VLADIVOSTOK, Russia — Yelena Sokolova was in a deep depression after she divorced her husband, and some friends decided to lift her spirits. They scanned a picture of her and placed it with a personal ad on an Internet site for those seeking marriage.
Over the next month, Sokolova, who is 36, received more than 50 e-mail messages from men all over the world, including a mountain climber who conquered Everest and a participant in an Olympic marathon. But a letter from a modest computer programmer from Las Vegas caught her attention, and soon she found herself writing to him every day.
This summer Sokolova will leave Russia to marry Phillip and start a new life, and she will take her 14-year-old son Vladimir with her.
Every year, thousands Russian women leave the country in order to marry a foreigner. In Sokolova’s case, it happened by accident, but others, driven Russia’s economic crash or the promise of a comfortable life abroad, end up coming to international marriage agencies for help. And the rapid growth of the Internet in Russia and abroad has accelerated the process.
At least four women each day seek help from Scanna International, the largest and oldest agency in the Far Eastern Primorye region, which lies between China and the Sea of Japan. Scanna was the first such agency to appear when it opened here in 1987, said Vera Vertinskaya, marriage department director. Through this firm alone, about 600 marriages are concluded every year, and 60 percent of the women go to America. Scanna’s marriage business has become so popular, others are following suit — even tour companies like Vladivostok’s Starwind Visa offer matchmaking services in addition to their main business.
Starwind Visa has specialized in marriages between Russian women and Japanese men for eight years. Every year, from 30 to 50 couples get married through this agency, according to its director, Vladimir Naidin.
“Usually, from the time the couple first meet, it takes from six months to a year before the people realize that they need to live together,” he said. “Also, Japanese men have to consult with all their relatives, bring the woman to Japan, and come here a few times.”
The Internet is the biggest connecting point. While the Russian Far East has lagged behind much of Asia in Internet connections, the phenomenon is growing, as people log on at work or drop by an increasing number of Internet cafes. People find each other through chat rooms, or place ads on Web sites like the personals section of excite.com, where Sokolova’s friends put her ad.
Sokolova was educated as a geographer, but for the past nine years, she has danced in a contemporary dance company. On a recent afternoon she sat in her dressing room before a concert, preparing her costumes and recalling how she connected with Phillip.
“It was something inexplicable that happened,” she said. “Suddenly your intuition tells you: That’s him. Other men wrote that I should have such-and-such character, I should be able to do this and that. But Phillip never imposed any requirements on me. He put so much care and warmth into his letters that for the first time in my life I felt as if somebody had wrapped me with cozy, fluffy blanket.”
After four months of electronic correspondence, Yelena and Phillip met in Moscow earlier this year. Although they looked different from what they expected from photos, they felt an even deeper attraction for one another.
Working as a marriage broker can bring one into contact with some strange characters. One Japanese client has come to Vladivostok every month for the last six months, Vertinskaya said, and everyday he meets five or six girls and he tells each of them about his mother, who is sick and whom he can’t leave alone in the house because if there is only one person in the house, then the demons will settle there.
Some Russian-Japanese couples find each other without the agency’s help. Viktoria and Yoshito Koidzumi (she is 27; he’s 30) have been together for three years and live in her apartment in Vladivostok. Yoshito has lived in Russia for nine years and is about to defend his thesis on the difference between Russian and Japanese criminal law. Viktoria is helping him begin a career as a lawyer. They do the home chores together, and she says he has never tried to put her in a “traditional shadow,” she said.
“It is all a theater — the (Japanese) women’s obedience and quietness,” Viktoria said. “In a Japanese family everything depends on a woman. Japanese women have become so emancipated and fight for their rights so strongly, men are afraid of them. No wonder their men are coming to Russia looking for a wife.”
Some foreign men might feel the same way about certain Russian women. Matchmakers say Russian women are often limited by a bad knowledge of English and an abrasive style. Some girls write, “My boss is a real jerk and I almost had a heart attack from my hatred for him,” said the director of one matchmaking firm. This immediately puts a man on alert.
Tatiana, a 24-year-old student who refused to give her last name, came to a Vladivostok marriage agency find a husband, but her goal is goes beyond that. Seeking work as a clothing designer, she would like to settle in Europe.
“I know so many women who want to leave Russia,” Tatiana said. “They just don’t dare start doing something about it.”
So far, the emigration of women has not become a demographic problem, as there are more women then men in Russia; thus, many women can’t find a husband here, said Nadezhda Syroyed, a sociologist with Far Eastern State University. “What is much more dangerous for the country is the brain drain, when very good specialists, including women, are leaving,” she said.
Syroyed, who has studied women who immigrated, said men who seek wives in Russia are often seeking to create an old-fashioned marriage. Russian women tend to be highly educated, yet are less feminist than their American sisters.
“American men are usually looking for a nurse or mother-type woman, who will load herself with all the housework and care for the children and the old parents,” she said. “Russian women exactly fit the pattern.”
Yet women who marry foreigners tend to be less happy, Syroyed said, because they end up being totally dependent on their husbands.
Sokolova, who found her future husband through the Internet, is philosophical about what Russian women and foreigners offer each other. “Probably we can give something to foreign men that they lack in their women, and vice versa — they can give us what Russian men can’t,” she said.
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