Ukrainian Marriage Agencies Promise the Girl of Your Dreams, and Dreams Are All You Get

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Author: Hanna Belovolchenko
Illustrations: Daria Pecherenko

Seven hryvnias a minute for a video chat, fifty for each chat message. Foreigners are ready to pay thousands of hryvnias a month in order to meet Ukrainian women, arranged through marriage agencies – so-called ‘mail order brides’. However, most of the time, the prospective suitors are left without their money, while the girl that wrote “I love you, darling” is sometimes a sixty year old translator. Zaborona explains how international marriage agencies work, who handles client communications, and why men still go to them in search of ever-elusive true love.

The classics

“I’m tired of the fact that I have no one to share my life with,” says Steven. He’s a divorced 62-year old man from Texas and has visited Ukraine eleven times, all for a single reason – to find a partner. Steven has enough money and lots of free time to realize the dreams he’s working towards. He’s not alone.

Before coming to Ukraine once more, Steven had already paid a thousand US dollars to a marriage agency. Each chat message and video call is paid. But how can you not write constantly, and call several times a day, when you’re looking for that significant other? Each time, the things unfold in the same way: Steven first spends several months chatting to a girl he likes from a marriage agency site, and then goes to visit her in Ukraine and get to know her better. They always end the same way as well: the girl refuses to go away with the prospective American suitor and invites him to visit her again, though at a later date. She says she’s ‘not ready’, and offers to continue chatting on the site. Steven’s eleventh trip doesn’t deviate from this pattern.

This 62-year old Texan’s story is a classic. It’s basically how all the  ‘relationships’, set up by the marriage agencies, work out between foreigners and Ukrainians. The agencies themselves are registered abroad, usually in the US. The US side of the agency focuses on attracting new clients to register, while the Ukrainian side focuses on finding girls. The agencies tell their clients, nearly all men, that they’ll be able to find love and maybe even marry. The Ukrainianss are told that they need to add as many real photographs of themselves as possible, and to stretch out conversations with the ‘suitors’ on the site. After all, that’s how the girls – and everyone else who works at the agency – make money.

Easy money

“When a man puts money into his account at the marriage agency, the bank warns him that this is most likely a scam. However, this doesn’t seem to discourage those blinded by thoughts of finding their significant other,” says Katya (name has been changed by request. – ed.)

Today, Katya is 28. Her profile appeared on international marriage agency sites when she was 16. Foreign bachelors thought that this young Ukrainian girl had been looking for a life-long loving relationship. Katya, on the other hand, was waiting for the next time her paycheck from the agency – $100-200 – would arrive. This was a monthly salary for the girl just for having her profile and a photograph up on the agency’s site.

“I didn’t write to anyone, didn’t have any calls. All that was needed from my side was to provide them with fresh pictures from time to time. They would take them from ‘VKontakte’ (a popular Russian social networking site now banned in Ukraine – ed.), and sometimes they’d hold photoshoots in order to generate more pictures for the clients,” explains Katya.  

This easy money was offered by an acquaintance of Katya’s who owned the agency. Katya’s family was middle class, according to the girl’s own words, and they didn’t have much in the way of spending money. Meanwhile, the new photographs and professional studio became a nice bonus. The only thing that Katya had to do in the beginning was to record a video of herself holding her passport, which is how Katya confirmed that she was definitively herself, and that she didn’t contest having her photos spread around the network.

“At first, I liked getting money for nothing. But after a year, once I’d matured a bit, it began to bother me – it was uncomfortable for me, who knows who was writing messages in my name. That’s why I asked to be removed from the site,” Katya recalls, adding that things worked out for her, because the site was run by her acquaintance who actually did remove her profile. But there are other stories where the girl has been told that her profile was deleted, yet in reality the site continues to make money off those photos without compensation.

These thoughts of easy money sometimes returned to Katya. When she turned 24 and an acquaintance offered her the chance to become an administrator of a marriage agency, she agreed.

A shared wallet

A profile on one of these international sites is both the main revenue stream and a kind of wallet that disburses pennies to everyone involved. There’s a common myth that these sites are filled with photos of people who don’t exist – but that isn’t the case, Katya explains. All of the photos are real, just that some are staged and some aren’t.

An insignificant percentage of the profiles are run by the girls they picture. They themselves message ‘suitors’, but the majority are a screen obscuring several people at once: the site administrator, a translator, and the model. The administrator’s job is to manage the work of the models and translators.

“They’ll hire anyone who can spend a lot of time on the work. A guy, a girl, 17 or 30 years old – it doesn’t matter. The important thing is that you need to spend the entire day at the office, and then be up till 2 on the phone,” says Katya.

Administrators receive the models’ profiles from the agency and work with them: they arrange photoshoots, buy clothes for those shoots, and upload content to the site. Nowadays, Katya tells us, it’s not enough to just use an Instagram photo.

“You have to convince the models to record a video clip of 15-30 seconds with text like ‘How are you, dear?’ They’re asked to take photos drinking coffee, in changing rooms, while meeting with their friends – everything that can convince the man that this girl is real and she in particular wants to talk to him,” Katya clarifies.

The second part of an administrator’s responsibility involves finding translators, interviewing them, and managing them. These are the people who will actually hold the conversations with the foreign suitors instead of the models in the profile. Typically, Katya says, translators are found via word-of-mouth – the ones who already work in those agencies convince their friends to join in.

“This could be men or women. The youngest translator on my team was 16, while the oldest was 60. The latter knew English very well and worked for the agency for a long time,” Katya remembers, though she adds that you don’t have to know the language well in order to find work as a translator today. What’s important is to know how to catch these ‘suitors’ in a conversation. Templated phrases aren’t valued by the clients, which is why translators need to come up with a different set of mannerisms and way of talking.

Administrators have to read over the conversations between translators and the clients because firstly, there are sites where vulgar language is prohibited, and secondly, translators sometimes try to lure out gifts from the ‘suitors’ which is also not allowed.

“Their task isn’t to get an iPhone for themselves or two thousand dollars to their private account, but to maximally extend the conversation in chat, correspondence, or convince [the client] to buu gifts from the agency site itself,” Katya explains. “Two years ago, my workplace charged 13 cents per minute for text chat, messages were two dollars, while a video call with a model was 26 cents a minute.”

All of the money is made on these profiles. Models receive 10% from their profiles, administrators receive 10% of every profile they manage, translators receive 40% for each chat under a new name, and the agency takes a 40% cut themselves. On average, a single profile will earn $1,000 per month.

“A good administrator can earn up to $3,000. I had about 25 profiles, which means fifty people working under it,” recollects Katya. “Every time, I had a thought: I’ll earn about a thousand dollars, and leave. Then: I’ll earn two thousand. And further: three thousand. And every time that I wanted to leave, the salary rose. That’s why it was difficult to say no.”

Wooing

43-year old Todd from Delaware saved up five thousand dollars for a few months in order to visit Ukraine. He worked overtime and didn’t indulge in small luxuries, all in order to see a girl and spend a week with her in Odesa.

“If a model wants to earn more than the 10% from her profile, then she agrees to a live meeting with a foreigner,” Katya says, “The ‘suitor’ comes to Ukraine, takes her out to restaurants, gifts her expensive purses, appliances, dresses. In other words, he woos her.”

A translator comes along to these meetings. This both provides insurance – after all, it’s not at all clear what sort of person has arrived – and the model may really not know English. Thirdly, to manage the situation – a marriage agency isn’t an escort service.

However, girls that are actually looking for their future husbands and really want to marry them and go abroad comprise maybe 1% of agency models, Katya surmises. The rest just want to earn money, which is why at the end of the client’s trip they say their goodbye’s and offer further chats on the site, in order to get to know each other better. The foreigner leaves with empty pockets, which is what happened to Todd.

Outlets and a bottle of wine

“I wanted to drink a bottle of wine every night – it was insanity, not work,” says Katya. Despite her high salary, the toxic atmosphere of the agency made it hard to work. According to girls who worked at the agency, the majority of them disliked it, but they made their peace. Shouting matches in the team, curse words and insults because of a low balance on a profile was considered normal. The ones that ran the agencies, the girls say, always tried to find their workers’ weaknesses. They manipulated them and lent them large sums of money to make the person dependent on management and keep them in their role. Although it was difficult, family issues arose at work, which Katya declined to elaborate on.

The moral issues of the work bothered Katya alongside the toxicity. She understood that the agencies were just tricking and sapping foreigners of their money. But she always found a way to justify it: “It’s a transactional relationship.” Yes, the men lose money. But where else could a 70-year old talk to a young woman, be sent photos, and hear good day wishes, Katya thought.

“Yes, and in the depths of their soul these men know that it’s all a lie. But it’s easier for them to disbelieve such thoughts, but instead to pay and persuade themselves that the feelings of the girl on the other side of the screen are sincere. Otherwise, their sand castle would just crumble. These kinds of sites are outlets for well-off single people,” Katya believes.

In reality, however, ‘outlets’ such as these are considered crimes, according to Ukrainian anti-fraud law. Proving the scam is difficult, however, because most of the girls don’t ask for money directly, but just conduct sweet conversations with their ‘suitors.’

Katya worked as an administrator at these agencies for two years. She still considers leaving to be one of the better decisions she’s made in her life, though when she was considering it, her colleagues called her an idiot – after all, how can you turn down the money?

“It seems to be that this business should have died already – everyone knows about it. But I’m still sent multiple job offers from the same Instagram: administrator, translator, model,” Katya says. Yet the internet now contains separate forums that mull over the nuances of work and innovations in international marriage agencies.