As yet more English football fans streamed into Donetsk after England’s single-goal victory over their host team last night with the prospect of border control bribery, violent threats from local fans, baton attacks from local officers and other horror stories that have already been reported at various intervals, there is a very different breed of British man heading to a football-free part of Ukraine.
In Odessa, a picturesque seaside town on the black sea, some visitors don’t care about football scores. They have scoring of a much more serious nature on their minds: scoring girls.
Odessa has become a hub for so-called ‘romance tours’: all inclusive trips for men from affluent countries looking for a nice Russian girl to marry. Thailand sex tours this is not. The trips are – as the name would suggest – about romance and relationships. Where many holiday-makers might put pyramids, museums and mountain peaks on the to-do lists, the male tourists in Odessa usually have marriage as their holiday goal.
I was invited to join 25 men on a romance tour organised by one of the largest Ukrainian dating agencies and tour operators, russianbrides.com .
Me and 25 single men. Not that they would be interested in a girl like me. They were all, I soon established, marriage-hungry for a nice, quiet type, happy to stay at home to cook borsch soup and bear children. They did not hold back in telling me how disillusioned they had become with the ambitious, busy bees that they find on the dating market back home.
“Western women have lost touch with family values,” said Sammy, a divorced prison officer, as we chatted on the bus on our first day outing to one of the organised ‘socials’. Russianbrides.com organises three socials for a typical week-long trip so the men get to meet and mingle with the female members of the dating site. “The women I’ve dated are too busy trying to smash through glass ceilings. In Ukraine women are born and bred to be a proud mother and wife.”
Before the men embark on the trip they have to consent that Russianbrides.com can do a background check for previous sex convictions and to check they aren’t married. Like Tommy, most are mid 40s to late 50s, respectable-looking and educated. Indeed, they should have no trouble attracting a marriage-friendly girl back home but it’s not desperation which drives them to a romance tour, it’s pragmatics. Many are divorced and simply have a more objective set of criteria for their second-time-round partners than romance.
“I dated a woman for over a year back home but I never saw enough of her,” said Steve, a divorced exporter. “We both have two children. We talked about moving in together but one day my son told me he didn’t like going to her house because he didn’t like her kids. That was it for me. I knew we couldn’t move in together and what’s the point of loving someone if you can’t have all of them? At home, most women my age have kids but the younger ones don’t want a 48 year old. Here there’s more options.”
The Ukrainian marriage market is a good formula for success. Ukrainian women are as willing to settle as the men are keen to find one willing to settle. The socials whiff of their efforts. Young scented beauties dressed to the nines in slinky cocktail dresses hang off the arms of the likes of Phil and Tommy. As for the age gap and the culture differences, that’s a minor thing.
“Russian girls like Western men,” says 23-year-old Irena, who is as stunning as she is matter of fact. “In Ukraine guys are lazy. Your men are more romantic and have respect for women, and they do not drink too much.”
The dream of an egalitarian relationship isn’t all. These western divorcee potentials also offer a ticket out of a troubled economy where average wages are $200 a month and where winter temperatures plummet to minus 25 degrees. Perhaps that is why the girls have very quick responses to any hint of probing questioning from moi as to, “…well, but do you fancy them?”
“What is a little belly, it’s what’s inside?” says one. “I was brought up to believe everyone is beautiful,” says another. I liked this one too: “If I find someone has a rich inner world, I find something in their face I like.”
The girls are members of local marriage agencies. They’re big business in Odessa and other small towns. Marriage agencies occupy every street corner. Colourful billboards project pictures of pretty, angelic faces next to big bold names like ‘Cinderella’, ‘Amazing Women’and ‘Veronika’. Russianbrides.com acts as an online dating hub, collating the profiles of girls from the different local dating agencies and featuring them on one central site. There are no membership fees but men have to pay to email or chat to the girls. Russianbrides.com then gives a cut of the messaging fees to the local dating agencies which provided the girl’s profile.
If you’re single, female and of marring age in Odessa, you join a marriage agency. Nearly all girls of dating age have dated foreign men.
“I was engaged at 19,” says Ekaterina, a charming and intelligent customs officer. “He was German and very nice to me, but he wanted to start a family straight away. He wanted me to have five children every day – one every year. I said I want to be a lady and look after my body and not have this many babies so we ended. It was very sad. I was looking forward to living in Germany. I will remember him all my life.”
Ekaterina is not the only disappointed one. Ukraine is a mating market firmly in the men’s favour. There are far more willing girls than there are men willing to take the $4,000 tour to find them. Russianbrides.com says over 9% of the men that go on its tours get hitched and another 10% find a significant other who lasts more than four years.
A survey came out recently saying that nearly a third of men are willing to marry ‘Mrs Good Enough.’ Not being lonely, apparently, is more important than being in love. But it’s no secret that pragmatics has long been the driver of marriage. It’s a modern, western phenomenon to expect emotional fulfilment and passion from marriage, only becoming the norm in around the 19th century. Ironically, the so-called ‘romance’ tours are effectively a quicker route to marriage than chugging through the crowds of career-driven, time-poor, commitment-phobic, headstrong ladies here, demanding that men share domestic duties. Russian girls, as one 20-year-old blonde manicurist told me, “…take wife duties seriously. A wife should not work. She should make pleasant home for the man and cook a warm meal and give him a shoulder rub when he gets home. If she is tired because she has worked also, this does not make an interesting relationship.”
Helen Croydon is an author, journalist and broadcaster.www.helencroydon.com