Russian into Things

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Just in time for Valentine’s Day, I received a mail-order bride catalog in the mail.

Actually, it wasn’t I who received it, but we, as in the Daily Herald. I don’t know to whom it was addressed, or why. We get a lot of things here that no sane person could have ever thought we’d have a news-related use for. Many of these come from publicists, whose job it is to convince newspapers that irrelevant things ought to be put into print. (These publicists succeed a lot of the time, unfortunately, thanks to being well-versed in the art of witchcraft.)

The mail-order bride catalog was accompanied by a press release informing us that A Foreign Affair — the name of this particular company — is “one of the largest and most respected International Introduction Agencies in the world,” though I assume “most respected” is a relative term, in the way that Washington D.C. is one of the most respected places to be murdered.

The catalog is chock-full of photos of Russian women, some of them beautiful, some of them, uh, not as. Each woman lists her name, age, height and weight, along with her hobbies and a brief description of her personality. They also say what kind of men they’re hoping to attract. “Desperate and lonely” is a phrase I expected would come up frequently, but it never did.

Now, despite being colloquially known as a mail-order bride catalog — and the press release acknowledges that fact — A Foreign Affair does not actually sell women to you. If it did, the catalog would have more subscribers than TV Guide. Instead, they sell you the women’s mailing addresses, and you write to them in the hopes of developing a meaningful relationship with someone who doesn’t speak English very well, who is from an entirely different culture and whom you’ve never spoken with. It’s like the Internet, but slower and less reliable. (So, it’s like AOL.)

Which brings us to an interesting point: In this day and age, why would you pay money for someone’s snail-mail address when chat rooms and online personal ads are much faster and cheaper?

I talked to John Adams, president of A Foreign Affair and, if you’ll recall your American history, second president of the United States (1797-1801). He said, “In Russia a lot of the women don’t have access to the Internet, and if they do, it’s very limited.” This makes sense, considering that in many parts of Russia, they’re still working out “indoor plumbing.”

Adams said some disreputable companies have purported to sell Russian women’s e-mail addresses, “but whoever’s writing back, goodness knows who it is.” The scammers, posing as Russian gals, will try to get money from the unsuspecting American saps. With A Foreign Affair, though, you get actual mailing addresses, and presumably actual handwritten replies from actual Russian babes. To find out for sure, of course, you’d have to fly to Russia … and A Foreign Affair offers travel packages for that very purpose.

Are the men who use services like A Foreign Affair desperate losers? “For the most part, they’re college-educated, and they’re professional,” Adams said. “They’ve worked very hard, maybe they’ve had a divorce, maybe they’ve never been married. They just haven’t found the things they’re looking for in the women they’re dating, and this is another option.” (In other words, yes.)

You have to admire these men’s determination, though. Many guys, upon realizing that every woman in America is off-limits to them, might give up altogether. But not these guys! They simply choose another nation and start over.

According to the Foreign Affair Web site (www.AForeignAffair.com), they average seven engagements per day between people who met using their service. Even assuming the extraordinarily low Brigham Young University rate of one marriage for every seven engagements, that’s still 365 marriages a year between people who were strangers to each other until the catalog brought them together. I wonder how they will relate their “how we met” story to their children: “You see, son, I was a sad and pitiful man, shunned by every American woman with whom I came in contact, unable to establish even a rudimentary foundation of mutual fondness with any human being in the Western Hemisphere. And then I saw your mother’s picture in a catalog! She said she enjoyed reading and nature and that she weighed 118 pounds, and I knew she was the girl for me.”

Of course, I don’t claim to know everything, or even anything, about dating. It is a horrific process, a constant barrage of auditioning for those to whom you are attracted, hoping they will like you, or at least spare your self-esteem if they don’t. If some men prefer to do this by writing letters to Russian women, it is not my place to judge them. It is only my place to make fun of them, while secretly agreeing that a loving, lasting relationship is a great thing, regardless of how you stumbled across it.

This catalog sat on my desk for three or four months before I wrote about it. Flipping through it, the whole thing seemed more sad than funny, because the women are so desperate. Finally, I hit on the way to use the catalog in a column: Make fun of the men who would use such a catalog, not the women in it. And there you go.

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