By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
His modest home in Little Elm on Lake Lewisville is a bachelor-pad parody. Old newspapers and heaps of junk mail sprout like mushrooms in corners and under tables. Cobwebs and balls of dust cloud the narrow spaces under the couches. Tangles of socks, T-shirts and rumpled sheets are visible through a cracked bedroom door off one corner of the living room.
As a crowning touch to the ultimate bachelor residence, he shares it with two roommates--strippers who work in Dallas men's clubs.
Attorney Bob Buss, 44, speaks with a generous Chicago accent. And judging by the décor, Buss is a homesick Chicagoan. Caps of various Chicago sports teams are lined up on his big-screen TV. Cabbage Patch dolls dressed in Chicago Cubs uniforms are perched along the back of the couch.
The phone rings.
"I always grab the phone because it might be one of these Ukrainian women calling me," Buss says, shuffling off to the kitchen. He has just returned from a trip to the Ukraine with stops in Odessa and Kiev. The catalog on his coffee table describes Kiev as a city of country charm. Odessa, it says, is a seaside village with beautiful sunsets, walks on the beach and warm summer nights to "create a truly relaxing and romantic atmosphere."
Next to the catalog, Buss has lined up a series of dark, poorly composed snapshots. There are pictures of his house, pictures of his old office, pictures of Buss next to his TV, pictures of him standing in his yard. "My thought basically was this whole thing was just a load of baloney," he says, returning from the kitchen. "It's like a singles bar, girls all over the place. It starts at noon, you wander around, ya hit on 'em. I want to go back again. I'm still high from the damn thing."
The "thing" Buss is referring to is a matchmaking tour sponsored by Anastasia International Inc., a Winchester, Kentucky-based Russian-American correspondence and tour service dedicated to linking American men with Russian women "for...romance, love and marriage." Anastasia is one of more than 200 international matchmaking firms advertising potential brides for American men, more than half of which represent Russian women. The firms range from free "pen pal" clubs in which participants write via e-mail, to correspondence services that advertise the photos and bios of hundreds of women on Web sites and in catalogs with addresses that can be bought for roughly $10 apiece, to tour services costing from $3,000 to more than $5,000 that usher men to Russian cities, where they spend their days meeting as many women as they like. But the Rolls Royce of Russian matchmaking services is right here in Dallas. In business for barely one year, Miss Russia Dot Com fancies itself the crème de la crème of Yankee-Russki lust. It's supposedly a collision of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and The Dating Game, in which well-heeled American men pay $25,000 for a seven-day tour to meet and court supermodel-caliber Russian women. And only millionaires need apply.
Dallas CPA James Hickman, 57, never planned on being a matchmaker, least of all for some of America's most affluent businessmen. But that's what happened, he says. Born in Sherman, Hickman seems to have a preference for beautiful foreign women. He says he married an Italian model in Italy while he was working for the accounting firm KPMG Peat Marwick. The marriage didn't last.
Then in 1993, while recruiting Russian programmers in Moscow for the computer consulting firm he ran, Hickman collected a few addresses of the women he met. One of those women was Yana Kosenkova, 27, a law school student with whom Hickman corresponded for roughly a year. "Then he came to see me," Kosenkova says. "It was love at first sight, and three months later I came to the U.S. on a fiancee visa, and we were married."
"We met and fell in love immediately," Hickman explains. "It was like a sledgehammer hit me on the side of the head." Hickman says it was Kosenkova who actually started the business that would become Miss Russia Dot Com. He set her up with a computer and an Internet site, he says, so she could earn a little extra money for clothes. In time, she learned to program, and she used her contacts in Russia to set up a small matchmaking business. "We started out like most sites, selling addresses," Kosenkova says. "After I learned English, I ran the business and did the Web programming and everything."
Hickman and his wife stumbled onto the millionaire matchmaking idea after recruiting beautiful models interested in marriage through Hickman's teen pageant companies, another of his ventures. One of their earliest male clients said he would gladly pay $25,000 for the chance to meet the girl whom he'd marry. That comment was the seed for their "matchmakers for millionaires" service, and from that point on they catered only to wealthy men. Ironically, Hickman wouldn't make the financial cut with his own company if he were a prospective client, although he claims his business is worth $5 million alone just for the trademarks to the teen pageants.
Hickman says his typical client is someone who has developed a company and then sold it, or is a whiz kid who struck it rich in the stock market. These men are typically over 35 and have never married. Kosenkova says their poorest client had a net worth of just over $1 million, while their richest client rang in at more than $100 million. You'll have to take the couple's word for it all: They offer no documentation to back up the hype.
While Hickman says the names of his clients are recognizable, he refuses to divulge them. He's sworn to secrecy. "It's the mail-order bride stigma," he explains. What he will say is that his client list consists of the founder of a high-tech company Bill Gates purchased, a mogul whose company advertises during the Super Bowl, a businessman who owned a racehorse in the Kentucky Derby and a British aristocrat who is a contributor to the Financial Times of London. Though Hickman says he doesn't absolutely restrict his service to millionaires, he does require potential clients to submit verification of their income status.
"They've been working hard all of their lives," Hickman says. "They've dedicated themselves to their careers." Like virtually every man seeking a Russian wife, Hickman says his clients are disillusioned with American women. They've had supermodels and successful career women on their arms and found them shallow and manipulative, jockeying the relationship to enhance their careers. "They're looking for the Ozzie and Harriet-type marriage," Hickman says. "Our clients want that, back to the '50s...They all say they just want an ordinary down-to-earth girl who is beautiful."
Hickman says his company has strict criteria for the women who meet his clients. They must have a university degree, an impeccable background, no children and must never have been married. Hickman claims the verification process for his girls is fairly easy. "This is Russia," he says, "so there are KGB files on every citizen, and the information is as easy to obtain as a credit report in the USA." But Hickman adds that he waives the unmarried, childless and degree requirements if the woman is unusually beautiful.
While Hickman refuses to disclose Miss Russia's financial picture, he claims he serves up to three clients a month and admits he has yet to turn a profit. The tour is focused and loosely regimented. At the start of the seven-day St. Petersburg tour, the client is picked up at the airport in a stretch limo and is provided with a driver, a bodyguard and two translators. The client takes one day of rest and begins the interview process at noon the next day. Clients generally see five girls a day for four days, each session lasting some 45 minutes. "It's like a job interview," Hickman says. "It's a crass way of putting it, but that's exactly what it is." Usually by the third day, the client has selected the girl he's most interested in, and the last few days are dedicated to romantic dinners, ballets, operas and trips to the Hermitage Museum.
Hickman's elitist matchmaking company has kicked up a lot of international media interest over the last few months. Early last year, French National Television began work on a documentary chronicling his millionaire clients in their quest for love. Last May, Hickman took out a full-page ad in the Dallas Business Journal and an ad in The Dallas Morning News calling for a Texas millionaire to be featured in the documentary. His fishing wasn't successful. Instead, the 90-minute documentary, to air next fall on French channel 3, will feature an Arizona millionaire and Hickman client who is engaged to Miss Teen Ukraine, Marina Troshina.
The matchmaking business is only one part of the fledgling business empire Hickman calls Romanov Inc., the core of which is the capitalist frivolity known as beauty pageants. He plans to launch and operate "Miss Teen" pageants all over Europe, with events planned in the Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Feeding off of his teen enterprise is a model management group, a film division, an ad agency, a fashion division and, of course, the matchmaking business. "All of these companies revolve around beautiful women," boasts Hickman. "That's what makes this company so great." And all of his talk of an empire may be more than just idle chatter. Tear Sheet magazine, which claims to be the world's largest trade magazine of the professional modeling industry, with a circulation of 230,000, last year tagged one of Romanov's models, Sasha Hodotova of St. Petersburg, as one of the world's 50 most beautiful models. He plans to take the modeling arm of Romanov public and spin off Miss Russia Dot Com in the near future.
"I think it's every American man's dream to marry a beautiful model who's 10 or 15 years younger than him," says the Arizona millionaire profiled in the French TV documentary. "If you could tell a man there was a place where he could meet 30 Victoria's Secret supermodels that are all interested in marriage...it would seem unbelievable."
While there are no reliable statistics for mail-order bride services, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service pegged the number of firms at roughly 100 in 1994. By May 1998 that number topped 200, which collectively advertised between 100,000 and 150,000 women. Most of these women hail from two regions: Southeast Asia and the republics of the former Soviet Union, with Russia and the Ukraine the most common countries of origin. The INS estimates that 4,000 to 6,000 marriages between American men and foreign brides take place each year through these services.
One of the reasons for the recent mail-order surge can be summed up in two words: Russian women. "We were raised on you being the enemy, our mortal enemy," says a Florida man writing on the Web site Russian Girls-Russian Wives. "And all we saw of Russian women was babushkas, and we felt so sorry for Russian men, but not sorry because obviously as an enemy of the 'Great United States' this was what they deserved. Imagine to our shock as Eastern women began showing up in American magazines and with the advent of the Internet and Russian sites, our tongues hang to the floor."
Bob Buss flips through the snapshots on his coffee table, pictures of his life that he showed off and passed around to the girls he met in Odessa and Kiev last August. "What I did was, I had a routine. I brought pictures," Buss says. "I was the only guy that picked up on that one. That was a huge edge. Huge." Yet he was surprised by the images these women gravitated toward. It wasn't the picture of Bob by his big-screen TV, or Bob in his back yard by the lake, or even Bob by his Jeep Cherokee. They were most interested in group photos of Bob and his family. "The materialism pictures, which I thought were going to be the big seller, they didn't go over that well," Buss says. "What they really are after as far as I can see, is they're not really after the big buck. They're after somebody who is a decent human being, who they think they can live with."
Buss estimates he met some 30 women during his 10-day tour. "There were seven that I would say I was actually out on an encounter," he says. While he wouldn't describe how close those encounters got, Buss says anything can happen. The hotel lobbies were crawling with prostitutes, a common sight on these matchmaking junkets. "There were an amazing amount of beautiful women that were hanging in the hotel lobby," says Hickman's Arizona millionaire. "Prostitution is very big, and there's a lot of it there. The women are stunning."
Indeed they are. Anastasia publishes a catalog jammed with hundreds of women--blondes, brunettes, redheads--most under 30. They're slim and leggy with sumptuous lips. They assume a variety of poses: sitting, standing, lying down, or on all fours like a cat in heat. They pose in everything from slit evening gowns to microminis to hot pants to swimsuits to loud vinyl. One hopeful named Darina saw fit to pose in a white tutu on pointe.
Professions also run the gamut: teachers, secretaries, speech therapists, accountants, economists, medical students, engineers, musicians--even a Toyota plant manager. The women include descriptions of themselves with their photos, as well as a synopsis of the man of their dreams. Sometimes the combination of earnestness and starched English can be intriguing. Olga, a 22-year-old from the Ukraine, describes herself and her potential partner this way on the Web site Blue Sapphires, Beautiful Russian Brides:
In Own Words: I am a kind, sympathetic, cheerful, sociable, orderly, industrious, punctual lady. Do not you get tired of all my positive features of character? So I am also a considerate, purposeful, patient and gentle lady. Is it really I? I hope yes. I like to travel, dance, listen to music, cook delicious dishes, socialize with friends, play with children, dream and swim. In general, if you write me I will be very glad. Internet--it is so popular now! Who knows, maybe I can really find a man who will match me.
Seeks Partner: An educated, sociable, nice, kind, patient man with a good sense of humor and without tendency to corpulence. A man who loves life, children, sex. A man who will understand that I am his special woman.
The reasons some American men are flocking to Russia for women are not complicated. First, there are a lot of young and available women in the republics of the former Soviet Union. Decades of famine, collectivization, the Gulag and wars, most recently those in Afghanistan and Chechnya, have created a demographic asymmetry in which Russian women considerably outnumber men. And the situation continues to get worse. Last March, Russian sociologists and demographic experts sounded the alarm, warning that Russian men are becoming an endangered species. A combination of alcoholism and work-related accidents has decimated the male population over the last 10 years, resulting in a net loss of some 5 million men of working age. Current life expectancy for Russian men is 59 years, significantly lower than the 72-year life span for Russian women.
And Russian women aren't exactly enamored with the surviving crop. "They have a little bit different quality," says psychiatrist Svetlana Mahoney of Alabama, who met her husband Richard through Houston-based One True Love. "They are not so responsible. Not at all. They are not very faithful to family and children." Yana Hickman adds that Russian women believe American men are very romantic, while Russian men often fall short in that department. She adds that many Russian women have suffered at the hands of Russian men, who tend to drink too much vodka.
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.
Bob Buss describes an Odessa social he attended in a club that was converted into a Greek temple. The waitresses wore togas. Greek columns served as décor. Everything was Greek, except the toilets. These were Turkish, with a flush mechanism consisting of a simple hand brush--to, uh, brush away the waste into a small hole--and a bucket of water. "I never did any squatting while I was there," Buss says. "I made sure that I would do my thing at the hotel before I left. I kind of regulated myself where I never had that experience."
What he did experience was a flood of beautiful, twentysomething Ukrainian women dressed for American male slaughter in miniskirts, stilettos and various push-up apparatuses.
The men, however, were not so choice. Included in Buss' squad was a 65-ish man with a heart condition in a feverish quest for his fourth wife. Another was an 82-year-old retired emergency-room physician from Wichita, Kansas, who fashioned himself a ladies' man. "He had a face like a hundred miles of bad road," recalls Buss. "He brought one tiny piece of luggage. Turns out he wore the same thing every day and just washed it at night. He asked the same questions over and over. Turns out he has memory problems. He's like in Ronald Reagan land."
The last several months, it turns out, have brought a wave of Russia mail-order love-gone-wrong stories. Late last year, a 20-year-old Russian woman was found buried in a dumping ground outside of Seattle. She had been strangled. Her American husband, who had found her through a correspondence service, was charged in connection with the murder, which was described as a tangled tale of homosexual trysts, spousal abuse, adultery and deception.
And in Anchorage, Alaska, last January, four people, including a Russian and a Russian-American who operated a "Russian Brides" and "Sex Tours of St. Petersburg" Web site, were arrested and charged with immigration fraud and kidnapping, among other charges. The group participated in a scam to lure Russian girls to Alaska under the guise of a cultural exchange. Instead, the women were forced to work in a strip club while the conspirators confiscated their wages and passports. Media stories such as these circulate among Russian women looking for an American husband, chilling the feet of many prospective fiancees.
"My only fear right now is getting her here," says a chemist from Anchorage who spoke on the condition that he not be named and recently became engaged to a Russian rocket scientist through One True Love. "I'm afraid that she might change her mind or back out."
Yet while these stories arouse suspicion of fraud and abuse, the INS says existing data fails to establish that the international matchmaking industry contributes significantly to such exploitation.
But that's no consolation for Buss. He was hoping to have his bride-to-be, Liliya Perevozchik, with him on his homestead in Little Elm by this time. Instead, he believes he may have lost her. "She's afraid to come to America," he says. "Her mom doesn't want her to leave. I'm just betwixt and between. The papers are set."
Buss met his fiancee at one of the Anastasia socials in Kiev last summer. He's visited her three times since then, even buying her a wedding dress. But after several months of arduous maneuvering to obtain a fiancee visa for Liliya, Buss says she started seeming reluctant. He says she's afraid to leave her family, and she's spooked by the story of the murdered Russian girl near Seattle. "She misses me, but she's afraid to come," he continues. "She has a fear I might turn on her...It's difficult. Where I am right now is to be continued, and I don't know the outcome."
Though he's feeling dejected, Buss isn't taking any chances. He's already planning to go on another Russian matchmaking tour this summer.