A few weeks ago, I created a profile and logged onto VKontakte, the most popular Russian-language social network. I entered some personal information, uploaded an especially flattering picture of myself, then used the search function to find all single women between 25 and 35 in Ukraine who were online at the moment — around 7:30 p.m. Ukraine time. There were more than 10,000 available, all sorted by a rating system which seemed to be directly proportional to the amount of pictures a woman had posted of herself in a string bikini, and how good she looked in said bikini.
VKontakte translates roughly to "In Touch," but I was not there to make lasting friendships. I wanted to find and speak to some of the young women who have drawn foreign bachelors with the hopes of finding Eastern European wives to the site. I chatted with Natalya Galugan, a pretty 26-year-old from Kryvyi Rih. She said she gets up to three messages a day from men, "90% from Muslim countries" like Egypt, Turkey and Jordan. In contrast, Ukrainian men hardly ever message her—"it's not in [their] nature."
But the messages she receives, she said, are invariably dull. "Standard compliments, inviting to visit them," Galugan said. "I'm not interested in any one of them."
Welcome to the new online meat market for schlubby American men to score young Eastern European brides.
Stephen Ewald, a 40-year-old accountant from Michigan, met his fiancée — a 24-year-old Ukrainian named Alina Chumakova — on VKontakte in 2009. For months, he'd been spamming the profiles of thousands of random Ukrainian women in a virtual quest to find a wife, chatting up whoever would respond with the help of Google Translate. But the moment he got his first message from Chumakova, asking why he'd friended her, he knew his search was over.
"I just had a feeling," Ewald said. "As corny as that sounds, of all the girls I friend requested and messaged, even after the first online conversation something stood out about her." When he met her in person in Ukraine just a few weeks later, they were "inseparable."
Last Monday, he flew to Ukraine to bring Chumakova back to the U.S. They just passed an interview at the American Embassy for Chumakova to get her fiancée visa and are waiting for it to arrive in the mail. "Then we can buy tickets to travel back to america!" Ewald wrote in an email. So far, though, theirs is something of a success story for this new subsection of the international dating scene.
As Eastern Europe undergoes a social media boom, Western men like Ewald men are flocking to Russian-language social networks like VKontakte in their search for foreign love. On message boards, men debate which Russian social networks have the best women, and the best way to pick them up: "If you go to one of the many group dedicated to foreign languages or foreign countries, there will be plenty of single, young attractive women, and your success rate will be much, much higher," explains one. And Russian news reports have apparently warned of the influx of "creepy foreign men" onto social networking sites.
Western dudes have used the internet to find Eastern European brides for years. Typically they go through international matchmaking agencies, which charge for access to thousands of women looking for foreign husbands. The "romance tours," where schlubby middle-aged American divorcees pay thousands of dollars to meet these leggy blondes in Ukraine or Russia, are well-documented spectacles, the senior proms of globalization. The so-called mail-order bride industry has boomed to a $2 billion enterprise, according to an industry analysis cited by Businessweek last year.
But some men have grown wary of the industry that promises them lifelong happiness with a woman from the economically-depressed country of their choice. They complain that the agencies are corrupt, and more interested in making money than matches. Agency rosters are stuffed with savvy "pro-daters" who are just out for gifts and cash handouts, they say. Or the agencies themselves hire women to pretend to be interested in guys in order to keep them sending expensive messages through their sites, which can cost $8 a piece.
"Be warned! Most of the girls are not genuine, they are out to make $$$$$ and not to meet the man of their dreams," writes a blogger who says his Ukrainian ex-girlfriend was hired to correspond with lovelorn Westerners on Anastasia International, one of the more popular agencies.
With that in mind, men like Stephen Ewald are bypassing dating agencies and going straight to the source: The social networks that are increasingly popular in Eastern Europe. Thanks to Google Translate, they no longer need the expensive translation services provided by many agencies. And not only are they cheaper, the men believe cruising social networks where "normal" foreign women hang out is a more authentic experience than a matchmaking agency's website.
The mail-order bride industry is fascinating and troubling because it extends the cold logic of capitalist globalization to the very personal institution of marriage. So is it really any surprise that guys considering "buying" a bride through an agency are turning to social networks, where everyone's selling themselves all the time?
"We all have a natural desire to want to get as a close as possible to the real thing, to meeting some pretty girl on the corner" said William Lee, the proprietor of the website RussianWomenTruth.com and a professional coach for men looking for Eastern European wives. "Or in this case, randomly meeting some pretty girl online."
For their purposes, VKontakte is the perfect alternative. The site currently boasts 110 million registered users and is the top social network in many Eastern European countries. In 2006, it launched as an almost line-by-line Facebook clone, and the first thing Westerners will notice when logging on is that its design is a shameless rip-off of Facebook circa 2010. But VKontakte has since developed some distinct features—most notably, a vast catalog of pirated HD movies and music, which you can stream right from your profile—that have made it far more popular than Facebook.
VKontakte also has a remarkably in-depth user search function that would never fly with privacy-obsessed Facebook users. In this way, it's as much a dating site as a social network: You can filter by city, age, relationship status, what a user finds "important in others," and even their view on smoking.
Lee compares the move away from agencies to similar changes in the travel industry. "What happened is the advent of all these online travel sites put a lot of pressure on these traditional models, with people going online and booking their own flights," he said. "The internet cuts out the middleman and the agency is the classic middleman."
A more ominous explanation for the shift would be the passage in 2005 of the International Marriage Brokerage Act. The bill aims to protect vulnerable foreign brides from abuse by requiring U.S. international matchmaking services to run extensive background checks on their male clients. But to sign up for a social network like VKontakte, all you really need is a working email address.
Stephen Ewald took to VKontakte after a period of romantic disappointment, starting when his wife of 10 years divorced him in 2008. "She decided to go gay on me," Ewald told me in his sharp midwestern accent. "She's got a lesbian life partner living with her now."
Getting back into the dating game was a daunting task for Ewald, who describes himself as a shy guy who'd rather spend a night at the bowling alley than in the club. (He was on the bowling team all four years when he studied at Michigan State University.) So he signed up for Yahoo! Personals. After a few weeks and a couple of lackluster dates with local women, he was targeted by one of the many Russian scammers who haunt U.S. dating sites. He avoided being reeled in, but the image of his attractive, albeit fake, Russian correspondent was burned in his brain.
"That prompted me to start thinking, you know, the girls from Eastern Europe are really attractive," Ewald said. "I said, what the hell, let me look into this more. There might be something to this after all."
For someone who had nearly been scammed by an Eastern European on the internet, I thought this was an odd conclusion to draw. But, Ewald told me, "it's not uncommon. One of my friends, similar story, and he wound up going through Russian dating sites. Now he owns an English school in Ukraine."
Google brought Ewald to the flourishing online community of Western men who lust after Eastern European women. On message boards like Russian Women Discussion, Ruadventures, and Fiance.com, they offer each other tips and encouragement, and detail trips to Russia and other countries in the former Soviet Union (FSU, in message board terms) to scope out the FSU women they say make superior mates.
These men say they prefer Eastern European women because they're more family-oriented and traditional than their American counterparts. But they often fall into the bitter misogyny you'd expect from men who concoct sweeping sociological explanations for their shitty love lives.
"The American men are being decimated. That's one of the reason homosexuality is so popular," an FSU-fancier named Ken told me. "[American] women have become so dangerous, so damaging that it's just not worth it.
"Russian women know what they are," he added. "They're not men with boobs. That's what they are in America, they're men with boobs."
Ewald himself doesn't seem like such a bad guy. He says the more he read up on FSU women, the more he was attracted to their "traditional values." "They're more geared toward a family role of caregiver, caring for a husband," he said. He wanted to find someone who would be excited to look after his ten-year-old son. And it doesn't hurt that the younger women of Ukraine don't seem to mind dating a guy almost twice their age.
Ewald tried a matchmaking agency at first, but thousands of dollars and three trips to Ukraine later, he was no closer to love. It was then that he decided to start using VKontakte; he'd seen it mentioned on forums and initially created a profile to communicate with one of the women he'd met through the agency.
With VKontakte's robust search engine, Ewald zeroed in on young Ukrainian women immediately and started blasting out hundreds of friend requests.
"I'd look at their profile and see, oh, she's kind of cute. Most of them are very beautiful anyways, and if they had a picture of themselves and they weren't hideous or anything I would friend request them," he said.
Eventually he found Alina Chumakova, an unemployed recent accounting grad from the southern Ukrainian town of Simferopol. After they hit it off online, he visited her last May and again in September, when he proposed. I wanted to hear Alina's side of the courtship, but Ewald said she didn't want to speak to me for this story. So I did the next best thing, and logged onto VKontakte to talk to some women myself.
I started by mass-friending, picking women who looked friendly enough to not blanch at a random request from an American, and attractive enough to have possibly been hit on by recently divorced guys slumped over their keyboards in middle America. It felt creepy, but the physical distance — along with the inscrutable Cyrillic all over the women's walls — provided a comforting sense of detachment.
Ewald had estimated he had a 10 percent success rate, which was remarkably accurate. Of the approximately 40 women I tried to friend, four accepted my request (two didn't speak English, and Google translate wasn't up to the task of conducting an interview). Even that rate seemed rather high for an American with zero friends asking "Вы говорите по-английски?" (Do you speak English?) out of the blue. Maybe it was the profile picture.
I spoke with Galugan, the 26-year-old from Kryvyi Rih, and with Natalya Ostrovskaya , a 33-year-old Kiev accountant. Ostrovskaya said not only was she familiar with the foreign men invading VKontakte, she has a friend who met her Australian husband after he messaged her on the site.
"If it is a fate that people can will meet on any site," Ostrovskaya said. (I think she was using Google translate during our chat.) Ostrovskaya said as long as people are "good together," it doesn't matter how they meet.
Still, it's clear that social networks are unlikely to replace the matchmaking services, or even make a sizable dent in their business. While many Western men lurk VKontakte and its main competitor, Odnoklassniki, few have matched Ewald's apparent success. Cruising Russian social networks seems to be more a low-commitment proxy for the real-life romance tours these guys will eventually break down and pay for.
And even with his fiancée en route, Ewald can't quit. He still chats occasionally with his nearly 120 young Ukrainian female friends on VKontakte. He says he hasn't told Alina yet. He's afraid she might get jealous.
Image by Jim Cooke.