T hese are trying times for Odessa. After the annexation of Crimea, pro-Russian Found my asian brides are stirring tension in this Black Sea port, and there are weekly standoffs between demonstrators who want to be part of Ukraine and those who want closer ties to Russia.
But for all the political and economic chaos that has engulfed Ukraine in the past three months, one industry is still thriving: The economies of several Ukrainian cities are boosted by the surreal and disingenuous online bride business, and Odessa is the biggest hub. It does not take long for a visitor to the city to stumble upon an "international date" — there are legions of western men in town meeting with young women they have met online, usually with the conversation facilitated by a translator.
At internet cafes and homes across the city, thousands of women spend hours each day chatting to prospective suitors online. There is nothing like the prospect of economic hardship to facilitate intercontinental liaisons, and so, far from business drying up in recent months, the romance and "bride" trade is booming.
If anything, there are now more western men planning trips to Odessa than there were last year, when I accompanied a "romance tour" to Ukraine for a magazine story. I spent a week in Odessa with 29 men, all of them hoping to find a wife during their trip. They were mainly Americans, but there were also Brits, an Italian and a Saudi Found my asian brides the tour. It has thousands of women in Ukraine and across the world on its books, available for chats and in-person meetings with lonely bachelors across the world looking for a wife.
As internet dating has gone mainstream over the past decade, Anastasia is attempting to rebrand what was once called the "mail-order bride" industry as something modern and progressive. This is no longer the preserve of seedy and exploitative men seeking vulnerable women from impoverished backgrounds to work as a longterm sex slave, the marketing suggests.
This is "international dating", a civilised way to find romance without borders. Except that the branding is still somewhat disturbing. The men pay for Found my asian brides minute they chat online to a woman, something that it becomes clear is a dangerous part of the business model. The company claims on its website that finding a woman in Ukraine is like "dating a model, but Found my asian brides the values of your grandmother". The men featured in testimonials are sick of western women, whom they insist have forgotten "family values".
Armed with this information, I was fully expecting to spend a week being nauseated by odious men preying on vulnerable women, and there were certainly a few on the trip whose misogyny reached prize-winning levels. But the overall story was far more complex.
Todd, who had not succeeded in finding his other half at Found my asian brides, had something of a compulsive side to his personality. He spent months methodically whittling down 1, possible brides on Anastasia's site to two top candidates. He then spent thousands of hours and thousands of dollars chatting with them online. Things were going swimmingly with both women.
He assumed that his trip to Odessa would involve picking the one he liked most and taking her back with him. But when he arrived, neither of them answered his calls.
While Todd's expectations for what a Ukrainian bride might offer were patently unrealistic, it was troubling to watch Found my asian brides venture ever further down the path of disappointment. Many of the men on Found my asian brides tour were less sympathetic characters than Todd, but all of them were lonely.
Some of them were disillusioned with dating scenes in the west, where women did not give them a look; others recovering from a divorce or the death of a spouse. Another man I spent a lot of time with was Stephen, a year-old from Texas, long-divorced, who was on his 11th trip to Ukraine with the desperate hope of finding a wife.
I'm tired of having nobody to share my life with. Stephen ended up meeting a pianist named Elena on the tour. On date two she told him she thought he could be her soulmate. By the end of the week he was sure he had found his future life partner.
It was an expensive week, with the dinners, taxis, and payment for a translator all adding up, but Stephen was delighted that he had found love. But love in Odessa is not all it seems.
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Perhaps 10 years ago, the scenario Found my asian brides been what I imagined, with men swooping in, and women keen to swap the hard grind of poverty-stricken Ukraine for a new life in the US, even if it was a ramshackle house in a North Dakotan town or a sleepy midwestern farm, rather than a Manhattan penthouse or LA beachfront home. Now, it seems, things are different. I left Stephen ready to propose, but two months later he told me by email that it had all unravelled.
Todd did not even get to the date stage; in retrospect, perhaps a lucky escape. The women took their cut of cash for chatting with him, but did not answer his calls when he arrived. He later wrote to me: I've decided to close that chapter in my life and move on. And to pursue the other hopes and dreams that I have. Will I ever find my other half? One can only Found my asian brides. At least I can say I tried.
If I die a bachelor, so be it. I was able to uncover exactly how the scams work due to a chance encounter with Alina, one of the women involved, who felt weighed down by her collusion in what she called "emotional prostitution".
She explained the whole sordid array of techniques, from a light impersonalised online-chatting version to a full-service chauffeur-driven platinum fraud, where men are rinsed of cash for a full week in Odessa, thinking they are Found my asian brides a lifelong relationship while actually they are being strung along on platonic dates that end with them dispatched to the airport with heavy hearts and empty wallets.
Many of them come with ridiculous expectations, of course, but I am not sure that anyone deserves this treatment. For the women as well, although hundreds of them make a living from the scams, it is not an easy psychological burden to bear. Alina was evidence of that, and year-old Chris, Found my asian brides tour's youngest member, found that when he confronted his date with accusations about the nature of the business, she burst into tears and said she felt awful, but needed the money to support her mother after her father had died.
Other women were genuinely looking for a young and interesting partner and wanted to leave Ukraine, but spent hours chatting with elderly men Found my asian brides order to make money. Anastasia International, while not directly colluding in the scams, runs a highly profitable business model that allows them to flourish.
While real and lasting liaisons do occasionally form through the site, more often it only serves to increase the concentric circles of mistrust, disappointment and heartbreak for all involved. Anastasia insists that it weeds out scams whenever it finds themand has banned some women from the site. It also says it will reimburse clients who fall victims to scams, and provides advice on how to avoid them.
Larry Cervantes, the company spokesman, wrote to me after the tour: So what's the difference? Throughout history men have pursued the unattainable, and throughout history they've made fools of themselves. How is this any different? But the difference, of course, is that the company is making a huge profit from the men making fools of themselves, and while many women are making money out of the schemes too, it is not clear that it is beneficial to them in the longer term.
Far from ending the practice, the recent unrest in Ukraine has only enhanced it. Alina told me that her friends working in the business are expecting several American men to arrive in the coming days, while the less discreetly named sugardaddyforme.
The new Ukrainian government has rather a lot on its plate, but ending the trade in emotional exploitation is something they should tackle sooner rather than later. This article contains affiliate links, which means we may earn a small commission if a reader clicks through and makes a purchase. All our journalism is independent and is in no way influenced by any advertiser or Found my asian brides initiative.
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