As war tears up eastern Ukraine, the country's "marriage agencies" continue to attract hordes of western men seeking love abroad.
Known as a city of contrasts, where Lamborghinis park beside Ladas, Odessa – far away from the fighting in the Donbass region – is a mecca for dodgy dealings, and marriage is one of them.
Old men hold hands with beautiful young women, who look awkwardly away as the men slobber on their cheeks while drinking pints of local beer. Despite reports of a lag in Ukrainian sex tourism during the war, the country's "marriage agencies" are unmissable in the Black Sea city, and those looking for love seem unswayed by the violence raging next door.
In one of Odessa's trendy bars I meet Ana and her husband Nikita, who are acting as translators for Quan and his prospective wife Tanya. Originally from Chile, Quan tells me he lives in New Jersey and wants to marry a Ukrainian woman because "she'll be poor and easier to manage".
Shockingly, the Chilean charmer fails to impress the markedly younger Tanya, who leaves in a taxi after spending the evening staring at the floor. The same scenario is played out all over the city, with older men salivating over young women. The people really winning are agents like Ana and Nikita, who have wrangled a corner of the country's marriage agency market.
The average Ukrainian marriage agency will charge $30 (£25) to send a "small but beautiful" cake to a lady. They'll also send her "15 beautiful roses for $100 [£30]", which is a pretty decent mark up when you think the same cake costs $5 (£4) and the roses $30. You can also get a "custom photo shoot of your lady" in a location of your choice (and, creepily, wearing the outfit of your choice) for about $200.
The marriage agency business is big money in a country where the average salary plummeted to less than $250 during the war, and unsurprisingly can leave men feeling exploited. Translators, agents and "potential brides" run scams throughout the city, emptying men's wallets as they go.
Over in Mick O'Neill's Irish bar – home to Odessa's expats – I meet 52-year-old George Perry, a dentist from New York who just got engaged to his third Ukrainian wife. The psytrance fanatic brought me over a slice of his homemade pumpkin pie before filling me in on his complicated love life.
George came to Ukraine over a decade ago and married his first wife, Irina. They stayed together for eight years. Irina, he says, was a translator for a marriage agency that he claimed was a "special kind of bullshit" back in those days. Despite that, George and his translator bride-to-be hit it off and decided to date.
"Our first day was straight to the point, no bullshit. We talked about plastic surgery, where we would live, kids all that stuff," he says. "At one point she asked me, 'Will you allow me to come back to Ukraine to visit my family?' I told her she'd have her own card to book the flights."
After breaking up with his "best friend" Irina, George travelled the world looking for a new wife in Thailand, Kazakhstan, Japan and India. When that didn't work out he went back to Ukraine, where he got engaged to "Yulia".
"I decided to stay on in Ukraine, and Yulia travelled to the US before me," says George. "Guess who met her at the airport? My first wife, Irina. You get how this works now?"
After a falling out between the two women, Yulia left for another state to stay with friends. George's latest wife, also called Irina, is currently about to travel to the States for the first time.
"I won't have to change the name on the credit card," he jokes.
George's situation seems to be relatively common in Odessa, and I as I spot more couples I'm reminded of Quan's assertion that he needs to have a Ukrainian wife as "My first wife is Ukrainian and I need someone who can understand that fuckin' language to talk to the kids."
I ask FEMEN leader Inna Shevchenko, who was kicked out of Ukraine for cutting down a Christian cross, what she thinks of women from her home country marrying old westerners. For Shevchenko, women in Ukraine are the ultimate victims.
"The reason women make this 'agreement with a devil' is purely economic," she says. "It's difficult for women in Ukraine to be economically independent, even though they are educated and skilled. The war is making their situation even worse. Our currency is extremely weak [and] we now have security risks that make life for women there the worst it's been in decades. Young women see, in the foreign men, a chance for a better life, a possibility to leave and escape from life-long struggle that their mothers and other Ukrainian women experience. Who should we judge here? Definitely not the women."
The US embassy, on the other hand, seems happy to judge the women in their efforts to protect their vulnerable citizens for being exploited. A list of warnings they have issued to Americans visiting the country to meet prospective wives include, but aren't limited to:
- You only know your friend or fiancé online and may never have met in person.
- Photographs of the scammer show a very attractive person, and appear to have been taken at a professional modelling agency or photo studio.
- The scammer's luck is incredibly bad – he or she is in a car crash, or arrested, or mugged, or beaten, or hospitalised.
- You have sent money for visas or plane tickets, but they can't seem to make it to their destinations, citing detention by immigration officials, or other unexpected reasons that prevent them from travelling.
The embassy also warns: "Even if the woman you have become acquainted with does exist and is honestly trying to visit you in the United States, it is unlikely that she will be issued a visa."
So it seems that while Ukraine's marriage services can be a scam for Westerners, it's often the women who get a really shitty deal.
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