From Ukraine with love
PhD student Margarita Pisnya is young and beautiful. Right now, her priority is finding an Irish husband. The 21-year-old from Poltava in Ukraine is number 1148577 in a catalogue of thousands of such women from Eastern Europe -- nurses, accountants, doctors, law students and engineers; most of them beautiful, dressed in their best, and the majority young.
She is desperate to find an Irishman, who might get her out of the beleaguered country of her birth and spirit her away to a new life of love, peace and plenty in the West.
"I have experience of a real-life love story with a girl from my city and an Irishman," Margarita says. "She is 28 and he is 44. They met on the site in the internet and fell in love with each other after a few letters. Then he came here a few times. After a few months, he made a proposal. Now they are married for about a year.
"They have travelled to very many countries together and are still in love with each other. That's why I have positive attitude to Irishmen and wouldn't mind to meet one."
Margarita explains that it is very difficult to find a boyfriend at home. "Our men are spoilt -- they're used to beautiful women and they take them for granted."
Margarita adds that, as well as being a student, she teaches English to children. She hopes her own language skills are an asset towards meeting and dating an Irishman.
A shortage of men at home and a tough economic situation are behind her motivation to look for love away from home. "I just haven't met my 'only one' here, and I decided to try my luck somewhere in other countries -- besides, I know English," she shrugs with a matter-of-factness, adding that internet dating is common among her friends.
Tatiana Kalchuk, from Odessa in Ukraine, is another attractive and well-educated woman. She did well at university, speaks five languages, and enjoys arts, philosophy and horseback riding in the woods.
She has no problem posing for a mail-order-bride catalogue and being ascribed serial number 518866.
"In our lives, there is a right time for everything," says Tatiana, whose photograph shows her long, blonde hair tied back, her neat, beige dress a typical cheaper, East European fabric, mimicking the expensive Sex and the City style of Western fashion.
The attractive 26-year-old is typical of the women featured on internet dating sites, and she says she hopes for a serious relationship. Tatiana believes signing up to a dating website, and publishing her hopes and personal story to hundreds of potential partners, will broaden her chances for romance, and even marriage.
"I see it as the opportunity to widen up the search to find right partner for myself to create a strong and happy family," she says.
Tatiana admits that, although there have been warnings broadcast on Russian television telling local women of the potential dangers of mail-order-style internet marriages abroad, she isn't afraid.
Her family supports her quest, and she believes her ability to speak English will protect her from unsavoury types. "If a woman broadens up the search in order to find a right husband, it is obligatory for her to speak the language of the country she moves in," she says.
"The other thing, it is not right to meet a person once and then to decide to get married. Real relationships develop with time, and time only shows what the person is all about."
The internet has opened up the trans-global options for romance. But while courting online might be accessible and reasonably priced, the more adventurous suitors spend thousands of euro to check out the Olgas, Svetlanas and Natashas for themselves.
Several introduction agencies, including LoveMe.com and Anastasia, arrange international dating tours through Russian and Ukrainian cities, lasting about 11 days and costing more than €3,000 each. LA native Larry Cervantes, of Anastasia International, a heavyweight in the internet dating business, insists that the tours are not about sex.
"We strictly vet anyone coming on our tours and protect the women involved."
The clients are all men from the West, including Ireland. Some find happiness, but many discover hidden difficulties and finish up with little to show for a lot of money.
Irish men are regarded as good prospects. The country is seen as prosperous, despite the economic downturn, and our men are believed to be reliable and respectful by Eastern European women.
"I have heard Irish people are a lot alike Ukrainians -- they're open, friendly, intelligent, hard-working and with a great sense of humour," says Tatiana, speaking from her hometown. "Even though I've never been to Ireland, I know it's a beautiful, green country."
Her expectations are echoed by another hopeful internet bride, Alina Manakova, a qualified school teacher, signed up with another website, Lovematch.com.
The 23-year-old cites Irish men high on the list of worthy potential husbands. "I am under impression that Irish men are very good people," says Alina, who studied teaching, but now works for a local magazine in her hometown of Nikolaev in Ukraine.
"My classmate has been living in Ireland for more than eight years, and I've heard really good stories about there."
Like the other women, Alina doesn't pay to sign up to the 'mail-order-bride' websites, and says her family support her choice. "We're having a tough time in my country -- lots of people lost their jobs and it's really hard to find a new one."
Would she have regrets leaving her homeland for an Irish mate? "I'm not leaving anything behind," she says.
"All I knew, all I had, I will take into my new life," she says. "As for my family -- they want the best for me, that's why they support me, and they will support a guy who would make me smile."
The mass migration of Eastern European women was first branded the 'Natasha syndrome', after the Iron Curtain came down and the countries of the former Soviet Union took tentative steps towards Western culture.
With their own menfolk often caught up in a cycle of drink, unemployment and despair, waves of Russian women ventured to the West in search of a new life and new opportunities for relationships.
The topic is sparking debate on Russian television. A recent story claims that the extremes in women's fashion there -- from short shorts to overdressing out of context -- are the consequences of Russia's man shortage, resulting a "wild sexual revolution" among local women.
According to Russian fashion journalist Alexandre Vassiliev: "Women are on a constant hunt. If they are already attached, they're convinced if they aren't pin-up girls their husbands will run away from them and they won't snap up a new one."
And official statistics show these women face tough odds at home in the romance stakes -- there are 65 million men to more than 77 million women in Russia, mostly because the population never recovered from the massive losses suffered on the Eastern Front during the Second World War.
But the arrival of a large number of Eastern European women is not always welcome. In Turkey, just a boat-ride away from the beach resorts of Ukraine's Crimean coast, the influx of blondes inspired a hit song, with the chorus: "Oy Natasha, oy Natasha, oy oy."
But the local women weren't too happy and took to the streets with placards warning: "Natasha go home" and "Keep your legs shut".
The Eastern Bloc women were not deterred. Larry Cervantes says this trend continues to grow. "We have thousands of women from Ukraine and Russia who are smart as well as beautiful," says Mr Cervantes. "You can view them on our websites, and if all goes well, meet one in person."
LOOKING FOR ROMANCE
Founded in 1993, Anastasia claims it has more than 80 million online visitors a year and more than a million messages exchanged onsite daily. Its affiliate programme incorporates more than a thousand dating agencies from most of the major cities of the former USSR.
"The women who sign up are quite traditional and they're looking for genuine romance -- many want to get married," says Mr Cervantes, the spokesman for the company's Moscow headquarters. "And the pictures don't even start to do them justice -- these women are real specimens."
He denies that the dating agencies are more cattle-market than catalogue, insisting the women and their male suitors are mostly seeking serious relationships and maybe marriage. But not everyone is convinced.
Lisdoonvarna man Willie Daly, Ireland's foremost match-maker, is among the doubters. Daly, who still manages to arrange up to 200 successful marriages a year, says that while he has experienced an increase in the number of Russian and Ukrainian women seeking his services, he is wary.
"Their motives are often a little different, and marriage can be more like a business deal," says Mr Daly.
"We're a very good people, with good nature and humour. When I make a match, I like loving to be involved," he says. "And our men, particularly the lonely bachelor type in rural Ireland -- farmers, businessmen and shop-owners -- might be a little bit vulnerable where these women are concerned."
However, John Adams, manager of LoveMe.com -- along with his wife Tanya -- says dreams of romance between East and West can come true.
Mr Adams, from Ohio, met his wife through one of the site's social events held in Russia. "I'm a true believer in the international internet-dating scene, since I met my own wife at one of our socials in St Petersburg 13 years ago," he says. "Now we have two wonderful children, and couldn't imagine life without them."
Stories such as this inspire women such as Tatiana, who is currently working on a PhD but says she would be willing to leave her native Odessa if the right Irishman came along.
"My parents have been married almost for 30 years, and I see they still love each other. That is what I wish for myself."
Her family and friends wish her well in her quest for romance, she says. And although she might be a little bit nervous about meeting prospective partners, it's worth the risk.
"I see it as the opportunity to widen up the search to find a right partner for myself to create strong and happy family," she says.
Another internet hopeful, Vera Harkovenko, who is listed on LoveMe.com, echoes these hopes of finding a soulmate -- possibly an Irishman, with a view to making a new life and starting a family.
She admits her family have some fears about the internet arrangement. "My parents, of course, are very worried, but not against it," says the 22-year-old honours student. "My cousin married a foreigner and they already have a second child. They are quite happy."
She believes Irishmen share traditional values of Ukrainians. "I know they are very interesting and good people; a nation with a strong tradition that has something we can learn."
Vera, from Nikolaev, says she hasn't had much luck in love in her homeland, where men are "jealous and autocratic". And the poor economy is another motivator for leaving. "We have a lot of bureaucracy and corruption," she says sadly.
And although she's a little frightened of the idea of meeting and dating a relative stranger, Vera believes the risk will pay off.
"Of course it's a bit scary, but I think that everything will be fine. My parents say that before they let me go abroad, they have to meet my match."
Mr Cervantes says the Russian and Ukrainian women such as Vera and Tatiana buck the stereotype of submissive mail-order brides, and have "unlimited smarts".
Their education and background is all checked out before they are listed on the dating sites, he claims.
"Women occupy a majority of the professional workforce in the former Soviet Union" he says.
That said, feminine compliance is a much-promoted attribute in the mail-order-bride websites.
Men who might be rejected and unrequited casualties of the Western dating scene are transformed into internationally desirable commodities. For less than €100, they can obtain the contact numbers of up to 10 women, the sites say.
"We have a lot of success stories, and the men who sign up with us range from an Iraqi war pilot to a widower nervous about how to negotiate the dating scene."
For Tatiana, signing up to Anastasia is a chance to "find the right man for me, and we will be able to create strong and happy family".
The slim blonde happily supplies photos of herself at home and outside, in the hope someone might see the images and help her fulfil her dream of following in the footsteps of her parents' 30-year marriage.
"That's what I want to find for myself -- a nice man who will be my best friend and with whom I would want to get old," she says.
To which a lot of Irish women might say: tell me about it, sister.