Imperialism of the Heart

Article excerpt

MOSCOW -- She looks into the camera. Her eyes wander nervously at first, but gradually steady into the frank, self-assertive, slightly saucy gaze that seems so characteristic of Russian women.

"My name is Valentina Yaroshenko," she begins in halting English. "I am 22-years old. I am professional economist. I work in office as manager. I like my work. I also like volleyball, tennis. I want to travel. I love Russian literature and art. My favorite authors are Bulgakov, Pasternak, Theodor Dreiser...I like to read, I like cinema ... and (aside in Russian) oh shit, how do you say 'theatre' in English?"

Valentina has come to Moscow's Sverdlov Square, near the Kremlin, to have her personal message videotaped for a new "international dating service" called America-Russia Matchmaking. She is one of almost 600 Soviet women who have signed up so far in hopes that this will lead to landing an American husband.

By all accounts, she has a good chance. Mail order brides from the Philippines, Taiwan and other Asian countries have become a huge business in the United States. A certain segment of American middle-class, usually middle-aged, males seem to have decided that American women have "priced themselves out of the market," and have opted to replace them with cheap, obedient wives from the exotic Orient.

It has been called "imperialism of the heart." The same processes by which wealth concentrates on our planet divide not only individuals but also whole nations into "winners" and "losers". For many of those who feel they were born under the wrong star, finding the ways to change geographical residence or citizenship is synonymous with upward mobility in today's global, but profoundly unequal economy. The psychological effects of all this range from the obvious to the surprisingly subtle.

Valentina seems quite sincere in wanting, as she tells me, "an honest and good man who will love me ... One who will support me with laughter and a strong shoulder in difficult times." It is just that everything she thinks she has learned about the world convinces her that, if Mr. Right is out there, the odds are he is an American.

Indeed, the couple of dozen women of varying ages who have come out to be videotaped on this sunny June morning all seem flush with romantic hope. Listening to them talk, it is clear that they long to be swept off their feet and carried away to Disneyland -- and they will probably not be too picky if the Prince is losing his hair or a little paunchy.

Some discrepancy here

It had to happen sooner or later. As the Soviet market has opened up over the past couple of years, various cooperatives and joint ventures have begun aggressively looking for ways of doing profitable business with the West. In the absence of a convertible currency, the trick of this is to find an elegant idea: some mundane Soviet commodity that can be turned into a lucrative hard-currency export.

It was only a matter of time before someone hit upon Soviet women. About a year ago a cooperative called "Nakhodka" (Discovery), which runs an internal dating agency, began to advertise "international contacts and matchmaking services" in the pages of the English-language weekly Moscow News. That didn't take off; apparently not too many prospective customers are readers of Moscow News.

Enter Eugene (Genya) Kantor, 45, a former Soviet who emigrated to Canada 17 years ago. Genya settled in Vancouver, but found it "too small" for him, and moved on to Los Angeles, where he presently lives. A few months ago he returned for this first visit to the USSR since his emigration and met up with the "Nakhodka" people, who made him an "extremely timely and interesting proposition."

I interviewed Kantor on Sverdlov Square as he supervised the videotaping of his "applicants." I found him, well, surprisingly frank and direct, as well as quite analytical in his own way. …