Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Here comes the bride... or not?

Yesterday I went for a job interview at a marriage agency. Whoa, Katherine!, you're probably thinking, what's up with that?! But don't worry, I wasn't the one being interviewed (if you can call it that).

My friend Y called me up last week. She's an English teacher and she's eager to get more experience speaking the language. Her students told her that a group of foreigners would be in Kharkov soon, for a social/marriage tour/whatever you want to call it, and Y hoped to sign on as an interpreter for the event. Come with me, she said on the phone, I've got an interview set up for Monday afternoon. And so I went, for who could honestly refuse getting an inside look at this kind of thing?
I saw my first marriage agency in 2007 in Crimea. That's what the sign actually said- marriage agency- and I started jumping up and down in excitement. Let's go in, I told D, let's see it! At the time it seemed like such an oddity, like an old-fashioned pioneer bride kind of set-up. But D refused. Refused quite forcefully actually, as he resents how matchmaking seems more like purchase-making.

Fast forward to today. I've now seen approximately 5 billion marriage agency signs.
Wedding bells for these couples!
The marriage agency organizer waited for us on the sidewalk, an overly-tan hand on her brow to shade her eyes from the sun. She was in her 40s, long-haired and in great shape. Y and I approached, Y introducing me as a friend who was also interested in learning more about the job. This was all spur-of-the-moment, actually. I assumed I'd be sitting in a chair in a hallway, waiting for my friend; I told her I was just going along for moral support (job interview, hello!) and to get the details afterwards from her. Instead, the organizer led us over to an empty table at a nearby pizza restaurant.

It wasn't much of an interview. The organizer asked Y if she had ever worked for such an agency before. Y had, in the form of 2 miserable long days of sending "little hearts" to foreign men without even a break for lunch. Y hated this job, as she felt it was dishonest. Several of my students have worked for Ukrainian marriage agencies and they report the same thing, being told to write letters instead of translate them, being asked to pretend they're someone else. The longest hold-out was two months, until the student-translator finally quit over a (lack of) pay issue.

The organizer then got to the heart of the matter. We're not looking for interpreters per say. We're looking for girls to work for us. You need to be ready for this- it's просто обман, just a scam. We have pictures of girls on the website. Some of these girls just come for a free photo session and they never contact me again. Others want to earn some money. Your job would be to communicate with men as a certain girl. It may be an email. It may be in an online chat with no video. It may be in a video chat, the girl sitting in front of the camera and you sitting off screen, typing. Like this, the 3 of us make money together, you, me, and "the face". At some point if a man comes to town and we need an interpreter, we may call you to do it. Otherwise, it's all correspondence.

Y turned the job down right away. I'm sorry, she explained, I just can't do that to people.

It's okay, the organizer said, it's психологически трудная работа, psychologically difficult work. It's not for everyone.

(Here's a link to an interview with an interpreter in Kiev who did accept such a job.)

Y offered instead to teach English to the girls whose faces are being used by the agency, but the woman kind of laughed at that, saying thanks, but not even she herself knew English and that was that. We all pushed our chairs back, stood up, and parted ways.

I don't know the name of this agency. The organizer never mentioned it, never revealed the actual location of her office. This is probably how our dear friend "Olga" got hired, except when someone said those magical words- просто обман, just a scam- Olga wasn't fazed. A paycheck is a paycheck. These past 10 days have been a crash course in scamming for me, an introduction to another side of Ukraine that I'd heard about but never experienced. It makes me kind of sad and unsure about the future.

Surely some marriage agencies must be the real deal, but which? It's almost impossible to say. And of all the stories I've personally heard from guys, there is yet to be one with a happily-ever-after. That's disappointing. I'm all in favor of international relationships (see: me and D!) but they are difficult and do require a lot of extra effort from both parties and when you combine that plus a high probability of a scam somewhere, it's no wonder many of these relationships don't work out.
Kharkov's Palace of Weddings
Walking back, I told Y about an American guy I'd found on the internet who had offered to provide matchmaking and consultation services but had so far been frustrated by his lack of success. Y immediately burst out with a laugh- it startled me so much I jumped and turned to her in shock. What's to consult? she said, Come and live here and talk to people. It's that easy. 

Another local English teacher I know, meanwhile, had her own story of overseas love. She went to an agency in the 90s with the hopes of meeting a nice guy. She corresponded with a few men, during which time she had to pay for translations both ways: her letters into English and his letters into Russian. This is actually what led her to began studying English, as the translation costs ate up a lot of her salary. Eventually she went to the agency and paid 10 uah for the address of the man she liked the most and thereby circumvented the agency completely.

Here's how Ukrainian marriage agencies recruit women:
These ads are for the Anastasiya marriage agency in Odessa. Their email address translates to www.wedding.com. The ad on the left proclaims "The Keys to Happiness... Inspire! Conquer! Win!" The cowboy-themed ad on the right reads "Attention! Lonely foreigners are looking for a Ukrainian bride. Please contact www.wedding.com."
This company has been around since 1999 and advertising in the Kharkov metro as long as I've been here. The sign reads: Marriage Agency Mordinson, marry in Europe, US, Canada. The ad offers: studio photos, internet communication and translation, English language lessons. Scrawled across in Russian (the rest of the ad is in Ukrainian) "We want you to be happy!". At the bottom center: for girls up to age 35.

Aaaand here's how some foreign guys are recruited to marriage agencies:

Here's my question- why are there never Russian or Ukrainian men available on these matchmaking sites? What if a nice Australian or English girl wants to meet a nice guy from Kiev for a serious relationship? Perhaps the world is ready for ukrainianmen.com, what do you think? (As I've said before, I think quite highly of Ukrainian men. Most of them are kind, very considerate, dedicated to family, well-educated, and take care with their appearance.)

Anyway, some follow-up reading for those who have a particular interest in this topic:

Okay, that's it, my friends! I'm done getting involved with realty and matchmaking schemes. We're still apartment-hunting and holding down our jobs and I want to get as far away as possible from any kind of drama, back to a calm life :p

*Update: If you're looking for more info on dating scams in the FSU, try the "scams and suspicious agencies" message board over at Russian Ukrainian Adventures. They seem to have info on every scam under the sun over there!*


  1. You said, "And of all the stories I've personally heard from guys, there is yet to be one with a happily-ever-after." Well, I met and married through a marriage agency back in 1998 and we are still together. I guess we need a few more decades to meet the "ever-after" criterion but it's still longer than most of my contemporaries marrying in more conventional circumstance!

    I can't actually remember the name of the agency (Crimean something, I think) but you can quite quickly get a feel for which agencies are genuine.

    1. That's great, congratulations! 24 years is definitely "ever-after" status : )