East meets West on love's risky cyberhighway

Alevtina Ivanova and other Russian bachelorettes like her are looking for a few good men – abroad.

"Unfortunately, in our collapsed economy, very few men are able to support a family properly,'' she says.

"Russian men lack confidence, they become fatalistic, they drink, they die young. It's not surprising that Russian women pin their hopes elsewhere.''

Ms. Ivanova, a veteran of half-a-dozen serious cyberrelationships with European and American men, is among thousands of Russian women turning to the Internet to meet Westerners. The potential suitors are equally frustrated with the dating prospects in their home countries.

"American women are too independent, too demanding, too critical,'' says Chris, a middle-aged US businessman visiting Moscow to meet "several very nice ladies'' he contacted over the Web. The visitor, who asked that his last name not be used, cites a joke often repeated here: "A Russian wife wants to keep house for you. An American wife wants to get rid of you, and keep the house."

Dozens of Web-based agencies are busy playing match- maker, for fees paid by both the women, who send in their pictures and bios for posting on international websites, and the men, who can obtain contact information for the women who pique their interest.

The agencies claim that romance is blossoming all over, and that thousands of happy Russian e-mail order brides head West every year.

''We get about 300 applicants every single day, mostly women,'' says Anna Kuznetsova, manager of Eye-2-Eye, a large, Moscow-based international dating agency. "The technology may be modern, but the process of men meeting women is as ancient as time."

Though there are no firm statistics, it is estimated that between 4,000 and 6,000 women from the former USSR marry US citizens each year. One agency currently lists 25,000 women from Russia and other former Soviet republics seeking Western mates; there are dozens more agencies, each offering thousands of would-be brides. Some agencies have branched into travel, translation and other services to profit from what they say is an exploding traffic.

While some describe these international e-introductions as offering matches made in heaven, others see nightmares in cyberspace.

''People bring their illusions as well as their dreams to this market,'' says Tatiana Gurko, head of the independent Center for Gender Studies in Moscow. "Like any physical place, the Internet has predators lurking about, and sometimes they may be hard to spot.''

Western men increasingly report being ripped off by wily Russian women, who write sweet e-mails, send sexy digital photos, hit them up for cash, and then disappear.

On the other side, tales filtering back to Russia of Internet marriages gone sour – including the murder of a Russian mail-order bride in the US – have put women on their guard.

But Ivanova, who now works as an adviser to DiOritz, a large Moscow matchmaking agency, says that, although none of her cyber-relationships have led to marriage, she has had no regrettable experiences.

''You can find out everything you need to know about a man in five e-mails,'' she says breezily. "Men are fairly obvious, you just need to question them properly."

To her, the requirements on both sides are clear: "A woman need only be attractive and educated, but a man must have property, means, and a good job.''

Yelena Khronina, who plans to soon wed "a wonderful Norwegian man'' she met via the Internet, says her dream has come true.

"It's so hard to be a woman in Russia,'' Ms. Khronina sighs. "But then you visit this beautiful, orderly, prosperous country, and spend time with a man who treats you with kindness and respect. Why would anyone say no to that?''

The potential dangers of dabbling in cyberromance are dramatized in a recent film, Birthday Girl, in which Nicole Kidman plays a mail order bride from Moscow who brings a gang of Russian mafia thugs crashing into the life of her English bank-clerk beau. In real life, the sting is usually more mundane: An unsuspecting Western man falls in love after a few gushing e-mail exchanges with a false identity posted on a Web site – sometimes the photos are actually of a Russian actress or fashion model – and is persuaded to wire cash for a ticket to visit him, or to meet some personal emergency.

"A woman can string a man along, playing on his emotions and sympathy and, in doing so, trick him into giving her money or expensive items,'' says Paul O'Brien, a US Web designer who has temporarily given up his search for a Russian wife after being burned by two women who just wanted money from him.

Mr. O'Brien says he resorted to the Internet because of America's fast-paced, impersonal and workaholic culture. "A lot of guys I know work many, many hours and do not have time for a social life,'' he says. "So it seems particularly appealing to them when these agencies offer to help them make contact with beautiful and single women," he says, but warns: "Prospective suitors need to be very wary of the women out there who have no intention of developing a relationship with them.''

Most of the known scams are now listed on a special website supported by several matchmaking agencies, http://www.russian-scam.org/

Russian women insist it is they who face the greatest hazards. Many have heard about Anastasia Solovyova, a Russian from the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyztan, who was murdered by her American husband two years ago. She had been his second mail- order bride. Experts say there are many more tales of miserable, and sometimes tragic, mismatches.

"You come to a strange country, to meet a man you've only corresponded with by e-mail,'' says Ivanova. "There are issues of language, culture and personal morality. It takes a lot of trust, and for some women it goes badly wrong.''

After her many encounters, Ivanova says she now advises her clients not to consider men from the US at all. ''American men are not cultured, they work too much and think far too much about money,'' she says. ''Western European men are different. When they correspond with a prospective bride, they look upon it as forming a relationship. American men act as if they're buying a wife.''

In any case, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, which brought the Russian and US governments closer together may, paradoxically, have put at least a temporary damper on the love fest.

Tamara Babkina, deputy director of Wedding Palace No. 4, which is the only office in Moscow where foreigners can legally marry, says that until last year, Americans were the largest group marrying Russian women. "We had 175 US-Russian weddings in 2001, but since Sept. 11 there has not been a single one," Ms. Babkina says.

While no one wants to go on the record criticizing love, some experts argue that the Westward outflow of Russian women must be viewed as a baneful social indicator.

"Russia has become the world's leading exporter of wives, and this is a tremendously profitable business,'' says Ms. Gurko.

"It may be a real supply-and-demand situation," she says, "but let's try to remember that this vast supply of terrific women is made up of individuals whose hopes have been crushed in Russia.

"It's so sad that, in order to seek a better life, a Russian woman has to leave."

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