Business Proposals

At Encounters International in Bethesda, American men are paying to mix and mingle in hopes of finding the perfect wife - from Russia

March 21, 2001|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

BETHESDA - Cruising a video library, two older men sit behind a strategically placed bookshelf. Beyond this partition, a party is in full swing, people mixing with their mixed drinks in a room where a full-length bearskin hogs a wall. But the television screen is the focus, lighting the faces of the men as they stare at a young Russian woman, who, for business purposes, is known as No. 2.

No. 2 sways on a stool, posing. Beautiful, no? The men picked her out from a photo album. Finding the corresponding tape, the men then plugged in the video. The Russian woman looks 20 but might be younger. It's claimed she was once Miss Moscow. Beauty pageant winner or not, the volume of her audition speech has been turned down.

She is just a pretty young face smiling for men to see in the United States, men in a corner at a certain party.

Some men just like the quiet type. And the Russian type.

The Russian mail-order bride and marriage agency industry continues to thrive not only on the Internet - an estimated 400 sites - but also in such suburban landscapes as Bethesda, where matchmaker Natasha Spivack has been running Encounters International since 1993.

For $1,850, American men join Encounters International to meet and marry Russian women. E-mail addresses, photos and videos are available. Package tours to Ukraine and Russia are arranged. Spivack's company guarantees clients will be engaged to a Russian woman within 12 months of joining. (She's returned money to two clients, she says.) At any one time, Spivack has between 80 and 100 clients and a database of 400 would-be Russian brides.

"Men ask me what they'll get for $1,850, and I tell them a wife," Spivack says. "All men are marriage-minded."

While proxy marriages are as old as American history, the modern mail-order bride business exploded in the 1970s, as men sought refuge from the new realities of the feminist movement in the United States. And since the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991, tens of thousands of Russian women seeking U.S. citizenship have signed up with marriage agencies, flooding into a business previously dominated by Filipinas. University of Florida researchers estimate as many as 6,000 marriages annually are arranged by these match-making services - with an estimated 150,000 foreign women listed annually.

The Web is ripe for bride shoppers. "Still looking? Know why? They're in Siberia!" says On a Web site with a "Ladies Gallery," a 21-year-old Russian woman named Kate writes, "I will be an ideal wife, best friend, affectionate lover and good mother for our children." Like many potential brides, Kate doesn't smoke, has no children and speaks only basic English.

For those who want to plunk down $3,000 to $4,000 on a trip to Russia, match-making trips abound, along with "Love Boat" cruises. "Today, more and more American men are just saying `NO' to commercialized American women and `YES' to Russian women who still believe in what used to be traditional American family values," notes the news release from a company called the Marriage Connection. Its Russian cruises start at $3,895.

Getting in the mix

For those who prefer browsing by land, monthly mixers are held at Spivack's Bethesda home - the only residence on the block, safe to say, that doubles as an international match-making service. The only residence with wall clocks that give the time for Washington and Moscow. Her clients are typically divorced men or middle-aged bachelors, all sick of the bar scene, all dissatisfied with American women.

Other clients might have Russian roots themselves. Still others have disabilities. A Vietnam War veteran with one leg called her to inquire about finding a one-legged Russian woman, Spivack says. "I told him, `Well, we don't have one-legged Russians, but we'll get you a two-legged woman who will like you for who you are.' "

At one of her mixers in February, 62-year-old Victor Syracuse of Virginia sits alone, sunken into a cushy black couch. He doesn't really want to be here, doesn't have a reason to be here. He already has a Russian bride. Her name? "Natalia - like a hundred others."

They met six years ago through Encounters International, his alternative to roaming AOL chat rooms. Syracuse, whose first wife had passed away after 33 years of marriage, saw a picture of his bride-to-be and was hooked. It was her smile, her Russian blue eyes. They were married, and they both soon learned what culture shock meant.

"The first six months she cried every night," Syracuse says. "These guys better be ready."

A club regular, 45-year-old Gene Tighe of Virginia, commiserates with a pod of other men. "There are TOO many men here. That's the problem," Tighe says over the disco music. Spivack, ever circulating and snapping pictures, introduces Gene to a strikingly tall Russian named Inna. They say hello. They part. Gene says he hasn't met his Russian match yet, but he's not so discouraged that he would defect from this scene.

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