Moscow - The ratio of women to men can be 10 to one, or “about as close to paradise as you get”, according to a balding Briton on his first visit to Ukraine.
Welcome to the mail-order bride industry in the old Soviet Union, aimed heavily at British and American men who have failed to find love at home.
“A lot of the men here think we’ve died and gone to heaven,” said the tubby 47-year-old as he eyed a gaggle of revealingly dressed young women who would not have seemed out of place on a Parisian catwalk.
Typically men pay between £1 500 (R21 000) and £3 000 to visit several former Soviet cities on tours which are “designed so that all you have to concern yourself with is meeting as many women as possible”.
A Romance Tour to the Ukrainian capital of Kiev is repeated across the old Soviet empire from Volgograd to Veliky Novgorod.
And if Ukraine is known for its basket case economy, the dating market appears to be thriving, eased in part by far easier visa rules than to Russia, and a number of other former states in the fallen USSR.
However, a strong backlash is on the way after bloggers there posted images online, leading to readers posing such awkward questions as: “What does it say about our countries that our women are offered like this to such men, some of them looking like degenerate grandfathers” and “How can our women humiliate themselves in such a way?”
The men are promised that, at “socials”, they will be in the company of “sincere, young, beautiful women who believe in family values”. They are told to expect to meet “more beautiful women in 11 days than you will in five years”.
At these occasions, typically some 15 to 25 men will be introduced to 150 to 250 women, often having to communicate via an interpreter. Many of the men are often double the age, or more, of the women. To ease things along both sexes carry large name tags on their lapels. The women are also numbered – “like in a slave market”, as one blogger put it.
“Our clients date up to five ladies per day,” boasts the website of A Foreign Affair, which offers single Western men tours to a number of locations including Russia and Ukraine.
“The Kiev Romance Tour offers you the unique opportunity to visit one of the most historic cities in all of the former Soviet Union, while at the same time meet thousands of beautiful Ukrainian women,” it states.
“Our Kiev Romance Tours provide you with an extremely effective means to meet as many women as possible so you can find that special one.”
Kiev, they emphasise, “is an absolutely charming city, its charm is matched only by the women residing there”.
Often such tours include one or two other cities as Western men scour eastern Europe for their perfect match. These can be provincial cities where the standard of living is lower and, say critics, “our women maybe more likely to fall for a foreigner, however unsuitable he may be”.
As one site says about the backwater of Poltava: “Both the city and the women are enjoyable.
“Poltava has contributed some of the best Socials our company has ever had the privilege to host.
“Beautiful Poltava women with their relaxed and easygoing, smaller city attitude help to make our stay one of the most enjoyable two days on any of our exciting single tours.”
One British man – like many on such trips keen on retaining his anonymity – told me: “I have a failed marriage behind me and several subsequent relationships did not work out. I want a traditional wife and a lot of the other men out here with me say the same.
“At home, our women have been brought up to be independent, live their own lives, and not care for their men in the way our mothers used to.
“Well, that’s fine but I want someone who is a traditional housewife. If we have kids, she stays at home looking after them. Is that so wrong?”
He was attracted to pay for his tour by hearing that Russian and Ukrainian women “are not polluted by all this feminist stuff”, he said, before continuing his search for his dream woman.
This is a frequent theme by men at such events. When a Russian blog posted pictures from such dating sessions, hundreds of angry comments, many unprintable, poured in.
“She sold herself for Coca-Cola,” said one.
Galyna, 23, who has attended several such sessions in Kiev, said: “Personally, I went and looked. The format is quite demeaning – well-off men from the West and poor Ukrainian and Russian girls. Loads more women than men.”
At some sessions, the women pose in bikinis, at others they walk balancing a weight on their heads seemingly to show off their figures. “Yes, I am looking for a foreign partner because I want stability in my life. Here, domestic violence is bad, our men drink themselves stupid, and the divorce rate is bad.
“I think I’m worth more than that. If it means an older partner from abroad, who really wants to share his life, then I’m ready for this even though it breaks my heart to leave my homeland.
“I can see other girls who are after money from this by hooking a rich foreigner. As one told me: ‘There’s no fool like an old fool. I’ll grab what I can from him’.”
But marriage agency owner Tatiana Tasueva of Moscow said: “If the girl is young and pretty why shouldn’t she sell herself and make a profit? If she is beautiful why should she be poor?”
One Russian agency has called for curbs on such tours while a spokeswoman for Ukrainian women’s rights group La Strada said: “Such ‘dating parties’ are a form of discrimination against women and such things often lead to the prospering problems we are trying to fight, namely domestic violence and the trafficking of women.
“When a woman has only limited chances of a professional career, and is paid 30 percent less than men, as is the case with us, she is superficially attracted by offers to try to make a career out of family life.”
She stressed: “We can’t call such ‘parties’ a good thing. They often end with problems for women, who go to an unknown country, not speaking the language, and knowing nothing about her rights.
“Taking part in such ‘Socials’ is not necessarily a rational decision for a woman.
“Often they have lacked love and happiness in their lives, and are happy to get any kind of male attention. Marriage agencies often exploit this knowledge and prosper, creating a good platform for women trafficking.”
Another expert at the group, Ekaterina Cherepakha, director of social programmes, said: “The desire of some women to marry a foreigner and go to live in another country is very understandable.
“Some find their way to foreign bridegrooms online, others turn to marriage agencies. Is it good or bad for Ukrainian women? In certain circumstances it can be good.
“But the point is that such agencies and websites may serve a different purpose as a cover for trade or trafficking in women or their exploitation. Sometimes when a woman wants to go and live abroad she has very little idea about the lifestyle in the country she goes to.
“Nor about her rights, or getting residence permits, or what happens in a divorce or how to keep her children after a marriage break-up.
“Potential brides do not think about possible difficulties and even the dangers they can face. And recruiters often use all this. When some agencies and recruiters promise she will meet and marry a wealthy man, no one checks his marital status, mental health, criminal record and all the other things.”
Against this, the agencies named here claim to be thoroughly respectable and to have had a high rate of success in their clients forging long-lasting relationships and marriage with women in Ukraine, Russia and other countries. – Daily Mail