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.