Sixty-year-old Bruce* has visited Ukraine nine times in the past 15 years, looking for a partner. For him, the attraction of Ukrainian women over those in his native US is based on their principles – and their physical attributes.
“Ukrainian women have more traditional values,” he says. “Marriage and family are more important, and they take care of their bodies. A lot of American women get fat and frankly, aren’t very attractive.”
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Western men like Bruce have descended on Ukraine in search of a partner – every 15th marriage in the country is now reportedly registered as international. Many of these partnerships are “mail-order” marriages: local women take out listings on dating websites in the hope of marrying into a favourable financial situation, while men from central Europe and the US travel in search of a young, beautiful wife.
Mail-order dating in Ukraine has undoubtedly resulted in many happy partnerships, and can be a gateway to a better life for the women involved, but the country’s international dating scene has a darker side. Men who pay for the services of dating agencies can be scammed out of thousands of dollars to pursue relationships that never materialise, while the women are pressured into “emotional prostitution”.
The prevalence of dating scams in Ukraine has made way for a new industry: the professional matchmaker and dating advisor. Run by both Western men and Ukrainian women, these services have boomed in popularity in recent years as a purported solution for romantically disappointed men. Taya Ukraine, a blog and matchmaking service that offers dating tours of Kiev, promises “only serious girls on our database, no scam” and includes testimonials from satisfied clients in the US. For Him Dating, run by Alex Pinto who moved to Ukraine from Portugal, also offers dating opportunities with “the best hand-picked Ukrainian women, helping you save financially and emotionally”.
Both Pinto and Taya – the Ukrainian founder of Taya Ukraine – offer a personalised approach to dating. Clients are matched with “handpicked” women; and translation, relationship advice and even flirting tips are all included as part of the service. Men can also choose to be accompanied on dates to have their compatibility assessed, as well as post-date feedback.
But can these matchmakers really guarantee love, not to mention protection against scammers?
“I wanted to help people have the same luck as I did,” Pinto tells VICE News from Poltava, where For Him Dating is based. He moved to Ukraine after meeting his wife using the service, which he later acquired. “A matchmaker has a ten times higher success rate compared to dating apps or international dating site and takes, on average, up to six-months to help a man to succeed,” he claims. “It’s a much more personalised experience – a one-on-one quality-tailored service. I can only work with three to four clients at a time.”
When taking on a new client, Pinto profiles them to “understand their motivations” and manage expectations. “If a country bumpkin from the US is expecting a Barbie from Kiev to go back with him, that’s just not realistic,” he explains.
From there, For Him Dating offers everything from Skype dates to a week-long dating retreat in Poltava, at which a five to one ratio of women to men is promised. The fees for these services range from $100 to $3,500, although this does not include the cost of flights to Ukraine. According to Pinto, the extra cost is worth it for those looking to make a lasting match.
“The international dating scene is not easy,” he says. “I explain my luck with my wife as crossing a battlefield without catching a bullet. International dating has unavoidable risks daily, victimising many men and women.”
Thomas David, who is from the UK, also relocated to Kiev after meeting his Ukrainian wife on a business trip. He runs Go Dating in Ukraine, a dating consultancy website that claims to offer the “highest quality” guidance on how to meet women in Ukraine. This advice comes in the form of free blog posts (“Are Girls from Kiev Easy to Pull?”, “Marrying a Ukrainian Woman – What to Expect?”) and paid services, including personal dating coaching and guidance on Ukrainian culture.
“I never had any intention in starting a dating coach business but after receiving so many positive replies from my male friends, I decided to give it a go,” David says.
As well as dating advice, Go Dating in Ukraine offers clients a passport identification check on their “new Ukrainian sweetheart”, costing $150.
“[This is to check for] no health problems, no legal problems, criminal records, no debts from the bank, no issues with the father of the child,” David says, and is carried out via his “good contacts with the local governments.” The Go Dating in Ukraine website assures clients that their “sweetheart” will never know that the background check took place. It does not, however, appear to give much thought to the woman subject to the invasive personal history search.
Like For Him Dating and Taya Ukraine, David’s services start from around $20 for one-off dating advice, and rise to $250 for monthly coaching. It seems like a lot of money to pay for a date in a world bursting with free dating apps, but for Bruce and many others, the service is worth it. He has sent thousands of dollars to girlfriends in Ukraine over the years, and says that he “almost got married three times”, only for the women to pull out at the last minute.
Bruce is currently engaged, thanks to Taya’s service, and hopes this time will be successful. “But I do have some other potentialities if not,” he says.
Robert*, 55 and also from the US, was drawn to dating in Ukraine several years ago because he felt that he was ready to start a family, “but girls in their thirties [in the US] would say I’m too old”. After visiting the Philippines and realising that he was getting attention from “girls half my age”, he decided to consider international dating.
“When I got back I said, ‘Where can I find beautiful white women?’ and what popped up was Ukraine and Russia,” Robert says. He has been to Ukraine eight times over the past 14 years and recently joined For Him Dating, where he met a woman during a trip in June. He plans to see her again as soon as the Ukrainian travel ban lifts.
For Ukrainian women, the motives for an international marriage differ. Taya says that “there’s a pressure that by 25, you should be married” in some parts of Ukrainian society, although notes that the culture is changing. Despite this, living as a single woman in Ukraine is challenging. Traditional gender roles remain strong, with women seen as homemakers and mothers, and men expected to provide financially. “The PPP,” says Pinto. “Provide, protect, procreate.”
Zoya, 36, met her husband through For Him Dating. “I was divorced with a kid, it was difficult for me to find an appropriate man,” she tells VICE News over the phone from New York. After a couple of unsuccessful dates with men she felt weren’t serious, Zoya met her future husband. “They sent me his profile and first I checked his star sign to see if we were compatible. I went on the date with him and there was a spark and energy.”
For the next year, they saw each other every three weeks until her marriage visa was ready. They have now been together for four years.
Ukraine’s new generation of dating entrepreneurs have brought the mail-order bride into the online age, but there is still no guarantee that clients won’t return home with hearts heavier than pockets. Neither Pinto, David nor Taya say that their services promise love, but rather seem to see their role as one of facilitating interactions and managing expectations.
“International dating websites offer a ‘short-cut’ to love,” Pinto says. “But there is no short-cut to love.”
*Names have been changed.