Love for sale.
Svetlana Novikova knew it could be a lucrative business. In St. Petersburg, the foreign men who rented apartments through her real estate business relentlessly hounded her to introduce them to her girlfriends.
So four years ago, the entrepreneurial Novikova established Svetlana Agency, a Russian mail-order-bride service. She was so successful, she expanded her business recently into one of the more financially fertile U.S. neighborhoods--Newport Beach.
“We have many successful clients who live here” in Orange County, said Novikova, a 29-year-old St. Petersburg native who moved to Newport Beach in September. “American men are looking for a more family-oriented woman. Russian women are very family-oriented. Every man wants to have a cozy home.”
The Svetlana Agency is one of a number of Russian matchmaking businesses enticing foreigners into marriages as many young women there seek to escape hardships. Russia, for them, has an uncertain political future, a dire economy and high rates of unemployment and alcoholism.
But the mail-order-bride business, which is unregulated, doesn’t necessarily lead to happily ever after. U.S. officials say there are incidents of domestic violence and worry there are more that go unreported because the brides fear deportation.
Officials also are concerned about the potential for sex trafficking and marriage fraud.
The Immigration and Naturalization Service is close to completing a report to Congress on fraud and physical abuse in the mail-order-bride business and how to regulate the industry, said INS spokesman Bill Strassberger.
Despite the concerns, Novikova says she has had no problems.
The sunny, affluent Southland offers Novikova an ample supply of well-heeled, well-established bachelors willing to pay as much as $2,600 in their search for a youthful, optimistic Russian bride.
Nearly half her clients are American, and about 20% of them are from Southern California, she said. Novikova said she decided to bring her business to Newport Beach because she had many Southern California clients.
Just in the last two months since the agency opened its doors across the street from Fashion Island, she said, she has been flooded with requests from spouse-seeking bachelors.
Barry Hallamore, 59, of Costa Mesa said he had dated frequently since his divorce 11 years ago but found that many of the American women he met were too focused on his wallet. Hallamore, who operates a telecommunications company, said Russian women don’t appear as materialistic.
After living in St. Petersburg for four years on business, he said, he decided to look for a wife. Using Svetlana Agency’s services, he found his match in a woman named Yelena.
“A lot of women from Southern California have a tendency to look at money, money, money,” he said. “With Yelena, it’s family and togetherness.”
Hallamore, who married Yelena in Mexico last month, is waiting for the immigration service to grant a visa to his 22-year-old bride so she can join him here.
‘It’s a Highly Peculiar Industry’
Americans can bring their spouses home on an immigrant visa or can obtain fiance visas for their intended mates. The documents allow immigrants to live and work here for two years. After that, if the marriages are still intact and the couple is still living in America, the foreign spouses can gain permanent residency.
The women trying to find American husbands are mostly professionals in their early to late 20s and sometimes have children, Novikova said. The Internet has helped ease initial introductions, and most matchmaking agencies--including Svetlana--list their services on the Web.
American men, Novikova said, are more family-oriented and tend to appreciate their wives more than Russian men.
“Many American men help with their families while many Russian men prefer to be with their friends,” said Novikova, who nonetheless is happily married to a Russian. “These girls want to be useful to someone, they want to have a family and they want to be loved.”
Indeed, the women in Svetlana Agency’s introductory videos coyly glance into the camera and saunter along scenic backdrops in St. Petersburg as they explain in heavily accented English what they are searching for in a man.
Take 27-year-old Inga, a divorced engineer.
“I’m looking for a serious man. A man who is trustworthy and responsible with a good sense of humor,” she says on her videotape.
Or 28-year-old Yelena: “I hope, I wish, I can meet someone who can make me happy.”
Novikova said she does not do background checks on the eager bachelors. Instead, she said, she goes by her “intuition and experience.”
“If I see that he is not a polite person, then I don’t provide the service for him,” Novikova said. “Many of our men come with recommendations. They are sent here by their mothers, friends, brothers and even secretaries.”
While the prospective brides can be seen via video conferencing, the men must fly to St. Petersburg once they have decided on a few they would like to meet. Svetlana Agency organizes the trips.
Mike Potter, an aircraft inspector who lives in Tustin, is in the process of finding a Russian bride. He’s 43 and has never been married. He is planning on visiting St. Petersburg in January to meet nearly a dozen women with whom he has been corresponding.
The women he plans to meet are “young, pretty, well-educated and still have the old family morals,” he said.
“I’m a quiet type of guy and I’m not looking for a girl that wants to party every night,” he said. “I like European women and I’m not doing too good here in the States. I’ve tried dating centers here and I haven’t had much luck.”
As part of the 1996 Immigration Reform Act, Congress asked the INS to document cases of fraud and physical abuse involving mail-order brides. Congress also asked the INS to begin drafting regulations that would force agencies to inform women about marriage fraud, legal residency and domestic violence.
“Our main concerns are abusive marriages and prostitution,” said Jon Leibowitz, legal counsel to Sen. Herbert Kohl (D-Wis.), who sponsored the law.
“Some people have benefited from this personally, but it’s a highly peculiar industry and highly unregulated,” he said. “There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence of serious problems.”
Prosecutors in family violence units in Orange and Los Angeles counties said they have had no reports of abuse involving mail-order brides, but they say that immigrant women commonly face the threat of deportation in abusive relationships.
“Typically, we find that people are so scared of what might happen they don’t speak up,” Orange County Deputy Dist. Atty. Jane Shade said. “Everyone hopes that victims of this type of crime aren’t afraid to come forward just because of their status.”
This month, Svetlana Agency is planning to hold a special Christmas party in St. Petersburg where the young women dress as Santa’s daughters in a traditional Russian garb, donning fur boots and fur-laced hats, while guests sip champagne and nibble on caviar.
“We like to make it like a fairy tale for the gentlemen,” Novikova said. “And there they will choose the most beautiful girl.”