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A match made in… Russia

at 29/01/2009 18:40

Russian brides have become an international phenomenon, with a steady supply of elegantly photographed young ladies to be found on countless websites. It has become almost an "industry" on its own, complete with plenty of scammers trying to milk the gullible. But what about the opposite, an American woman, for instance, finding a Russian husband and whisking him westwards or a foreign woman coming to Russia for her man? A quick Google search produced almost thirty million results for the words "Russian bride," while there were only a little over a million and a half for "Russian groom." Are Russian men so unpopular? Is Russia such a frightening place, that women from the developed world can't be convinced to marry and live here?

Not quite. There are many exceptions to the rule. As a foreigner living in Moscow for almost a decade now, I have come across many cases of foreign women tying the knot with their Russian Romeo. Many of them initially came to Russia to study and married their sweethearts here. A common theme is that they married the man, not the country - the biggest concern is often family reactions, at home and in Russia.

Florence, 24, who works as a French interpreter, said she was very apprehensive before meeting her boyfriend's parents. "I'd heard that some Russians can be rather tough, so I was relieved that they accepted me normally. Actually, my boyfriend seems quite proud of having a foreigner for a girlfriend."

A foreign wife can be a kind of status symbol according to Catherine, a Belgian and now a mother of two. "You know the image about Russian men," she said, "They drink a lot, die early, don't make much money and aren't successful and things like that. But when Vladimir married me, his friends and colleagues did a double take. They began taking him more seriously and respected him much more." She suggests that if a woman from a country like Belgium, which seems an ideal place to live in, throws up everything to marry a Russian guy, his friends reckon he must have something special.

It's a valid point. The prospect of cash-strapped love-birds getting married then squeezing into a tiny corner of the in-laws' apartment is hardly an attractive one.

A man ought to have a decent job and a decent place to live, especially considering that if a couple decide to have children his wife will not be able to work for some time.

Typically couples meet here in Russia, but not always. Yvonne Dunham and Veniamin Slobodenko met in Ohio, where he was on an internship. She began helping him with his English and romance quickly kindled. Skype kept them in touch after his return to Russia, and Veniamin made it clear that staying in Russia was important to him. So, having always been interested in living abroad Yvonne came to Moscow, taught English and after one year got married.

Yvonne said the wedding itself highlighted some of their cultural differences - she wanted a small intimate one, he wanted a big one with scores of friends. It took some effort to find a compromise, but eventually the couple decided on a small family wedding, with a big reception the next day. Yvonne insists it still takes a lot of effort to understand each other, but that differences in personalities can be far more alienating than cultural ones, and she has no regrets about marrying into Russia.

Life here can, to put it mildly, take some getting used to. Many things we take for granted can be considered unreasonable here; Yvonne, for instance, found out that unlike in America, she cannot take her husband's last name while keeping her maiden name as her middle name, and had to compromise with keeping her maiden name. Red tape afflicts several couples: the process of gaining a temporary residence permit is long and costly, requiring applicants to flit in and out on three-month business visas for as long as a year. And once the permit is sealed and delivered, it's getting out that becomes a challenge. Applying for an exit visa is a new hurdle. One woman admitted: "My father is not in good health so I'm really concerned about not being free to leave the country at a moment's notice."

Yet most of the women I spoke to are more optimistic than they might have been ten years ago. "It's not such a freakish place. I can work and make a living here, so it's okay, it's normal," Florence said.

She said she doesn't feel much of a difference in dating a man from her country than one from Russia. "At least the ones in the circle I hang out with are not that different. And it's not like all men in my country are so great. Depends on the person, really."

Women insist it was the man, not the nationality, that brought them here; Russian men remain the choice of an adventurous few. It might not be the first choice, but if it happens, it happens.

At least, with all the quirks of Russian life, the relationship promises not to be a boring one.

By Ayano Hodouchi

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