beat and neglect their women; how even if the men were worth a damn, the population has grown so out of balance thanks to war and a short life expectancy for males that there simply aren’t enough of them to go around; how men, in fact, are so scarce that more and more Ukrainian women are turning to lesbianism, so starved are they for sexual satisfaction.[6]

“Wow,” I said. “Well, I guess I’m going to go walk around.”

The banquet hall at the Rus holds about two dozen tables, and at each of them three, four, or more women sat and drank champagne and waited for one of us to introduce ourselves. “You have got to move,” we had been instructed. “If you don’t move, you can’t get the numbers.” And so the men circulated relentlessly, in keeping with the gospel of Dan the Man—writing down their favorites’ contact information on individual pieces of paper rather than on notepads so that the women could not see how many others were already on the list. As I wandered around the room, the men kept trying to pull me toward tables where they were speaking with five or six women. “This is Kris,” one said. “He has a very good heart.” Another introduced me as “one of his best friends.”

Ninety minutes in, the music grew louder and the D.J. began to stage dance contests, party games. In the first game, he and his assistant chose several long-legged, miniskirted ladies from the crowd to navigate a slalom of empty champagne glasses set up on the dance floor. Three finalists tried it blindfolded; the lucky winner received a cash prize amounting to more than two weeks’ pay for those in the room with jobs. “Oh my God,” one of the interpreters exclaimed, stunned. “She just got $100!” The men barely seemed to notice, but a ripple of anticipation spread through the overwhelmingly female crowd. So far out of line with the realities of Ukrainian life, the prize effectively underscored the extent to which these men held the key to another world. But the rest of the evening’s prizes—for the sexiest dancer, for the lady whose man did the best job using tinsel to decorate her like a Christmas tree—seemed to consist of chocolate bars, movie tickets, and the like. The point had been made, so there was presumably no point in going overboard.

By the time the social ended at 10:00 P.M., many of the men were positively radiant—the attention had transformed them, if only temporarily. The happy ones were positively brimming. A few left then and there on “dates” to local nightclubs, three or more girls in tow. The rest of us headed for the bar to compare notes. The taser-loving lawyer I’d spoken to at the airport showed off his Polaroids: “The twenty-five-year-old, I’m seeing tomorrow,” he narrated. “She was beautiful. Beautiful! And very intelligent.” Even as he spoke, the young woman in question passed by on her way out. Very pretty, and impossibly small alongside his bulk, she smiled at him and said good night, clearly not speaking more than a word or two of English. “See you Sunday,” he replied, waggling his sausage of a finger and speaking in a weird, coquettish singsong. “You’d better be here or you’ll be in trouble. I’ll have the handcuffs; if you’re not here, the handcuffs will be out.”

* * *

Historically, IMBs have declined to provide any information about their male clients to the women with whom they seek to match them; and, in fact, this one-sidedness has been a selling point. A New York‒based advocacy group called Equality Now demonstrated it in stark terms in 1999, when they sent a blanket email inquiry to dozens of IMBs, purporting to be from a physician who had assaulted two ex-wives; his email asked whether this history would be an issue. Out of sixty-six responses, only three IMBs turned him down, and only two others expressed serious reservations about taking him on as a client; a few actually praised him and commiserated regarding the occasional need for violence when it comes to keeping women in line. Among the responses:

“Having also been accused of asult by western women, who are usually the instigaters of domestic violence I can tell you: A) don’t let it bother you and B) most Thais avoid confrontation, Buddhist philosophy, so they are not likely to start something that may end in violence.” (www.loveasia.com)

“Thank you for your open and honest letter. I believe we all have skeletons in the closet and do not let them fall out when we meet someone. When I look into my past it also does not look too rosy. In heated arguments we all say and do things we did not mean, it does not make us a bad person. What I am trying to say is, let the ladies get to know the real you.” (www.russianwives.com)

“We are an agency and our purpose is to try to help people meet each other. We never refuse any clients that come to us with the exception of incarcerated people. So the answer is yes we will do our very best to help you, as we do for everybody else, but you should try to work on these problem you have for your own benefit and the benefit of your future wife.” (www.missright.com)

At the AFA orientation in Kiev, the point was made in a similar way when one of the men asked if the women at our events would have any sort of access to information on his age, financial status, or anything else in his personal history. “Oh no,” said Dan the Man, shaking his head emphatically. “Absolutely not. We don’t tell them anything. That’s your job.”

Again and again, my companions declared that they weren’t looking for a sex tour, and that neither were they simply looking for a servant to cook for them and clean their home—that it was a real companion they sought. Each consistently made a point of saying how intelligent their dates were, even if their outing had only lasted for half an hour and had taken place without a common language between them. One, a California contractor with a seething, hostile energy and the blue-eyed, mustachioed handsomeness of a 1970s porn star, summed it up thusly: “I don’t want someone that I’m going to run; I need somebody’s help. I need an opinion. I’m not out to pound a bunch of pussy. If that’s what I want, I’ll go down to the whorehouse.”

But what they really wanted, and what most imagined they would find in Ukraine, was a fusion of 1950s gender sensibilities with a twenty-first-century hypersexuality. Along with everything else, the men had heard that the women here were “wild,” “uninhibited,” that being with them was “a whole different ball game.” As always, Dan the Man had done his part to stoke this fantasy, peppering his talk of traditional values and wifely devotion with just the right amount of lasciviousness. “I’ve heard stories from all the guys who have been married to them, and they all say the same thing: they definitely are much, much, much more passionate, much more open-minded,” he told us at one point. “This guy, he’s been married for six, seven years and his wife is just as crazy, they have threesomes all the time.” The vision was Madonna and puttana rolled together, an American male desire shaped in equal parts by the Promise Keepers and Internet porn.

* * *

The glow from the first social having receded, many of the men found themselves a bit demoralized. A night on the town was one matter, but finding an actual wife was going to be more difficult than they had thought. Many of the women they had met, while friendly enough and certainly accessible for conversation, turned out to have had little or no interest in leaving Ukraine. They had come out to practice their English, or for the free champagne, or simply because they were curious. Even among the ones who had agreed to “date,” many seemed to be in it for little more than a free meal at a nice restaurant they would never be able to afford otherwise. It was hard to imagine that the men would be shocked by such innocent opportunism, but they were. “I wouldn’t say disappointed, but I got up with mixed feelings today,” the California contractor told me. Later in the week, another would confess that when the first date he had scheduled stood him up, he returned to his room and wept.

Beer after beer, the men analyzed their dates—whether the women had ordered pricey menu items, whether they had taken the official taxis from in front of the hotel or insisted on walking down to the street to catch a gypsy cab at a better price. A grizzly New Englander, who said he lived in a log cabin and tended to predict the imminent destruction of whatever American city came up in conversation, recounted a date that had raised several red flags. “Well, I took out a money girl,” he confessed. They had gone to T.G.I. Friday’s, a popular date venue. Apparently her appetizer had arrived before his, and she had set in on it without waiting. We all clucked and shook our heads—selfish, we agreed; a bad sign. To compound matters, for her main course she had made what everyone in the group agreed was the distinctly unfeminine choice of ribs. “Wow,” said one of the veterans. “I’ve never seen a Ukrainian girl order ribs.”

The conversations ranged from future finances and former marriages to politics, the economy, and whether or not Latin is in fact the root of “almost every language.” When I bought a beer for one of the men I had grown to sympathize with most, he gave me a big smile and said, “Thanks, whitey!” I stammered that I supposed I would take that as a compliment. “You’re goddamn right it’s a compliment,” he replied with a wink, clinking his glass against mine.

Every one of the men I spoke with said they planned to restrict their future wife’s involvement in their finances, and radically so. “You don’t ever let them touch your money, bottom line,” said one, to vigorous agreement from the rest of the table. “Set them up with their checking account that they use to pay all of the household supplies. You cover the core of the mortgages and the car and everything else. Never give them joint access.” When I remarked that the arrangement sounded more like an employer/employee relationship than a marriage, the group went a little quiet, and I suddenly found myself being accused of cultural intolerance—this at a table where “bluegums” appeared to be a perfectly unobjectionable way of referring to African Americans.

“You’re bringing all your value premises and laying them over relationships,” the New Englander objected. “You’re thinking about how you view it as, not what she’s looking for.” He became angry. “Have you been married and divorced before?” he continued, apoplectic now, forcefully jabbing his finger in my direction to punctuate each thought. “No? So you know nothing. When you’ve been fucked; when you let a woman take your life and everything you’ve worked for up to that point, and rip it out of your guts and then use the kids to keep fucking with you for ten years—then you’ll have been cauterized to learn caution. And that’s why I’m almost sixty and not married again.”

A God-fearing plumber, who would actually be engaged by the end of the week, agreed that I had no idea what I was talking about, but tried to soften the tone by warning me about the dangers I would face if I sought love back in the United States. “When she gets over it, you’re not going to know for two years,” he told me. “And at the end of two years, she’s going to have you so tied up, wrapped up, and packaged in such a neat little bow, that when she finally does tell you, ka-boom, you’re done, she’s already got the deck stacked in her favor before you even know what’s going on. That’s the truth. You can ask anybody that’s been divorced.”

Even the most likable of them approached the idea of marriage as if through a time machine. One, for example, a sweet-tempered, chubby Canadian businessman, spoke with passion and conviction about the female orgasm, and openly about loneliness; at one point he leaned over to me and whispered, “We’re all hurting in one way or another, that’s why we’re here. We’re all trying to make our lives better, we’re all looking for love.” He told me he wanted a genuine partner, but with the caveat that on the big issues—house buying, for example—he must be in charge, for the good of them both. “A ship cannot have two captains,” he insisted. When I suggested that he and his hypothetical spouse might eliminate the need for a “captain” by simply shopping for a house they both liked, he went silent for a moment before he managed both to concede my point and to reframe it entirely: “Actually, that’s an important thing you just said, because for a woman, she would take a lot of pride in her house. The kitchen area, the living-room area, the entertainment area, she’s got to be compatible with that. So that’s something I would gladly defer to a woman on.”

* * *

Our last scheduled group event was a trip to Vinnitsa, roughly three hours from Kiev, for the tour’s third and final social. The city’s primary claim to fame was having been the site of an infamous Nazi construction project; thousands of prisoners were put to work building a vast underground command bunker and subsequently murdered in order to keep its plans secret. This was not among the things Dan the Man told us about Vinnitsa, which was touted in our trip materials as a “bonus city,” though it was acknowledged that the place “has had its ups and downs.” What we were told was that this little industrial backwater was home to “motivated women” and was a “gem” when it came to romance tours. “Vinnitsa has much to offer for its guests,” read the literature, “but nothing compares to the beauty of the women. Don’t miss your chance to meet the girl of your dreams!” Around two thirds of the group had decided to make the trip; the rest stayed in Kiev for dates with women they had found in the binders or had met at the second social. Those on the bus traveled with high hopes. “I guarantee you that some of you guys will not be coming back tomorrow,” Dan the Man had promised.

On the road to Vinnitsa, we began to see roadside stands, one after another, selling straw brooms, kindling wood, or a few cans of food, the vendors huddled back from the road burning pitifully small fires to keep warm. With little cheer to be found in the bleak, unbroken landscape, Dan the Man walked up and down the aisle delivering his spiel. He joked that what we really needed were “extreme romance tours,” to places like Chechnya, Baghdad, Afghanistan. Of course, the joke had more than a grain of truth to it. We were visiting this place only because its population of 360,000 contained a critical mass of women desperate for new horizons. Indeed, the more miserable the place, the more capital a visiting man will have to leverage against his prospective wives; that was why we had left the United States for Kiev, and why we had left Kiev for Vinnitsa. One tour veteran had told me earlier that one of the best experiences of his life was being on the first Romance Tour into the Russian city of Novgorod, not long after the fall of the Soviet Union. “We were thirteen guys,” he said, his voice tinged with awe. “And almost four hundred women showed up. You could barely make it through the room.”

The social that night was held at a place called Club Pharaoh, a hole-in-the-wall that was apparently the largest nightclub in town. The level of skill and enthusiasm shown on the dance floor was astonishing—kick steps, turns, hair flips, all executed in nosebleed heels while crushed elbow to elbow into the crowd. The handful of men who had been lured out onto the dance floor were far out of their league but happy, swaying arhythmically on rooted feet as their partners danced circles around them. Unlike in Kiev, there was a noticeable group of women over forty—some of the most beautiful women of the evening, actually, in fur and mascara that they wore with surprising elegance; real catches, some of them, and embodiments of what so many of the men had said they wanted during the sessions at the hotel bar. With few exceptions, though, the men ignored them as they cycled through tables full of girls twenty, thirty years younger than they.

At one point I found myself next to Dan the Man, and I asked him, finally, if he had thought about the dark side of his industry. Had he heard about the killings? The cases of abuse? With an agility that must have come from his radio years, he immediately replied: “There’s no doubt about it, we have guys who come through here once in a while and leave a wake of women behind them, damaged, destroyed, used, and abused.” But then he added: “They talk about that in the media, of course—the women are being brought over from Ukraine and Russia, and they’re being treated horribly. That may be true in some cases, but why don’t you also do a story about the American men abusing the American women? It’s just not sensational enough, because it’s right there at home. So they make a big story out of this.”

Soon afterward I told him that I was going to make it an early night, that I wished him well. “I just hate to have a guy come all this way and not find what he’s looking for,” he said, before turning away with a shrug.

* * *

For the ride back to Kiev the morning after the Vinnitsa social, the men boarded the bus in high spirits, slinging duffels into the cargo hold and trading good-humored, hungover banter like some minor-league ball club on a winning streak. Again they compared notes: about whom they had gone out with, how far into the wee hours they had stayed at the nightclub, how much vodka they had drunk while French-kissing a twenty-five-year-old named Olga.

One of the most successful of the group, an importer from the Great Lakes region, was flush with his conquests, and he talked a blue streak about the different women he had met and slept with throughout the trip. He switched between describing his “girlfriends” and talking about the years he spent trapped in a “passionless” marriage to a “soft American woman.” His golf cap was turned backward, and he wore a leather jacket. “I’m moving from quantity to quality,” he told me. “I’m changing my strategy. After the divorce, I just went wild; I guess I’d thought I would never find someone again. I think there’s a good chance I’ll marry one of the girls on this trip.”

A few of the men paired off in animated, earnest conversations about life, marriage, women. “I’m not going to spend every bit of my life in America,” one was saying. “Because I’m sick and tired of being blamed for everything—the white man, you’re all responsible for everything. And American women are just rude, obnoxious. I won’t marry another American woman. I won’t do it. I’ll stay single first.”

A few rows back, another showed around photos of his front-runner with a moony, rapturous smile on his face. “Look at those eyes,” he said again and again as he held out a computer printout of her profile, even as a quarter-inch-thick stack of competing profiles sat in his lap. “She just melts me.” Quite a few of the men would find what they were looking for: by the time I left the group at the end of the first week (the full tour left several days of supported dating after the end of the group events), our tally of engagements would reach three—or six, if one includes the man who was engaged to three different women.

But when the urologist from Minnesota pulled out his video camera and started walking up and down the aisle, asking the men for memories from the trip, the chattiness evaporated.

“I’m here to see the world,” one offered, stiffly.

“I’m just visiting beautiful Ukraine,” another muttered, and everyone around him chuckled softly at the crazy notion.

About the Author

Kristoffer A. Garin is the author of Devils on the Deep Blue Sea, a history of the cruise-ship industry.



Your comments:

#1 Scott Quickel (USA) at 2007-02-13
How much is a standard 2 weekends and a week = 11 day visit Tucson, USA to Kiev?

-W. Scott Quickel
Author's answer: Dear Scott!

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Kiev can meet you in the airport and drive you to the apartment or hotel. The transfer costs $45. We can offer you translation service in Kiev as well. It cost $10-12. You will need to arrange the
tickets from USA to Kiev by yourself.

Scott, please contact us http://www.chanceforlove.com/contactus/index.php for more details if you are interested.

Best Regards,
Ira, the editor
www.ChanceForLove.com



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