New agencies seem to be starting up each week, putting east European women in contact with Western men. But for each new agency that opens, another closes. Signing up women is easy - it is catching the men that is more difficult. And persuading immigration officials that this is a love match, rather than a marriage of convenience, can be harder still.
Russian Partners claims to have 3,000 women on its books, Russian Introduction says it has 1,000 (although the photographs on display suggest the two agencies have been double-dated), and even European Contacts that opened only last week has over 300. Many of the men who sign up get as far as visiting Russia and meeting the women they correspond with, but few end up married.
According to the Home Office, there were 180 Russian women who were last year granted British citizenship through marriage. That figure has risen from virtually nothing in two years, and compares with only 20 men who married British women. Significantly, there appear to be no agencies putting Russian men in contact with British women.
So why do Russianfemales want to meet British men? 'They are trying to get out,' says Bill Howard of the World Association of Introduction Agencies. 'Russian women want to move upmarket. They are moving for economic reasons and no other. They can't see any changes taking place over there, and they are getting impatient. They also try in the States - Russian women particularly favour Texan men. They are trying to improve their lot. It is no different from Filipino women.'
However, talk such as this upsets the agencies. Geoffrey Bevan, director of Russian Introduction, claims it is the British attitude to life that attracts Russian women. 'They find men here have a different attitude. Russian men are more interested in material things, and don't spend any time at home. Men disappear for weeks and then come back; usually they have gone off to Moscow to find another woman.'
A spokesman for European Contacts agreed. 'Russian women have a fascination for British men. I was working there for four years and I was approached the whole time with requests to be put in contact with partners for correspondence. They see British men as something different. I think both parties - the Russian women and the British men - are to some extent misguided. They both have an impression of a more 'olde worlde' people than in their own country. Russian women see the traditional manners of British men; the British man sees home- makers, a more domesticated woman.
'There are cases of economic migration, just as there are some Britons who want to go to Australia or wherever for economic reasons, but it is the small minority.'
It is the more middle-class, better-educated Russian women who sign up with the agencies. They are typically lawyers, engineers, scientists or doctors. Those who join European Contacts write a letter of introduction, which is passed on to men who join the agency. Some of the letters give a hint of the personal tragedies in today's Russia. There is Irena, for example, a 27-year-old Ukrainian with blue eyes and brown hair, 'brave and sincere, Christian, no wrong habits, not working,' and is deaf and dumb.
Mr Howard suggests that usually a woman who is disabled is the least likely to want to leave, worried at what support she will get in the outside world. 'It probably means that the social services system has collapsed if a deaf and dumb girl wants to get out,' he concludes.
Russian Partners produce videos of women looking for British men. 'Choose from thousands of ladies from the comfort of your lounge,' reads their publicity material. To avoid putting off middle-aged clients, they add: 'Many members are happy to consider a gentleman 10-20 years older than themselves.'
Does this make Russian women a commodity? 'It might be a little bit of a cattle market, but that's how it goes, really,' says Mr Bevan. It would have been helpful to hear the views of some of the women who now live here, but Russian Introduction declined to arrange this, European Contacts has not yet completed any introductions, and Russian Partners failed to return our calls.
The Russian Embassy says there are now 'thousands' of agencies operating to bring women out of the country. Mr Howard dismisses this as a gross exaggeration. 'That's nonsense. There are thousands of girls, but very few agencies - about 12.'
There does seem to be a risk that men signing up could lose their money, because many of the agencies last such a short time. Mr Howard believes that customers will normally receive a good service. 'People only pay for what they get,' he says.
Mr Bevan says that agencies looking to make money could quickly fold. He and his Russian wife only run their agency to enable Mrs Bevan to maintain her contacts in Russia.
Mr Bevan says that British men should not underestimate the level of commitment needed to build a relationship. Not just the problem of communication, but also the fact that the couple needs to meet, and that this takes money.
'The problem is with the men, who really have got to go over a couple of times. Some think they can do it all by letter, but it doesn't work like that. He will need a couple of thousand pounds to spend, and will need to show (the immigration service) that he has been there, and has an intention to marry her,' says Mr Bevan.
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