Wednesday, August 31, 2005

What Would Dickens Do?

In its 2003 trafficking report, the US State Department estimated that between 800,000 and 900,000 people are trafficked across international borders worldwide. Interpol says a trafficked woman can bring in anywhere from $75,000 to $250,000 a year. This helps to make trafficking a $12 billion per year business, according to the United Nations. In other words: the world's third most lucrative activity, behind illegal weapons and drugs.

Orphanages in Ukraine, Romania and Russia -- like the one in the photo -- are suffering from drastic declines in government funding, making them vulnerable to the traffickers who lurk about the front gates -- or pay off the workers inside to secure their victims. One institution located in the Republic of Karelia in northwestern Russia near the Finnish border was targeted in 1999 by two recruiters who showed up promising jobs.

The beleaguered staff was overjoyed that these benevolent souls were taking an interest in the welfare of their girls. They knew full well the harsh reality the girls faced when they were turned out from the institution on their eighteenth birthday, and now at least a handful were being offered a fighting chance of making it on the outside. Following formal interviews, several hopefuls were selected for training in the art of Chinese cooking at a school in China. Their travel and instruction were to be free, with the proviso that they intern for two years as a waitress after their training.

About thirty girls anxiously signed up--all, not surprisingly, pretty, eager and naive. A week later, with their meager possessions, they boarded a bus. The excitement was palpable. And that was it. Instead of heading east to China, the bus barreled south, deep into Western Europe. The destination was a town in Germany, where they were taken to an apartment, locked up and deprived of food and water. The girls' dreams quickly degenerated into a grueling nightmare. They were yelled at constantly. Sometimes they were beaten. A few days later they were herded into the living room and ordered to disrobe before a group of men with bodyguards in tow. The thugs ogled the girls and began bidding, buying the orphans outright in lots of three, four and five. The girls were then distributed to various German brothels, where they were forced to have sex with up to ten men a day. Over a period of six months, a few managed to escape. Others were scooped up in police raids. Only then did the story of this horrific deception make its way back to the orphanages.

All quoted material and information can be found in The Natashas: Inside the New Global Sex Trade.

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New Thoughts on an Old Post

It's just one more example of how the neoconservatives have borrowed from the Bolsheviks and hijacked the Republican Party.

If you're feeling political, follow that breadcrumb to the new thoughts added to the end of an old post; otherwise, look for less incendiary posts below and expect an excerpt from The Natashas: Inside the New Global Sex Trade later today.

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Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Brogden attempts suicide after "mail-order bride" slur

John Brogden, the John Ashcroft (and Murray Dunlap) look-a-like in the photo to the right, has apparently attempted suicide, this only 36 hours after the Australian politician quit his post as opposition party leader and apologized for saying Labour Premier Bob Carr could "ship his mail-order bride back to where she came from, for all I care." The slur against Carr's Malaysian wife (whom Carr married without the help of a marriage agency) was made after Brogden drank six beers at a Hotel Associates function in Sydney on July 29, according to published reports in the New Zealand Herald. Brogden also apparently sexually harassed three women at the Hotel Associates function, including two -- brace yourself -- reporters.

Brogden "slipped one arm around the small of my back, leant down and said, 'Are you available?'

To go on the record? Well, sad story really. We all make mistakes. His just happen to be on the front page. It's not like he started a war. I think an apology and a little bed rest would've worked just fine. All the same, Australia's Herald-Sun says Brodgen's fall was overdue.

Allegations have now emerged that Mr Brogden suggested two women have sex with him during a boozy Christmas party at his parliamentary office in 2003.

It is claimed the disgraced former opposition leader propositioned the young women on the couch of his parliamentary office.

It is also claimed he began by complimenting the women -- one a radio reporter and the other a television journalist -- and told them they were so attractive they should be kept in a nunnery.

Mr Brogden then allegedly went on to suggest the three should have sex together, but was instantly rebuffed.

"He jokingly made this suggestion about threesomes," one of the women claimed yesterday.

At a Christmas party in his office the previous year, Mr Brogden allegedly held a drinking competition with journalists to see who could drink the most liqueur cocktails known as "Quick F---s".

More analysis of this to come. For now I'll say, seems Brogden's biggest problem is his drinking, not his boorish behavior. To say nothing of his social circle. Don't they teach that in Poly Sci 101 anymore? Do not drink with journalists -- and certainly don't proposition them.

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The Business of Love

Ukrainian travel agencies working in the inbound tourism sector are prospering. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs informed that this year the number of foreign tourists traveling to Ukraine has, so far grown by 15% in comparison with last year. This is a result of the seemingly free advertising of Ukraine through the “Orange Revolution”.
One may ask then what was the source of income of local travel agencies in previous years? Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, 50% of the earnings of certain large companies were made in the marriage business. Foreigners came to Ukraine predominantly with the aim of finding beautiful, obedient housewives, while the other half visited for tourism, business or personal and family purposes.

More from this article, written by Volodymyr Pimonenko, can be found in the July 29-Aug. 12, 2005 issue of the Kyiv Weekly.

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Monday, August 29, 2005

The Natashas: Inside the New Global Sex Trade

About a week old, this link, but worth reading nonetheless. Tells the story of Maria, a 30-year-old Ukrainian woman who sought a job in Italy as a housekeeper only to find herself duped into the flourishing global sex trade, perhaps the most ubiquitous form of modern slavery. While confined to an apartment in Italy, Maria was forced to service up to 10 men a day. She only gained her freedom when police raided the place and Italian authorities deported her -- as a criminal -- to Ukraine.

It has been several years now since Maria returned to her home in Ukraine. She still has not told her family about her ordeal in Italy. She says she is unsure if she ever will be able to tell her husband the truth.

"It was not worth it. What is important in life is family -- my children and my husband -- in spite of everything. At the beginning, the desire for material wealth was at the front of my mind and family came in second place. But after what happened, my priorities have been reversed," Maria said.

The above article references The Natashas: Inside the New Global Sex Trade, a book by Victor Malarek that I read earlier this summer. Overall, it's a very informative book. But in the end, I found the writing a bit plodding at times ("grunting" and "bellowing" bad men abound) and also a tad bit overwrought: "In these far-flung, out-of-sight hovels, fifteen-year-old girls are fair game ... and rape is just another word for rest and recreation." This last line introduces a section in which it's shown that UN workers and US soldiers in such places as Kosovo avail themselves of prostitutes, thereby allowing the sex slavery to continue. I won't disagree that this is a horrible thing (and if the book did one thing, it made me rethink the notion of prostitution as a victimless crime) but all the same, I'd prefer even a book about the Holocaust to be even-handed. You know, set the table and let me decide what to eat. I know what's bad. And so do you. Chances are, I'd say, if you're trying to tell someone who the Evil Doers are, you're a salesmen more than a reporter. Or perhaps just a politician.

I'll post some excerpts from Malarek's book in the coming days. I'd been meaning to anyway.

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Consider it obsessive-compulsive disorder. I had to see if I could change the blog a little bit, if only so it didn't appear so just-off-the-rack. I am an American, you know. Nothing if not an individual. Anyways, there's still some tinkering to be done here, and in the end this may just be a stop-gap measure, as my eye has already strayed to Moveable Type, largely due to internet rumors that Blogger has a tendency to lose your archive. Only as reliable as it is expensive, you know. So, yes: enjoy this while you can, and if you can, and if you can't, tell me and maybe I'll come to my senses and go back. What sold me was the background design. It reminds me of Soviet-era wallpaper.

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Sunday, August 28, 2005

Californians, and "mail-order bride" as slur

"From the sound of it, had I stayed in California I might have joined a cult or at the very least practicing some weird dietary restriction."

I read this memorable line more than a decade go, when Donna Tartt's wonderful novel The Secret History first came out, and I'm sure it came to mind again earlier this summer, when an old friend from Los Angeles arrived at a St. Helena spa to prove that he was indeed a Californian. I mean no disrespect to my friend. I'm no different. I bit into the offered peach and lit a stick of incense at the Transcendental Meditation Center in Malibu. I dabbled in veganism and learned to prefer buffalo meat and wild salmon to store-bought chicken and beef, considered food combining, cured the sugar blues, and to this day refuse to eat any and all artificial flavors and colorings.

I say all this to introduce an anecdote. While picking up my friend from the Hoffman Institute, I was introduced to another young man who'd been through the same program of self-improvement -- a Hungarian spoken-word artist/poet who'd recently put out a CD of songs made on some four-track that spoke to our need to save the environment and find God, if I recall correctly. Anyways, this spoken-word artist/poet/singer/environmental-evangelist wanted to know a little something about the Fulbright Program, as my friend had told him I was going to Ukraine -- and why Ukraine? he asked, at which point my friend laughed and said something about my having a mail-order bride over there. I must've looked at him as if he'd just said he planned to shoot my mother, because his next words were quick and sputtering and apologetic. "What? You've got a girl over there, don't you?" At which point I said yes, there was a girl over there, but we had met in Davis -- while she was here on a business internship -- and then seen each other again in Moscow the previous summer. I didn't know what she was. Friend didn't seem the right word, though the alternative didn't either. "But she's not a mail-order bride," I said. That much I knew.

There's something awful about the term. I even tried to remove any reference to it while writing my grant application. Internationally-brokered marriages. Internet marriage agencies. Modern-day matchmaking. But no matter how I try to disguise it, I end up bringing it out in the end, again and again. "Oh, you mean you're going to be writing about mail-order brides?" "Yes," I say. "Mail-order brides."

Some words do heavy-lifting, others look right only on the front page of a congressional report.

Anyways, I thought of all this again, how it's so easy to consider the "mail-order bride" tag a slur, when I read the following this afternoon:

An Australian state Opposition leader has got into trouble for calling the premier's wife a mail-order bride. (She happens to be from Malaysia - actually highly unlikely to be a source of women using paid online marriage arrangement services, since it is far too wealthy.) It left me wondering why "mail-order bride" should be considered, as it undoubtedly is, a nasty term of abuse?

Perhaps the suggestion is that anyone who is a "mail-order bride" is little better than a prostitute (an uncomfortably obvious exposure of the traditional economics of marriage) and anyone who marries them can't get a "proper" woman - a slur on his manhood indeed. I wonder, if you called such women "economic refugees", would they get better treated?

More on the story that inspired the above quote can be found here.

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For those in need of a good read

I have four bookcases, one with only three shelves, another with six, two with four. Even when I wasn’t writing very much, back in the mid-90s, I had books towering up around me, a pile of magazines here, some newspapers over there. It is the one thing I know I can’t bring with me to Ukraine – four-hundred and fifty pounds of books, to say nothing of the shelf of records. So I’ve been hoarding. My father lent me his Adobe Acrobat program, and I’ve been downloading stories and articles from the Internet and squirreling them away on my hard-drive. I’ve got tons of pdfs now, an even split, I’d say, between non-fiction and fiction.

  Zoetrope has the best fiction archive online, and if you're looking for a recent New Yorker story (last two or three years) you just need to know the date of the magazine it was in to pull it up online. Here's a George Saunders story. You'll see the date in its web address.

My best find in recent days was Malcolm Gladwell’s website. If you don’t know Gladwell, you’ve probably read him. He’s a staff writer at the New Yorker, a job that demands he write between 40,000 and 50,000 words a year for the magazine, all of his choosing. In the course of this work, Gladwell's come out with two books, Blink, most recently, and The Tipping Point, which is a wonderful investigation of social epidemics, a few years back. Anyways, through Gladwell’s website, which has a comprehensive archive of his New Yorker articles, I found links to Ann Applebaum, whose Gulag won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction, and Michael Specter, a frequent contributor to the New Yorker who also writes extensively for the New York Times Magazine. Specter wrote a great deal about Russia in the 1990s; those articles were mostly written for the Times. Also, his New Yorker articles are available as pdf files, so they're easy to save for another day. As for Applebaum, she continues to focus her writing on the legacy of Communism.

If that doesn’t satisfy your fix for downloadable reading, you can also find material at the website of Susan Orlean, whose Orchid Thief inspired the movie Adaptation.

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Ukrainian Babies Stolen at Birth

Horrible story at the BBC, with the news coming out of Kharkiv no less. Seems babies are going missing from maternity wards, with the mothers being told they've had a still birth. Neighboring Moldova is more upfront about the economics seemingly behind the matter. Ads in newspapers there have encouraged mothers to sell their babies for 3,000 Euros.

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Saturday, August 27, 2005

Don't Ask, Don't Tell starring ... Vladimir Putin?

Yulia, everyone's favorite geo-political porno, has wrapped, according to the Moscow News.

Тurns out Ukraine's Elena Berkova didn't accept the title role, owing to the numerous threats that were leveled against her family following the news that she had been cast to play the woman in braids. No such threats were placed against the ethnic Armenian who was cast for his resemblance to Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili.

Meanwhile, back at the Duma, Alexsei Mitrofanov, the Russian Parlimentarian behind the work of "political erotics," is apparently undaunted by rumors that there is a now a gay porno in the works with lookalikes of Vladimir Putin and Victor Yanukovich to play the lead roles. Finally, reports that Presdient Bush will soon be cast in a comic book movie are forecast, but no word yet on the start date.

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Friday, August 26, 2005

Why Kiev is Male Heaven

Canadian Inna Gertsberg has been living in Kyiv for one year and working in advertising. For her one of the most memorable aspects of life in Ukraine has been the familiar sight of middle-aged expat men playing playboy lovers with girls half their age. If you could have seen these men in their own countries, she says, you'd be surprised too!

'It's Sunday night, and I've been invited to a friend's party. It's a see-and-be-seen scene, so I concede to wearing a mini-skirt, high-heel go-go boots and a sexy top. I do so knowing full well that even in my sexiest outfit it would be nearly impossible to stand out among the abundance of local beauties. As I walk up the steps of the nightclub two middle-aged western men stumble out of the door, their evening coming to an end, but their night just beginning. As they pass, one of them utters a drunken, 'Yeah baby! How about some fun tonight, dyevushka?'. It was a classic comment from someone who wouldn't dare dream of making such an approach back home. Later that night I found myself pondering Kyiv's most intriguing residents: mature Western men. Those middle-aged expats, some married, some married again, some recently single - all with one thing in common: they are utterly mad about Ukrainian women.

Story continues at Kiev City Guide.

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Thursday, August 25, 2005

Audio Report #1

The first of the Everybody I Love You audio reports, this one announcing little more than the sound of my own voice.

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The Mail Order Bride by Mark Kalesniko

Of all things, here's a graphic novel about mail order brides. It's written by Mark Kalesniko, a Disney animator who worked on Mulan and The Lion King, among other projects. Here's more about the book from the publisher's website, and one two make it three reviews. To go international on you, I'll drop this in French and this in German then end with this review that says the book is "one of the most sophisticated, understated and effortless pieces of comics-lit that you are likely to find." To see a few panels from the graphic novel, and perhaps learn what Disney animators would be drawing if they weren't being held down by The Man (or The Mouse), visit this page.

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Wednesday, August 24, 2005

The Soviet Union's National Anthem

The Soviet National Anthem.

Unbreakable Union of freeborn Republics,
Great Russia has welded forever to stand.
Created in struggle by will of the people,
United and mighty, our Soviet land!

Sing to the Motherland, home of the free,
Bulwark of peoples in brotherhood strong.
O Party of Lenin, the strength of the people,
To Communism's triumph lead us on!

Through tempests the sunrays of freedom have cheered us,
Along the new path where great Lenin did lead.
To a righteous cause he raised up the peoples,
Inspired them to labour and valourous deed.

Sing to the Motherland, home of the free,
Bulwark of peoples in brotherhood strong.
O Party of Lenin, the stength of the people,
To Communism's triumph lead us on!

In the victory of Communism's immortal ideal,
We see the future of our dear land.
And to her fluttering scarlet banner,
Selflessly true we always shall stand!

Sing to the Motherland, home of the free,
Bulwark of peoples in brotherhood strong.
O Party of Lenin, the stength of the people,
To Communism's triumph lead us on!

Written: S. V. Mikhalkov
Music: A. V. Aleksandrov
Date: 1977 (original version written in 1944, mentions of Stalin later removed).
Lyrics: Also view the lyrics in Russian (Courtesy of the Funet Russian Archives)
Transcription/Markup: Brian Basgen
Distributed under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.

For more Soviet Sounds visit, where these lyrics were found. The author of this message is not responsible for any FBI files that may be started on you as result of your use of this link.

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Tuesday, August 23, 2005

50/50 Fiction Contest

If you're a writer of fiction, the good folks over at Night Train are having a contest. For ten dollars, you can submit two pieces of fiction. Neither story can be more than 1,000 words. Winner gets more than $250 -- don't know the total, as it increases with every submission. Judge is Robert Boswell, whose early novels were among the many books that first won me over to literary fiction.

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Now with 5 times more personal content!

I've been meaning to update my project introduction, but only now that Neeka's Backlog has linked to it did I find the bother. I didn't add anything scandalous, mind you (British upbringing and all) but I did begin to explain what personal connection I have to the world of online marriage brokers.

On another note, in the morning I'm off to San Francisco, where I hope to pick up my Ukrainian visa (after a trip to the Consulate earlier this month) and then apply for my Russian.

Wish me luck with the Russians tomorrow. I'm afraid I might meet Kafka at the information window. Consider this from the Consulate's website:

Processing Period Multiple Re-Entry Visa
Not less than Six Business Days* $100
Not less than Three Business Days* $300

Not less than six business days” means that it will take more than six business days to issue any type of visa (currently - two weeks, subject to change). “Not less than three business days” means that it will take more than three business days to issue any type of visa (currently - one week, subject to change), provided that your application is approved by the Consulate. The day when paperwork is submitted or received by mail does not count. We start to review your application after we receive complete set of required documents. Same day and next business day processing is possible only if current volume of work allows.

So it's $100 for not less than six business days, by which you mean I could expect to receive my visa in as many as seven days, nine counting the weekend, or perhaps as long as two and a half weeks, in which case I'll bloody well miss my flight? Subject to change of course? Yes, well, perhaps I'd better pay $300 and hope it's processed within six business days, though if you proved that quick, I'd have half a mind to ask for $200 back, wouldn't I?

God help me if a bureaucrat and Google intersect here before I find the safe return of my passport.

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Monday, August 22, 2005

K1 Fiancee Visas: a statistical breakdown (2002-2004)

From the start of fiscal year 2002 to the end of fiscal year 2004 (this is how the government tells time, people), over 5,000 K1 fiancee visas were issued within the Russian Federation, while neighboring Ukraine had more than 3,700 issued to its citizens. This combined total accounts for about ten percent of the 88,696 K1 visas issued worldwide during that same period. (Asia leads the way, receiving approximately half of all such visas issued in any given year. During the last three fiscal years, Vietnam received the most in Asia (11,792) followed by the Phillipines (10,697) and then China (6,224).

While Asia sets the pace on a global level, the Former Soviet Union commandeers the attention in Europe. Of the ten European countries that received the most K1 visas in the years 2002, 2003 and 2004, at least four were former Soviet Republics (Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Uzbekistan) and another two were former Soviet satelites (Romania and Poland). Perhaps most impressive is the number of visas issued to tiny, impoverished Moldova, a country ravaged by the ills of human trafficking, and Belarus, which is still a relatively closed society.

The yearly breakdowns follow:

2002, Nonimmigrants admitted to the United States on a K1 Visa (by country)

1,447 - Russia*
1,266 - Ukraine*
961 - United Kingdom
287 - Germany
241 - Poland
202 - Romania
117 - France
111 - Netherlands
95 - Belarus
80 - Moldova

Other former Soviet Republics: Kazakhstan (56), Latvia (48), Lithuania (46), Uzbekistan (46), Kyrgyzstan (36), Armenia (25), Estonia (21), Azerbaijan (14), Georgia (7), Turkmenistan (4) and Tajikistan (0).

* 442 visas were also issued for dependents of Russians receiving K1 visas. 524 such visas were issued to Ukrainians.

2003, Nonimmigrants admitted to the United States on a K1 Visa (by country)

1,814 - Russia
1,195 - Ukraine
976 - United Kingdom
253 - Germany
240 - Poland
192 - Romania
135 - Belarus
131 - France
80 - Ireland
65 - Uzbekistan

Former Soviet Republics: Moldova (76), Kazakhstan (61), Lithuania (57), Kyrgyzstan (48), Armenia (47), Latvia (44), Estonia (31), Azerbaijan (12), Georgia (11), Turkmenistan (6) and Tajikstan (Disclosure standards not met).

*Only six visas were issued to children of Ukrainians who had a pending immigration visa, such as a K1. Disclosure standards were not met in Russia. If you know what changed this year as opposed to the previous year, when there were so many more dependent-visas issued, please comment here.

2004, Nonimmigrants admitted to the United States on a K1 Visa (by country)

2,046 - Russia*
1,400 - Ukraine*
1,082 - United Kingdom
345 - Germany
323 - Romania
293 - Poland
152 - Belarus
130 - France
102 - Uzbekistan
98 - The Netherlands

Former Soviet Republics: Moldova (85), Kazakhstan (81), Lithuania (64), Kyrgyzstan (57), Latvia (48), Armenia (37), Estonia (27), Azerbaijan (21), Georgia (16), Turkmenistan (3), and Tajikistan (Disclosure standards not met).

* 10 visas issued to Russian dependents of those with a pending immigration visa. Six such visas issued to Ukrainians.

To put this into further perspective, in 1998, the year before everything went dot-com, 13,748 K1 visas were granted worldwide, with only 3,976 given to Europeans and 1,828 of those distributed within the Former Soviet Union (though for some reason the Baltic States were not included in that statistical grouping -- they had an additional 106 between them, with the fewest, 12, in beautiful Estonia, which I had the pleasure of visiting last summer. I wouldn't leave Estonia either. I can't wait to go back.)

For more information on the K1 Visa process -- in short, it ain't easy -- visit the webpage of the US Embassy in Kyiv.

All statistics supplied by the Office of Immigration Statistics, a division of the Department of Homeland Security that is in dire need of a new name. Come to America, where you're not just a citizen -- you're a statistic!

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Sunday, August 21, 2005

Nostalgia TV

I've had this idea a couple years now: television stations that recreate the past. I don't mean something like TV Land, which could just as easily be called the Revisionist History Channel, what with it only focusing on shows that were popular. I mean the past, uncut and uncensored, aired again for your viewing pleasure. You could tune into Channel 1943, say, and just get that little thingy until something came on in the evening, or you could click over to TV 1964 and mark your calendar to make sure you didn't miss the Beatles on Ed Sullivan in February. I thought it'd a huge success, appealing to both the left's unsatiable desire for kitsch and the right's social anxiety. Don't want to see Janet Jackson's nipple on the new plasma TV? Fine. Program it so nothing after 1958 plays.

It was yet another of my brilliant get-rich quick ideas that went nowhere, slowly, and if anything amounted to a net loss rather than a profit, considering the amount of time I spent pondering (and now writing about) it. And now I read this, that Russians have established not a missile gap, but a nostalgia gap. In other words, their TV has already retreated into the past.

Boris Nemtsov watches to recall a time when state television had more freedom. Mikhail Gorbachev watches to see what he missed during his busy years as president. Vladimir Ananich and scores of others just watch to relive their youth.

Ananich is the brains behind Nostalgia, one of two hugely successful cable television channels that offer viewers a trip back to the Brezhnev and Gorbachev eras with a lineup of classic Soviet television programs. The other channel is Retro TV.

Viewers wake up to perform morning exercises along with the same trainers who put the nation through their paces 30 years ago, listen to the weather from the same date three decades ago and watch news from when the Soviet Union was a superpower.

"Some viewers," the Moscow Times article continues, "say that Nostalgia and Retro TV, which have been launched over the past 12 months, are the freest and most dissident channels now on the air."

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Friday, August 19, 2005

Updated Links

For those of you who have visited the marriage agency sites and looked at the profiles of the 1000s of Ukrainian girls aching for the likes of you, you might be under the impression that most girls from Kherson are non-smoking tea-totalers. Ahem………

I was browsing through a new marriage site that opened in Kherson the other day—not for me—for a friend (actually it was, but for pricing structures). The girl of the week was this 5’ 11 beauty who goes to the university, a girl I know enough to smile at and say hello to. Amidst the usual malarkey about her liking knitting, cooking, and keeping a cozy home, was the fact that she neither smokes nor drinks. As with all facts in Ukraine, there is some wiggle room, which might explain why, two days earlier, I smiled at and said hello to her at JH while she was drinking brandy (I refuse to call the local swill cognac) and chain-smoking ridiculously thin cigarettes. She also wasn’t wearing an apron, carrying knitting needles, or doing some Martha Stewart/ Deliah Smith thing with a glue gun.

This was excerpted (with the link added by me) from My Life in Kherson, one of the several Ukraine-blogs or news outlets that I added to the links section. If you know of any more good Ukraine blogs or sites, comment here. I'd like to know about it.

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Thursday, August 18, 2005

"A Lion Stalking His Prey"

Photo by Dan DeLong
Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Story by Chris O'Connell
Court TV

MOUNT HOLLY, N.J. - Lester Stuart Barney was like a "lion stalking his prey" as he lay in wait outside his son's day-care facility for his estranged mail-order bride, a prosecutor said Tuesday during opening statements in Barney's murder trial.

Only hours after his wife Alla, a Ukrainian immigrant he met on an online matchmaking service, won custody of their 4-year-old-son Daniel, Barney viciously killed her with a knife, Burlington County Assistant Prosecutor Robert Van Gilst told jurors.

"He comes up behind her, like the predator he is, and attacks Alla from behind. And like that predator, he goes for the throat," Van Gilst said, noting that the victim's wounds point to a surprise attack. "This is was an unprovoked attack by a man with murder in his heart."

Barney, 60, is charged with first-degree murder for Sept. 29, 2003, slaying of Alla Barney, a 26-year-old computer engineer. If convicted, he faces life in prison without parole.

(Story continues here.)

Barney's is the third murder of a "mail-order bride" from the Former Soviet Union that I know of, joining those of 21-year-old Iryna Singerman, who married Ron Singerman at the age of 18 and is believed to have been killed by her 58-year-old lover last month, and Anastasia Solovieva King, an ethnic Russian who left Kyrgyzstan at the age of 18 to marry Indle

Barney's is the third murder of a "mail-order bride" from the Former Soviet Union.

King, then 20 years her senior. King, a Seattle area man, killed Solovieva two years after their marriage, in 2000.

At one time, prosecutors alleged King's accomplice in the murder was his housemate and 21-year-old homosexual lover, a convicted sex criminal, though no mention of this is made in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer article announcing King's 28-year sentence.
King also spent over $50,000 on his divorce to his first "mail-order bride," and had apparently decided to do anything to keep from having to foot such a bill again.

Meanwhile, Iryna Singerman's alleged killer, Brian Cullen, has reportedly fled the country with the 14-year-old boy who had been living with him.

If you know of any other women from the FSU who have been murdered after emigrating to the United States by way of an internet-arranged marriage, please comment here or drop me an email. I'd like to compare the rate of incidence with the national average.

The nation's murder rate dropped slightly last year after rising throughout President Bush's first term in office. Raw numbers won't be released until the fall, but in the past the national murder rate was about .04 per 1,000 people , according to a United Nations survey covering the years 1998-2000. That makes the US rate a little less than half the rate in Ukraine, and one-fifth the rate in Russia (though to be fair, these were terrible years in Russia, what with the collapse of the ruble and all the lawlessness that inspired).

To help supply some other numbers, I can say that in a 1999 report to Congress, the INS estimated that 20,000 women had emigrated to the United States as a "mail-order bride" since 1995. And those numbers can only have gone up since then, as internet usage has become more ubiquitous.

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Wednesday, August 17, 2005

The New New Journalism

For the first time in the last five years I find I'm more interested in nonfiction than fiction. That goes for reading and writing, and covers a time period when I was in fact paid to focus on nonfiction as a journalist. Perhaps it's just another chapter in the story of how I've let my novel languish, or perhaps I'm just enjoying travel literature and literary journalism more than anything else these days. I don't know. But it came on quick and sudden, because the last class I took before leaving UC Davis this spring was a creative nonfiction workshop, and I hated it. But then again, it was treated largely like a fiction workshop, and so it's only now that I'm embracing the differences of nonfiction that I'm being drawn toward it in such a strong way.

The latest book I'm into is The New New Journalism: Conversations with America's Best Nonfiction Writers on Their Craft, which is like a university between two covers. If you're interested in writing creative nonfiction, you simply have to buy it. Among the heavy-weights interviewed are Fast Food Nation's Eric Schlosser, Moneyball's Michael Lewis, along with Lawrence Weschler, Susan Orlean, and Jon Krakauer. Each tells you how they find stories, how they research, how they conduct interviews, and how they gain trust, among many other things.

One exchange I read this morning from Schlosser's interview speaks to my fiction side:

What do you think of the prospects for this kind of writing (literary journalism)?

I'm optimistic. The success of Fast Food Nation has been incredibly gratifying, and I hope it paves the way for other writers to do similar kinds of investigations. Right now the nonfiction writers are getting involved with the events of the day in a way that fiction writers aren't. There is a sense of engagement with the big issues, of writers taking real risks. But, having said that, you never know when the next Zola or Steinbeck or Dos Passos is going to come along and write fiction that is equally connected to the moment.

A couple things struck me about that: First, with this being the Information Age, it makes sense that people are more interested in "information" than "stories."

Second, Fast Food Nation was a touchstone book, something that had the whole culture talking. It wouldn't even be an exaggeration to say it changed my life -- it was the inspiration for my (languishing) novel-in-progress, and completely reshaped my already particular way of thinking about food. Schlosser drove my thinking to a new level. Before reading "Why the fries taste so good," which is longer in book-form, I hadn't thought about artificial flavors and what they meant. All of a sudden, it seemed like a mind-body debate. Am I eating food, or only the flavor of food?

I can't recall a work of fiction that has led my thinking in new directions like that. Then again, fiction has moved me emotionally (where non-fiction often hasn't) and helped me better understand the world in that way, so maybe the one supplies what the other cannot give.

I wish I could quantify this with numbers, but I'd say Fast Food Nation sold far more copies than the nearest comparable book of fiction. What recent novel or short story collection had the country talking as much as Fast Food Nation? Maybe I'm not remembering one where I should. Do I have to go back to Catch-22? Or perhaps The Corrections, though the thing with that book is, the buzz was just as much about Oprah and scandal as it was about the novel's (wonderful) content.

Third, Schlosser mentioned Zola, Steinbeck and Dos Passos. They're all realists (though Dos Passos certainly had a bag of tricks). Which brings me to another quote from The New New Journalism, this from the preface, in which the author talks about Tom Wolfe (whose fiction I find unreadable) "inventing" New Journalism in the 60s:

He argued that the New Journalism (and its practitioners, such as Michael Herr, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion, John Sack, and Gay Talese) was not a new stage in American journalism, but instead a revival of the European tradition of literary realism--a tradition unjustly ignored by a generation of callow, navel-gazing MFAs ... In one fell swoop, Wolfe simultaneously "dethroned" the novel, broke from American journalism, and claimed the mantle of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European novel. Literary realism--particularly the work of Fielding, Sterne, Smollet, Dickens, Zola, and Balzac--became his cri de guerre.

Considering everything, I'd gather the courage to say the mass reading public either wants the truth, the sensationalized truth (the seriousness of nonfiction is measured by its distance from the check-out counter), or the truth taken to the level of absurdity. The public wants to be brought into a story and know how to read it. They either want to say, Okay, this is real, or understand that it's so over the top -- I'm thinking of Catch-22 again -- that it's okay to laugh. Let me in on the joke, they say.

I don't know. It seems I'm always caught between two choices, two projects, two ideas, and now it's the novel and my book about Ukraine, so this is all probably just a writer thinking out loud, wondering why he's not working on one thing while he's working on another. My thinking will probably go back and forth, ad infinitum, because just a few days ago, while reading that "Truth is Stronger than Fiction" in The Times, I thought the author had it all wrong, and that fiction was still king.

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State of the Blog Address (and the Godless Communist)

So: I've been using this blog as a place to compile information that may be useful to me during the writing of my book. I don't know what kind of internet connection I'll have in Ukraine (probably an internet cafe) so it's best I do all this hunting now, when I'm off the clock and in the comfort of my own home.

I leave for Kyiv September 10, and at that point the face of the blog should change quite a bit -- primarily, it will have more original content, along the lines of the two-part interview I did last month, with elements of travelogue.

For the time being, I hope you find something to enjoy. Tonight, my internet crawl led me to The Godless Communist, a comic book put out by the Catholic Guild in the early-1960s. The first installment tells the story of what life in the USSA would be like -- that's the Union of Soviet States of America.

Here's a sample bit of dialogue:

Mr. Jones, the government has decided you will work in northern Wisconsin at a lumber mill there. You will leave tomorrow by train. If you resist, you will be arrested ... Your wife will be moved to an apartment here in Chicago, near her factory. We will allow you to visit her sometime.

But with my wife working, who will care for the children?

The government will take care of children in special schools and nurseries. They will see their mother on weekends. Now get going!

Other installments dramatize the power struggles following the death of Lenin and Stalin. The series ends with a porcine-looking, two-faced Khrushchev trampling over international treaties and seeking only one thing: world domination. But even if Communism is described as "truly the work of the Devil," we are to remember "that Communists are our brothers in Christ. We should hate Communism, but not the Russian people who are victims of it." Or in the words of Mac Dre, don't hate the player, hate the game.

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Tuesday, August 16, 2005

The End of the World as We Know It

If you predict it, it won't come. See, the Millerites, the Hale-Bopp Comet Cult, and believers in Y2K and Y1K.

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Monday, August 15, 2005

Political Erotics and the Blacklisted Woman

"Political erotics are a new genre that I have discovered," he said. "The film is about politics. It makes a political statement, they don't just [have sex]."

So says Alexei Mitrofanov, deputy leader of Russia's Liberal Democratic Party and the director of the upcoming Yulia, a blue movie -- okay, porno -- that will include two actors making love in an attack helicopter high over the Caucases (eat your heart out, Sigmund Freud). One of the actors, Elena Berkova, will wear the trade-mark braids of Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, photo above, while the other will bear a strong resemblance to Georgian Prime Minister Mikhail Saakashvili. Both are leaders of countries that have recently broken away from Russia and re-positioned their countries closer to the west.

Berkova came to fame in Russia as a participant on the reality show Дом-2, which is hosted by Russia's Paris Hilton, Ksenia Sobchak. In the show, the 20-year old Berkova identified herself as the director of a marriage agency. That proved false, but it does seem Berkova has one connection to a marriage agency: she's on a blacklist reserved for women who've scammed money from western men. (It's possible some other woman used her name, just like I might tell an Afghan pen-pal my name is Shaquille O'Neal, but all the same, it was enough for me to find the connection strong enough to make a post here.)

To read more about Mitrofanov's movie, go to the Globe and Mail.

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Sunday, August 14, 2005

Death of a Marriage, continued

LA County prosecutors on Thursday charged 58-year-old Brian Joseph Cullen with murder. Cullen, who is believed to have fled to Mexico with a fourteen year-old boy, is accused of using a baseball bat to kill Irina (Iryna) Singerman, who met and married her husband Ron through a marriage agency in Kherson, Ukraine.

Ron Singerman, a certified public account and member of the Church of Scientology, says in the LA Independent that he's upset with press reports that suggest his deceased wife was a model leading a double life -- and even possibly connected to the Southland's porn industry.

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Friday, August 12, 2005

The Death of a Marriage

Well, you are the first to know outside of Kherson, but about 2 hours ago, around 5:00PM local time, I proposed to this wonderful girl Irina that I met and she accepted!!!

Weston (Rogers, operator of Russian Women Video), this is the culmination of lots of planning and research, including, for example all those chat room meetings and discussions, e.g. Elena valuable advice about body language, as Irina's was super positive with me from day #1!

Your friend, Ron
Culver City, California November 4, 2002

The above quote and photo were found on the testimonials page at Russian Women Video, an internet marriage agency. Ron and Irina are one of the agency's success stories; or they were until Irina failed to come home late last month and "financial documents belonging to the aspiring model were among the blood-soaked items found in garbage bags dumped in a trash bin behind a Woodland Hills strip mall."

I've read of several "mail order brides" being murdered or abused (see this article and this previous post), but unlike those cases, this one does not involve the husband. Instead, the police are searching for Irina's lover, a 59-year-old who is believed to have fled to Mexico. To read more about him and this case go here.

An AP article on the murder can be found at the Kiev Ukraine News Blog, where an anonymous poster also wrote this in the comments section:

This is rather sad news. I knew Irina well from the time I lived in Kherson where she came from, and also knew of her dishonest ways. She was typically one of the so many Ukrainian girls who was out to get as much money as she cold, no matter who she lied to or hurt. Prior to her moving to the U.S., I tried to warn Ron Singerman about her dishonesty, even mailing him copies of all of the e-mails she was sending to different men, getting them to send her money based on her promises to come and see them. I spoke with him after sending him the package. He said he was still going to continue his relationship with her since they were engaged. Too bad she continued her behaviour. Some people think you can always be dishonest and hurtful towards and get away with it. Obviously this is not the case.

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Thursday, August 11, 2005

Return of Turkmenbashi

I can't get enough of Saparmurat Niyazov, the previously mentioned President-for-life of Turkmenistan, who looks a right bit like a certain Vegas singer. Also known as Turkmenbashi, Leader of the Turkmen, Niyazov has:

* ordered the construction of an ice palace in the middle of his desert country;

* loves melons;

* dislikes gold teeth;

* and is revered by at least one cobbler.

Go to the Turkmeni capital of Ashgabat and you'll find a statue of Turkmenbashi that rotates throughout the day so that it always faces the sun. The man's also a poet-philosopher, having revealed a way to remove "the complexities and anguishes from day to day living" in his book the Rukhnama, which is "on par with the Bible and Koran," required reading for Turkmeni children, and excerpted alongside the words of Mohammed on the walls of Ashgabat's newest mosque.

As for the poetry, Niyazov debuted in 2002 with the collection "Let My Turkmen People Prosper," which was soon translated into Russian and praised by certain elements of the Muscovy literati. Ever modest, Turkmenbashi turned down a request from the People's Council to be awarded the title "Great Turkmen Writer." However, he did allow them to rename January in his honor (and September in honor of his Rukhnama, now widely translated itself). He's also lent his face to the country's currency and vodka bottles.

Here's a nice Turkmeni travelogue with pictures, which at least shows that one American knows that the natural gas-rich Turkmenistan borders Afghanistan and Iran, making it a country not to be forgotten in America. Now if only the NY Times was so well informed, because how is it that the BBC can devote so much space to Turkmenbashi, while since 1996 the Times has only four mentions?

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Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Less Reputable Than a Casino

Chris Sewell recently went on eBay and auctioned off his family's advertising rights.

He convinced five family members including his fiancee and mom to wear T-shirts 24-7 for 30 days to plug their would-be backer.

It started at a penny and 106 bids later the winner was declared: $1006 US from Golden Palace Casino.

Sewell admits there were a few tense moments when a Russian mail order bride service had taken the lead but in the end the casino came out on top.

But where is the used car salesman and the lawyer?

see full story here

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Gimme all your Lenin, all your hugs and kisses too

There are things to be said about the commodification of sexuality in a hyper-capitalist world. Important things, especially now that Communism, an ideology that failed for its lack of a catwalk, lies in the morgue waiting for North Korea and Cuba to identify the body. But these things, however important, must wait on another day, for I cannot hope to be as eloquent as this picture. Has there ever been a better dialogue between American Culture and Soviet than the one presented here?

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Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Say "Trust Me!" in Russian

In the Russian city of Ekaterinburg, known as Sverdlovsk during Soviet times, you'll find the marriage agency Alexander's Tender Ladies. The name is not the reason I'm posting tonight, but let's linger there for just a moment. Alexander's Tender Ladies. It brings to mind both soft-core pornography that ultimately disappoints and fast food that can't be traced back to a single identifiable animal part. The guy with the phone is the man behind this enterprise, and surrounded as he is by the beautiful Natalia, Irina and Julia, he can't help but bring to mind John Forsythe's Charlie and all the many possibilities of a 70s-induced fantasy.

But enough. On to the day's point of interest, a compendium of "tender words and phrases" written by Alexander Korjev and Lilia Meighan, a Kharkovite who married an American in 1999. Over the course of seventeen online chapters, our authors teach us those "delicate words useful when you are trying to phone your lady," "tender forms of expressing your ignorance and incomprehension," and of course "how to tell your lady to marry you with tender Russian words."

Did anyone ever sing such tender words so beautifully before? Well, if Barry White had "Can't Get Enough of Your Love, Babe," Alexander and Lilia have plenty of hits of their own. Consider,

the vaguely clinical:

English: We feel so good together. Let's make a family.
Russian: Нам так хорошо вместе. Давай создадим семью.
Pronounciation: Nam tak ha-ra-shO vmEs-te. Da-vAy soz-da-dIm sem-yU.

the auto-erotic:

E: Never in my life I felt myself so good.
R: Мне никогда в жизни не было так хорошо.
P: Mne ni-kog-dA v zshIz-ni nE-bee-lo tak ha-ra-shO.

and the bloody:

E: I swear I'll give you my heart.
R: Я клянусь, что отдам тебе своё сердце.
P: Ya klya-nUs', chto ot-dAm te-bE sva-yO sEr-tse.

Before you damn me to hell for making fun of someone's second language (and before I do the same, for surely I'll be repaid in kind for this when I stumble around Ukraine with my own mangled Russian) I'll say one thing in my defense: if the shades of love are hard to understand in a shared language, how difficult is it when you have to jump an unknown divide? If that still doesn't win you back, let me offer you a glimpse at Chapter 14, which I found the least humorous. This chapter, entitled "tender words to calm and cheer up your lady," includes translations for such English phrases as "Everything is under control," "You know, it must be like this," and "Trust me."

With that, I call it a night.

Fortune Cookie photo found at Happy Go Larry

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Saturday, August 06, 2005

In which the author introduces his perspective

Until I return to my computer Monday, this will be it for the weekend, a couple excerpts from Cash on Delivery: The Mail-order bride industry exploits women, another simple-minded, one-sided article on the issue I hope to more fully explore. It first appeared in the November 2002 issue of Perspective, Harvard-Radcliffe's Liberal Monthly. The author, Mae Bunagan, calls "the Mail Order Bride" business "one of the most sexist and degrading businesses operating today."

Proponents of the industry claim that the women are not at a disadvantage in these transactions because they have willingly given their information to be placed in the catalogues: “There is no such thing as a ‘mail order bride' or ‘mail-order bride company!' In reality, it is the ladies who do the choosing by selecting which men they wish to respond back to.” However, even if women “voluntarily” enter these situations, they make the decision as a last resort out of the need for money and a better life-not only for themselves, but often for their family as well.

Bunagan believes countries around the world should "outlaw this industry and make participation in it a crime," or at the very least force governments to "hold mail-order bride companies accountable for the marriages that they engineer." In addition:

These companies should be required to provide support services to help women adjust to their new countries or protection if they are abused. The companies can pay for language classes, help women develop marketable skills, and provide a shelter to which they can turn to if they are abused {author's note: All of which should prove so costly that only the Sultan of Brunei will be able to afford to meet and marry a foreign-national through the internet.)

Even the strictest regulations, however, fail to address the fundamental problem of the mail-order bride industry. It is a form of sexual exploitation that is no different from prostitution. In fact, it may even be worse than prostitution because the marriage contract and immigration laws give it a more permanent nature. Impoverished women surrender their lives and sexuality because they hope to obtain economic security-but their dreams for a better life often turn into the cruelest nightmares."

Now, I'm proud to veer away from the mainstream when it comes to politics. I've voted for enough third-party candidates to form a support group. But if Bunagan's views represent the left, I'll be glad to fall off the political spectrum on this one, because her recommendations strike me as wrong on so many levels. First, she'd have the government establish a Bureau of Marriages to determine the proper way of meeting a spouse. National dating services would be okay, she says, but not marriage agencies. "Dating services," she explains, "attempt to create relationships of equals, while the power dynamic in the mail-order bride industry strongly favors the men." If this is so, tell that to the young woman who just posted her bio on looking for her chance to leave Anywhere, Oklahoma. And then realize that you're being as xenophobic as Pat Robertson, asking us not to erect a wall to keep out "The Mexicans," but one to stop thousands of foreign-born nationals from emigrating to the United States in the only way available to them, through marriage.

Second, by holding marriage agencies accountable for the marriages they "engineer," Bunagan would not only institute a culture of fear and suspicion, but she'd have third-parties held responsible for the actions of others. Under this logic, if I introduced Female X to Male Y and Female X killed Male Y, or vice-versa, the family of the deceased could hold me accountable. It's the sort of high-minded, soft-in-the-center thinking that can only be bred in carpeted rooms with dim lighting and a portrait of Charles William Bellingham III hanging over the fireplace. Government can't eliminate all risk from our lives; it shouldn't even hope to do so, as this would be akin to eliminating our free will and shuttling us into the channels that lead to the "proper choices" and the "good life." That theory on control was tried in the 20th century, and the color it flew was red.

Finally, while Bunagan acknowledges there is no data on the nature of abuse by men who marry "mail-order brides," she says "there is reason to believe the incidence of abuse is high." She defends this by saying "American law enforcement officials agree abuse in these relationships can be expected based on these men's needs for control." Expected? That's a very all-inclusive word, suggesting abuse will be borne of every relationship. And yet despite calling out every person who may marry in this way, she fails to name a single "American law enforcement official" to substantiate her claims. So unless Bunagan went before the Secret Policeman's Ball and called for a voice vote, I don't know where that "reason to believe" exists except inside her own head. What evidence of abuse she does provide can be found in published newspaper reports:

One such tragedy occurred in March 1995. Timothy Blackwell originally met Susana Remerata after seeing her picture in a catalog called “Asian Encounters.” The two wrote to each other for a year, then met in the Philippines and got married. Soon after their wedding, Tim became abusive and tried to choke Susana on more than one occasion. Ultimately, Tim shot and killed his pregnant wife and two of her friends in the King County Courthouse in Seattle, Washington, as their divorce proceedings were about to begin. Another tragedy occurred in Seattle, this one in September 2000. A thirty-eight year old man named Ingle King, Jr. strangled his 20-year-old wife, Anastasia, to death. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that in her diaries, Anastasia wrote that King withheld her college tuition, restricted her time with friends, sexually assaulted her, and threatened her with deportation or death if she tried to leave.

But if this were reason enough to outlaw the internet marriage agencies, you could also find proof enough to outlaw the institution of marriage itself. Murder happens everyday, in every sphere of life.

I had hoped to keep my perspective quietly off to the side throughout all of this, and I may still, perhaps even going so far as to delete this post. But I've been reading a lot of literature on the "mail order bride" phenomenon lately, much of it written from an American feminist perspective, and there seems to be one fatal flaw woven throughout: an absolute inability to consider the point of view of the Ukrainian or Russian woman coming to the United States. The feminist perspectives I've read begin to show concern for a woman upon her arrival to the United States; I've seen not a single line devoted to what that foreign-national's life is like now, or how it can be improved outside of a marriage arranged through the internet.

If you're curious, I don't know where I stand on this issue. I know at least one internet marriage that seems to have proven successful, this one involving a former landlord, and I've also heard of other happy endings. But I know there is abuse out there, and what's more, I know it doesn't always get meted out by the man upon the woman; I've been told by people in Ukraine that many "mail-order brides" know the divorce laws of the fifty states better than any attorney specializing in the unholy side of holy matrimony. If anything, my preconception is this: it's a complicated issue, no less so than Stalin was to Churchill: "a riddle wrapped within a mystery inside an enigma."

That's why I'm going to Ukraine, so I can speak from first-hand knowledge rather than a political platform. I want to see Ukrainian village life to get a better understanding of the culture the women leave behind; already I've heard that American men offer Ukrainian women "more respect" and better treatment than their Ukrainian counterparts. But I also don't want to pigeon-hole the Ukrainian man as abusive, overly-demanding, or alcoholic; I want to speak with those who've lost their lovers to western men with whom they can't compete economically, and to speak to the others left behind -- daughters, son, mothers and fathers, friends. There are a lot of stories to tell, I'm saying. I'd like to tell them all.

That said, I'm glad I ripped into Senator Santorum the other day, because that should show I'm not of his camp. And I certainly hope I'm not called an "MRA," or a men's rights activist, a term I first saw used here. Because there are elements of the feminist arguments with which I strongly agree. For one, if a man has a history of abuse or violent crime, he should be required to present this information to the woman he plans to marry. A marriage should be no different than a gun; perform a background check, maybe advise the parties involved on how to best prepare for the bedroom or the firing range, and hope for the best. But still, I believe it's wrong to call for the elimination of a form of marriage because it may lead to abuse, especially if you refuse to consider the culture of abuse and deprivation that these women are possibly leaving behind. If you do that, it seems you might cause more harm than you hope to prevent.

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Friday, August 05, 2005

From Russia, For Love

From Russia, for love
She sought a fairy-tale life in America. She got something altogether different.

Atlantic Journal Constitution
Published on: 12/04/04

Those who hear Katerina Sheridan's story wonder how she could have been so foolish. How could she marry a man she hardly knew and go to a land she had never seen?

But the college-educated woman is neither stupid nor naive. Whatever doubts crossed her mind, whatever risks she knew she was taking, paled in the face of a lifelong dream and the desire to escape a harsh reality.

Like young women everywhere, Katerina grew up with the hope that someday she would find her prince. Her personal fairy tale had a Russian motif: The hero would brave the cold of Siberia to rescue her from her homeland, a place with little opportunity and little hope for love.

Katerina became what many call a mail-order bride, marketed along with thousands of other "beautiful young ladies" by a company based in Atlanta.

Her journey began when a friend suggested she submit her photograph to a catalog produced by European Connections. The 12-year-old, family-run business calls itself an international marriage broker, "the first and largest" to arrange romance tours overseas. Its Web site boasts a database of more than 30,000 women, all from the former Soviet Union, making it one of the largest mail-order bride companies in the country.

Katerina was 22, tall, blond and striking, and she described herself in the catalog: "Live a healthy lifestyle, am romantic, kind, honest, faithful, loyal." She also possessed what many men want in a mail-order bride: "old-fashioned values."

In the world of international matchmaking, that phrase is meant to describe what some people say American women lack. It means the women put their husbands first, rather than careers. They're sexy, well-groomed and would not be seen in public wearing sweat pants or a baseball cap. And they have no expectations of being treated as a man's equal.

They typically come from impoverished countries where they have fewer rights or opportunities and where violence against women is often condoned. American men appeal to them because they have heard they are more respectful of women, more devoted to their children and more capable of providing for their families. Each year, a few foreign brides lure men into marriage under false pretenses, then abandon them once safely in the United States. But most are simply searching for a better life.

Like Katerina, these women often know little about the men they're marrying. While U.S. immigration laws require foreign brides to undergo intense scrutiny of all aspects of their lives, the men who court them need reveal only what they choose.

Six years after becoming an international commodity, Katerina's strawberry-blond hair is darker and less coiffed, her makeup more subtle than in her catalog photo. Her wide-spaced brown eyes, pert nose and full cheeks are the same, but her smile appears more genuine than the alluring gaze in the photo. And instead of wearing a low-cut black blouse, she's dressed this day in khaki cargo pants and a T-shirt.

Her story is nothing like the one she envisioned — not a fairy tale, but a cautionary one. She's willing to have it told, in part, because so many women who came of age during the fall of communism and the breakup of the Soviet Union are searching for husbands the same way she did. A study this year found 119,649 listed on Web-based marriage sites, 655 of them from Katerina's hometown.

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Thursday, August 04, 2005

Non-Impudent Music for the Masses

Looking for music that is "modest and ambitious but not impudent?" Perhaps something that is "over-free and melancholy," like Moscow itself? Then look no further than this blog devoted to Soviet and contemporary Russian music. Not all the links work, and some load so slowly you'll forget what you've downloaded by the time you get there, but some are really nice, like She Smiles (the Sex remix) by LP, a very non-impudent group out of Kaliningrad that kind of reminds me of A-ha. Then there's this by the Russian folk-singer Palagea which is just stunning. Try the song Lyubo, Bratcy, Lyubo.

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Mr. Mail Order Bride Orderer

Bud Light has already honored many "Real Men of Genius": Mr. Push-Up Bra Inventor, Mr. Underwear Inspector, Mr. Nudisty Colony Activity Coordinator. Now the latest installment in the ad campaign gives us Mr. Mail Order Bride Orderer (audio clip available through the above link).

Tom Bickler, pictured above, sings in the commercials. You may remember him as the lead singer of Survivor, who gave us Duh! Duh-duh-duh! Duh-duh-duh, duh-duh-duhhhh! At which point Eye of the Tiger gets far too complicated to transliterate here. So, the commerical (with Bickler singing in parentheses):

Bud Light Presents Real Men of Genius.
(Real Men of Genius!)
Today we salute you Mr. Mail Order Bride Orderer.
(Mr. Mail Order Bride Orderer!)
Some men flip through a catalog looking for furniture, you flip through a catalog looking for someone to CLEAN the furniture.
(I don't do windows!)
Nothing says, "I will love you forever" like a quick swipe of a credit card at the altar.
(What's your payment plan?)
Women wait their whole lives for a man to say, "I do". In your case, "I do ... agree to pay the sum of 3000 American dollars."
(Let's talk annulment!)
So crack open an ice cold Bud Light O' Catalog Casanova. Your spouse may be full price, but you'll always be our better half.
(Mr. Mail Order Bride Orderer!)

Jay Patches, whose Russian Women's Guide bio says he's been to the Former Soviet Union nine times, reacts to the ad on that site's message board by saying, "Oh, I wish it was only $3,000!!"

Amanda Marcotte at the very chatty Pandagon blog, one of two feminist blogs discussing the ad, is less enthusiastic, wondering if we should "write letters now or wait for the Mr. Wife Beater spot first?"

Echidne at Echidne of the Snakes says she sees what's funny about the spot, but also thinks "the unfunny parts swamp it totally." "It should have had a crack about how the Bud Light will come handy when the guy is digging the grave for this bride while waiting to order the next one," she says.

Just to show that some people can't write comedy.

Hmm. Many interesting things are said about the "Mail Order Bride" phenomenon over at Pandagon, so I'll have to return to this subject in the next day or two. For now, thanks to Kevin M. for introducing me to Mr. Mail Order Bride Orderer.

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Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Осторожно! Be Careful!

Some time back during the mid-nineties, I woke up on Christmas Morning to find Life's Little Instruction Book in my stocking. I'm that child in the family, the one who needs instructions even after he's fully house-broken and for the most part graduated from college. Learn to listen: Opportunity knocks softly ... Never cut what can be untied ... Don't pee in public.

Yesterday, my sister gave me something that reminded me of that book: an electronic translator that knows 12 languages and something like 400,000 words and phrases. Just push one button and you can learn to say, "Help me!" in Russian. Scroll down a little further and you'll be ready to master, "I'm dizzy." If things look somewhat more dire, try, "I haven't done anything!" And if that doesn't work, go directly to, "I'm calling the police!" If you wish to announce to all and sundry that you are indeed an American, deliver this line with a straight face: "I need an itemized bill for my insurance company." And if you want to show that you are indeed a calmer individual than I am, hit the down arrow once, twice, three times -- make that twenty-nine times in a row -- and then look up to calmly announce, "I've lost my son (daughter)!"

The gift should prove very useful, as it's lighter and more compact than a phrase book and dictionary. It just saddens me that the programmer didn't think to include a Cyrillic version of, "Never cut what can be untied!" Or: "Learn to listen! Opportunity knocks softly!" Because I'd say the quickest way to blend into a foreign country, the quickest way to make people think you are indeed a local, is to act like you're stark raving mad. All you need are a few simple phrases: "Don't major in minor things!" "Think big thoughts, but relish small pleasures!" And then everyone will leave you alone.

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Monday, August 01, 2005

Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon

Okay, when I wondered if there were any contemporary marriage laws as repressive as those dreamed up by Stalin, I was showing my Euro-centric leanings, because of course there are wildly repressive laws.

First I told you about Turkmenistan's $50,000 marriage tax, which was recently rescinded, and now I present you with this litany of horrors, which shows many of the regimes of the Middle East to be either wildly repressive or boldly unsullied by western ideals. As they say, We report, you decide.

Let's start with Iran, where adultery is punishable by death and a girl can be married off at the age of nine. Next on our magical mystery tour is the liberated Constitutional Monarchy of Kuwait, where a girl must be no younger than fifteen before she's married -- though she'll need to be older than 25 if she wants to choose her own spouse. Prior to that, a judge or her father is entrusted with the power to make that selection. As for marrying a non-Kuwaiti citizen, it doesn't matter if you're eight or eighty. You're gonna need to know someone who pumps the oil. There are laws against that.

Dropping down to Africa, you'll see that the United Republic of Tanzania allows girls of any age to be entered into marriage, though only if there is no plan to consumate that marriage before her tweltfh birthday. So much for wanting one of these. In Japan, meanwhile, the age of sexual consent is fourteen, or at least in the more conservative sections of the country; elsewhere it's thirteen. Of course, in just about any self-respecting Japanese city, you can buy "artist panties" from a vending machine. Be sure to bring crisp bills.

On the matter of the age of sexual consent, can someone tell me why the Chilean government thinks it's all right for twelve-year-old girls to have sex with a boy or man no younger than herself, if she then has to wait until she's eighteen before having sex with another female? Chile isn't alone with the young age of consent law. There are creepy websites telling you that twelve is legal in Mexico and Paraguay too. Uncivilized, isn't it? And I mean you too, Canada. No wonder you're so quiet up there. Age of consent: fourteen.

Just once, I'd like to see a government pass a law making the age of consent forty-one. It doesn't have to be a big country. It'd just have to be one brave enough to contribute to the diversity of the human experience.

I'll end with Europe*, birthplace of the Enlightenment, where you should know that you can't get married if you're a twelve year-old living in the Netherlands, but you can avail yourself of that country's laws allowing assisted suicide. Granted, most people move there for the pot.

*I lied. Back to Iran, where according to this , homosexuals caught in the act are given four options: a hanging, a good old-fashioned stoning, a halving by the sword, or a drop "from the highest perch." Imagine that played out on Law & Order:

Lawyer (to Crowd): Actually, there's a higher point on the other end of town.

Crowd-Member: The new McDonald's!

Lawyer: Yes, the Golden Arches ...

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