By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
The tottering Russian economy also plays a role, creating a harsh climate that some women are eager to flee for a better, more secure life.
Why are so many American men eager to wed a former Red? According to a 1999 study commissioned by the INS, the typical American man seeking a mail-order bride is 37 years old, white, highly educated, from a metropolitan area, politically and ideologically conservative and economically and professionally successful.
And they're frustrated with American women. "The overwhelming majority of the men who use such services are sincerely wanting to find a woman with old-fashioned values to love and cherish," stated a representative from a matchmaking agency who commented for a 1999 Congressional study of the mail-order bride industry. "Until the day women in America can understand and accept the true meaning of feminism, there will be a continuing flood of American men who will look overseas to find that 'real' woman."
One man who recently became engaged to a Russian woman describes this frustration as "radical Susan Faludi feminism," referring to the former Wall Street Journal reporter who penned the screed BACKLASH: The Undeclared War Against Women. "I got tired of the whole men are evil, men want to keep you down, men are pigs nonsense," he says. These men typically see American women as remote, shallow, hyperconscious of status and emotionally chilly. By contrast, they see Russian women as exuberantly feminine, devoted and content to be wives, mothers and homemakers. While few feminist organizations have official positions on these agencies, the rap is that they are flesh peddlers plying subservient homemakers to American men who can't hack strong, independent women. It's hard to disagree.
"They're better-looking women. They don't wear blue jeans on dates," says David Besuden, president of Anastasia International. "They wear miniskirts or long dresses. They're taller and leaner, and they take care of themselves. They don't play games with guys. They don't break dates."
Courtship is where much of this bitterness with the opposite sex is bred and fomented, it seems. Greg Dropus, 34, a manager for Sun Microsystems in Palo Alto, California, and a San Francisco resident, says he experienced years of frustrating brushes with dating services and women he met through friends and acquaintances. He recounts episodes in which women with whom he was newly acquainted would ask to examine his car keys to see what he drove before they'd give him their phone numbers. He describes numerous "coffee dates," where women would meet him for coffee and interview him to determine if he was a suitable candidate for dinner.
"Try to go on a date, and she's got her pager going off with stock quotes, or she's on her cell phone chatting with her boss," he says. "You try and set up the next date, and you have to wait a month. Or, if they weren't the corporate climber type, they would ask you questions like what's your education level? Where do you work? How long have you been at that job? What's your total work experience? And you can hear the salary and stock schedules clicking by in their head."
Desperate and disillusioned, Dropus turned to the Web in October 1999. He sifted through hundreds of listings and distilled them to a handful of candidates; then he began writing. In April of the following year, he traveled to Russia with Houston's One True Love service and met with a few of his picks during a three-week period and settled on Valentina, a 27-year-old elementary school teacher. He proposed the following September. He's now plowing through the necessary red tape for a fiancee visa.
"In Russia, they know that men and women are different," says Dropus. "It's more like the 1950s over there. These aren't the soap-opera, Jerry Springer-watching ladies of the world. They have a grace about them."
On the cheaper tours, though, sometimes one finds anything but grace. Miss Russia's Hickman derisively calls these "redneck tours." "They bring the girls off the street with promises of food and drink and marriage and a green card," he says. "They get 300 girls in this singles-bar situation and get 30 guys to come into this singles bar with 300 women, and they match them up. Then they bring these girls back [to the United States], and the girl comes with visions of gold in the streets, and she goes in a trailer house with a redneck and his beer-drinkin' buddies, and she's gone in two weeks." Case in point: Anastasia International advertises that on its tours a man can potentially meet several hundred ladies in a short period of time. It does this through a series of "socials" or gatherings in a rented space, such as a hotel banquet room or a disco, with roughly 40 men let loose among a crowd of some 300 or more women for eating, drinking and dancing. These get-togethers usually last some six hours.
Anastasia's 1999 tour video shows interviewers parading among the men and women with a microphone as big as a fungo bat. "Once you've been here, you could never settle for an American woman," says one Anastasia client on camera. "I feel like a man," shouts another. "It's been a long time since I've felt this way." "Russian women are affectionate, kind and, unlike American women, are comfortable with their femininity," says the narrator. "American women want to be like men. Russian women want to be like women," says another tour participant. And so on.