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From Russia, With Love : Unhappy With Prospects at Home, Soviet Women Look West for Husbands

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The three young Soviet women sit quietly onstage, surrounded by blinking game-show lights and colored panels, as the studio audience fires a series of personal questions at them. Meanwhile, three young French businessmen, seated out of view behind a partition, listen intently.

“In order to achieve sexual harmony,” asks one man in the audience, “should one read books? And if so, when--before or after it’s achieved?”

Clearly, it’s a tricky question, and the women pause to reflect. Svetlana, 20, who quotes Dale Carnegie and wants to travel the world, quips: “What about during?”

Viktoria, 20, who speaks Norwegian and describes herself as goal-oriented and ambitious, says confidently: “Better late than never, but never wouldn’t hurt either.”

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The third woman, Marina, 22, who likes computer games and says her best qualities are fastidiousness and thrift, is a bit put off and mumbles that books probably aren’t really necessary.

Welcome to the Soviet version of the television dating game--or, as the program is called in Russian, “Find Me, or A Serious Game for Adults.” Broadcast every other week on the racy Leningrad television channel, “Find Me” is only the latest entrant in the flourishing market for international matchmaking services.

At least a dozen private firms in Moscow provide introductory services between Soviet women and visiting Western men or offer mail-order brides to foreign subscribers. Some have specialized market niches: Domestic Hearth 2000 works with Italian men; Nakhodka (Godsend) deals with North Americans; Moscow Connection operates mainly in Britain; a Belgian agency finds partners in the Benelux countries and another service places personal ads in singles magazines like the Happy Viking in Sweden and Continental Contact in Australia.

Personal classifieds in the Soviet Union are probably the most accessible and widespread matchmaking medium, as well as the cheapest. In them, both foreigners (mostly men) and Soviets (mostly women) spell out their needs in candid, unambiguous terms.

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Consider the following, from the advertising newspaper Express Reklama, in which a Soviet woman writes: “I need a partner from the United States, Canada or a (Soviet) man who can emigrate. I would be delighted to meet a man from the flying profession. I am 28 years old, height 168 cm, I’m nice, Russian, I have an apartment, and I’m Christian.”

In another ad from the weekly paper Chastnaya Zhizn (Private Life), Gerry Percy from the United States writes: “If you are 20 to 30 years old, an independent woman and already thinking about having a family, an American rock musician wants to meet you. I’m young: all of 40 years old. I await letters with photos.”

Most of the Soviet women are motivated by economic considerations, says Olga Trunova, Moscow Connection’s Moscow representative.

“It’s no secret that the standard of living is higher in the West,” says Trunova, who is herself listed in the firm’s catalogue. The women “want to have a normal life, to be provided for in order to raise a family. It’s impossible here. The majority of women must work.”

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It’s impossible to estimate how many matches these services produce, but the number seems to be large and growing fast.

London-based Moscow Connection has a catalogue of about 500 Soviet women and about 300 British subscribers, plus a score of Americans and Canadians. The firm is expanding briskly: Later this month, it will place ads in Komsomolskaya Pravda, the country’s widest-circulation newspaper, and in Izvestia to attract more female clients. A previous ad drew almost 2,000 responses from as far afield as Siberia, Central Asia and the Caucasus.

The firm also is opening a branch office in Clayton, Calif., and there are plans to open others in Paris and Toronto.

Leonard Jacque, Moscow Connection’s founder, says he knows of seven marriages and at least as many engagements that have resulted from matches arranged by the year-old service, although as a rule the firm does not keep track of its clients once couples have formed.

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Male clients pay Moscow Connection between $295 and $895 for a one-year “membership"--the higher price brings a wider range of women. Initially, clients choose 10 candidates from the firm’s catalogue, which lists the photographs and vital statistics of 519 women. The firm sets up an initial correspondence with three women, whom the client can later visit in the Soviet Union.

The catalogue is an eclectic panorama of the Soviet feminine ideal: The women are pictured wearing everything from bikinis to folkloric costumes, from bedsheets to jeans to conservative skirts and blouses. One woman even sent in a snapshot of herself with a vase of flowers on her head. Some are posed seductively, some artlessly, in friendly and open attitudes.

Most of the women are professionals--doctors, economists, teachers, engineers--and are selected to conform to what Jacque calls “Western ideals.” Judging from their clients’ response, he says, this means that they must not be overweight, should not have more than one child, must be able to speak some English and, above all, be “attractive.”

“We weren’t so selective in the beginning,” he says. “We didn’t know what men wanted. But now we have members in the United States and Canada. They’re not going to join Moscow Connection to meet someone ordinary.”

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Indeed, the fact that many of the women who sign on with international matchmaking services are among the country’s better-educated and better-looking is beginning to fuel concern that, as one woman puts it, “our gene pool is fleeing.”

Nella Zelenskay, a 25-year-old journalist who is a client of Moscow Connection, says her standard of living would fall precipitously if she were to start a family in the Soviet Union.

“I don’t know how families make ends meet,” she says. “If I had a child, he’d probably be sick and unhappy. Take fruit, for example. I can do without, but what about the child? He’s growing. Where would I get the money to buy fruit?”

Tamara Prassievi, a 28-year-old pediatrician who signed on with Moscow Connection this spring, says Soviet women are worn down by the twin burdens of work inside and outside the home, made worse by the country’s deepening economic crisis.

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“With all these worries, all these cares,” she says, “women quickly lose their femininity and their charm. If you want to be loved and to love back, and not lose your feminine qualities, of course you want to get married and leave.”

From a man’s point of view, there are advantages to marrying a Soviet citizen, says Trunova.

“It seems to me that Western women are very independent,” she says. “They’re concerned with their careers and with making money. My English friends tell me Russian women are more feminine, more emotional.”

She says the men who sign on with Moscow Connection want women who are less independent: “They want a more traditional lifestyle, where they support the family and the woman lives at home and raises the children.”

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Some men appear to subscribe to this notion.

“My cleaning lady told me that her 17-year-old daughter loves to iron,” says a 28-year-old American businessman engaged to a Soviet dancer. “How many 17-year-old American women can you find that love to iron?”

Despite this, he notes with some bitterness, he has become wary about relationships with Soviet women. He says a previous Soviet girlfriend turned out to be a prostitute, whom he says was using him to get visas to the United States for herself and her friends.

“First, (Soviet women) fall in love with your American passport. Then they fall in love with your dollars,” he says. “Then maybe they get to like you personally.”

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Even successful matches face difficult obstacles, not the least of which is the enormous cost of traveling abroad for Soviets. Prassievi earns 250 rubles a month, or $140 at the distorted commercial exchange rate, close to the average salary for a professional. By contrast, round-trip air fare to the United States can cost between 3,600 rubles ($2,000) and 17,000 rubles ($9,444).

Visa controls also are a problem. Sandra Humphrey, the U.S. consul general in Moscow, says a Soviet woman applying for a visa to visit a man in the United States is presumed, by law, to be intending to immigrate. Unless she can prove otherwise, she could be denied the visa.

One way around this is to get married first and then apply to emigrate as a spouse, in which case the couple must only prove that the union is not a marriage of convenience.

Humphrey says fraudulent marriages between Soviet and U.S. citizens are rare compared to other countries, such as South Korea and Thailand.

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“The Soviet Union is way behind in this phenomenon,” she says.


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