It all started nine years ago, with a “Translators Wanted” ad. As a 21-year-old Ukrainian student, getting by on a $90 monthly student’s allowance, I was desperate for money. The job description promised a flexible working schedule and an hourly rate. No prior experience was necessary; just advanced English language skills. It looked like an ideal job for a student.
It wasn’t until the job interview that I discovered that I was going to work in an international matchmaking agency. All I had to do to get hired was to pass the interview in English.
In the news recently, there have been stories about foreigners getting scammed by these kinds of international dating sites. Fifty-two-year-old British charity worker James told the BBC that his 32-year-old dream woman Irina scammed him for $250,000 with an elaborate ploy involving a fake Odessa wedding. After working at an agency myself, I couldn’t believe that those middle-aged men, like James, still think they can only find love with much younger women from a different country.
In 2012, on my first day at the matchmaking agency, entering the office reminded me of a computer-science classroom, with rows of desks and facing the same way. All the screens were open to a website called Cinderella—it was a popular name for international online dating agencies, casting digital suitors as handsome and noble Prince Charmings and their potential matches as kind-hearted and lovely women simply in need. My new boss Karina gave me and my colleagues access to the online dating profiles of different women. (All the names in this story have been changed.)
“Those are our clients,” she said. “They want to marry foreigners, but they don’t speak English, so you will have to help them.”
We wouldn’t meet or talk to the women ourselves until we’d secured them a date with a foreigner, luring him to come to Ukraine on their behalf. My male colleague Olexiy, who was assigned the profiles of two young women, joked, “I know what men want. So it would not be much of a problem for me to flirt with them.”
Karina explained to us that our clients “want to fall in love” but that they were “working women, who have lives and have no time to spend the nights chatting with their possible dream men. So you will have to do it for them.”
I was also assigned two women’s sparsely-detailed online dating profiles. The 22-year-old dancer Olena had freakishly long legs and long blonde hair, while Svitlana, 34, a tiny brunette with a short haircut, worked as an accountant. I had to create two different personalities for both of them and stick to each character. Our boss was the only one who was in contact with our female clients. “A woman can always say she has changed her beliefs,” she told me about us translators conjuring up characters for women we’d never met.
Our job was to chat with as many different men as possible and keep them online as long as possible since they were paying $2 for every 10 minutes of online chat. We were chatting during the nights in Ukraine, due to different time zones, but the men never found it suspicious that the women, who had jobs, were always chatting with them hours after our midnight.
For obvious reasons, we had to deny their video chat requests, instead attempting to get them to send our clients pricey gifts (flower bouquets, candy, jewelry) the matchmaking agency offered. If a man agreed to send money to the agency for a present, he got a picture or even a pre-recorded video of her saying a short, simple phrase, like “thank you so much” or “I love you.” The ultimate goal was to get a man to the country, where he would meet the woman he thought he had been talking to for months. We would have to prepare her for a first date and sit in on it as a translator. What we were doing was unethical, but it was not a crime by law—just a sweet lie those Western men prefered to buy as a “unique experience” of dating a Ukrainian woman.
The more I chatted, as Svitlana and Olena, with their male suitors, the more I understood the world of international love-matching.
Back then, I was generally curious how an industry that promised women to find Western saviors worked—even if I wasn’t interested in it for myself. The dream of escaping our home country is common to many Ukrainians. From my childhood, my granny encouraged me to marry a foreigner and leave for the Western world. During the chaotic 1990s, Ukraine became independent from the USSR, mired in a long-lasting economic crisis, and suffered from instability, corruption, and war thereafter. Many Ukrainians left for more stable Western countries, often working in low-paid jobs.
“Everything is getting much worse here every day,” my granny would say. “You speak the language! You could easily meet a foreigner, who will take you to the West, where there is stability and where there’s rule of law and no corruption.” But I never wanted to leave Ukraine, as I believed that things would change for the better and I could be a part of that.
“Sorry, darling, you are beautiful, but I am looking for a younger woman here.”
The Ukrainian women I know are strong, independent, and smart. But the men on those online dating websites see Ukrainian women as foreign sex dolls, ready to serve every need of their generous saviors. There are numerous nasty blogs instructing Western men on how to seduce a Ukrainian woman—and still others that do the same for women in other countries deemed in economically precarious situations. Most bloggers talk about my kind as a lump of exotic meat. That kind of attitude from Western men isn’t completely unique to us—plenty of other nations, often ones with struggling or developing economies, face similar exploitative practices. Some of the authors cite Ukraine’s status as the poorest in Europe, with a shortage of men, as advantages for a thirsty foreigner’s safari for a young lady.
At first, these suitors were cautious. Ukrainian online dating sites, just like other international dating sites, have a reputation for potential scams—after all, suitors are paying to talk to women online. But as soon as I inflated their ego with a compliment or two, they let their guards down. Olena was more popular than Svitlana among men there because she was younger. Most of the men, writing to both of my clients, were much older, by as much as 20 years. Some of them promised Olena to take her to their farms in the American South to meet their families. They sent pictures of themselves next to luxury pools.
Svitlana was less fortunate. Her admirers often first asked if she was married. “You are in your 30s and have not been married yet? Should I worry? Haha!” Howard, a 48-year-old teacher from Oregon, joked. I didn’t know why Svitlana wasn’t married, so I told him that she was looking for the right man. Howard thought he was the right man, and agreed to consider marrying her, but only on the condition that he would come to Ukraine and live in Svitlana’s apartment to test their relationship before taking her to America. I laughed and never responded to his messages again.
The suitor whom I remember best was Bob, a 65-year-old businessman from California. In his profile picture, I saw a man with a sun-burned face, and smiling, perfect fake teeth. Tom chatted with both Olena and Svitlana.
“Do you like older men?” Bob asked Olena. I wasn’t sure Olena did, but I had an hourly rate, so I just told him: “I sure do. I don’t like men of my age, cause there’s nothing to talk to them about. They are still just boys.”
That was enough. Bob started flirting, said that he loved my profession and my profile picture. When I asked why he wanted to date a Ukrainian woman, not an American woman, he replied that American women have become too emancipated.
“They don’t care about their men; they don’t care even about their looks anymore. Only about their careers,” Bob explained with an angry smile emoji.
As a feminist, I was disgusted to read that, yet Olena expressed her understanding and promised to care for Bob, hinting she wanted a present. Two weeks later, Bob sent her flowers, but soon afterward he shamed her for profiteering from his affections and stopped responding to messages. I decided to write him again, now as 34-year-old Svitlana. This chat was short. “Sorry, darling, you are beautiful, but I am looking for a younger woman here,” Bob replied. I told Bob he was rude. Bob said, no offense, but with a younger woman, he had a better chance to have a child.
I was done with the industry after Bob. Otherwise, I was sure I would be done with men. Years after that, when I started working in journalism, I met some wonderful American men who came to Ukraine for the country, not for the women, and ended up finding true love. Unlike Tom, they fell in love with our nation first. They studied the culture, learned the language. I am rooting for men like my foreign friends, who see their Ukrainian spouses as partners worthy of their own careers and lives, not young sex dolls.
For my part, I met my husband, a Ukrainian man, in 2010—instead of pursuing a stranger from the West. And like many other young people supporting the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution, we both wanted to make our country a better place, advocating for democratic reforms. (Somewhat ironically, the Euromaidan attracted even more foreigners seeking to date Ukrainian women.)
I don’t know what happened to Olena and Svitlana, but I hope they dropped the idea of some shady agency locating the men of their dreams for them.
Follow Veronika Melkozerova on Twitter.