In War-Torn Ukraine, Business Is Booming For Mail-Order Brides

Inside the morally ambiguous world of Ukraine's mail-order bride industry.
Ukrainian women are looking for a safe way out as mail-order brides.
Myriam Wares for HuffPost
Ukrainian women are looking for a safe way out as mail-order brides.

“Ukrainian brides are a different breed of women, something many men appreciate. A woman from Ukraine loves and respects her man, and she will do anything she can for him. These women are extremely feminine, and you will enjoy having such a beautiful creature. If you are nostalgic for the simpler times, browse through our vast selection of Ukrainian brides.”

This is how self-described ‘mail-order bride’ website RoseBrides advertises Ukrainian women as an attractive marriage prospect, highlighting why Western men should take a particular interest.

Mail-order brides are by no means a new phenomenon – the industry dates the whole way back to 1614 in the US when companionless men on the frontier would place adverts in the East looking for women to join them.

And as popularity grew (long before the advent of online giants), mail-order brides could be found in agency catalogues and magazine ads, armed only with their glossy, glamorous headshots.

Katya Suvorora was just three years old when she fled the fall of the Soviet Union to Mexico with her mother, who found an American man willing to help smuggle them across the border and marry her.

It was only when she turned 16 and found a mail-order bride catalogue containing her mother’s headshots, that she fully understood how they got out.

“I remember seeing these pictures, and from what I know based on context clues and what her friends told me later on, she basically signed up to one of these big mail-order bride brokerage companies that connect Western men with women from countries they want to leave,” she explains.

Now, in 2023 the digital age has made the mail-order bride industry a booming one. In an interview with the Guardian, Marcia Zug, an associate professor of law at the University of South Carolina explained that, “the reason that mail-order brides continue to be popular is because conditions for women in some countries remain bleak, and as long as women have few prospects for a good match at home, they will look elsewhere for someone to start a family and life with.”

No better modern day example of this than Ukraine. The invasion of Ukraine has captured the attention of millions – and single men hoping to buy themselves love are no exception.

There has been a surge of sexual interest in Ukrainian women, ranging from British men urgently offering to host female Ukrainian refugees to concerning online trends.

Searches combining terms like ‘escort,’ ‘porn,’ and ‘rape’ with the word ‘Ukrainian,’ as well as ‘Ukraine refugee porn,’ have risen in an alarming way, according to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OCSE).

HuffPost UK spoke to Zug, who is now the author of Buying a Bride: An Engaging History of Mail-Order Matches, who agrees that the invasion of Ukraine will have had its effects on mail-order bride demand: “It’s what usually happens; it starts from women trying to leave unsafe situations for a better life, and marriage facilitates the migration process. It’s a logical solution to a bad situation. Obviously, there are some complicated power dynamics at play here.”

One website offering advice for men seeking mail-order brides boldly claims that there has never been a better time to find a Ukrainian bride, citing the abundance of young women who have left Ukraine due to the war and are currently seeking romantic relationships with foreign men.

However, the notion that experiencing wartime destruction, death, and displacement would create an ideal environment for marrying a man who seeks a dependent woman raises profound concerns about the exploitation of vulnerable women and the ethical implications of this industry.

But why do men sign up and spend so much money to find a relationship that many could presumably find locally for free in the first place?

According to Zug: “These are usually men who don’t have great marriage capital in their respective country, whether that’s because they’re not conventionally attractive, or they have issues talking to women, etc.

“When they look at mail-order brides, their marriage marketability increases, because they have something to bring to the table that they wouldn’t have with women in their country, like the power of their passport or their money.”

The reason women sign up goes hand-in-hand with this: the promise of security and stability is a worthwhile incentive. As Zug tells us, being married to a citizen makes the process of migration much easier and quicker than as a lone immigrant trying to get documented in a foreign country.

Suvorora says of her mother’s motivations: “There was no other choice, my mom wanted us to get out of there and go to America. She saw all these movies and TV shows set in the US and it makes you want a life that seems so easy, so much better than what we had. We were in a war-torn country, with little to no money.”

She also shares how these relationships shaped her feelings towards her mother, adding: “It’s about the power dynamic these men had over my mum. Ultimately, it’s dangerous to rely on someone you don’t really know to provide for you. This is something I’m still mad at her for, to have put us in that situation.” Currently, Suvorora has cut contact with her mother and does not intend to reconnect in the foreseeable future.

For others, the benefit of the attention – and money – of rich, older men is enough of a reason to become a mail-order bride.

Dr Julia Meszaros of Texas A&M University Commerce, studied and researched the commercialised romance tour industry in Ukraine.

Recalling some women she interviewed for her research, Meszaros reveals that some women she talked to had joined mail-order bride websites because of the gifts and money men would send.

One woman even had a local boyfriend, but was able to get an iPhone and a laptop from an American man she never even met.

She tells HuffPost UK: “Some women see it as an opportunity, to practise English, to hear about a foreigner’s life. It can’t hurt to go on a date, it’s very non-committal, and these men are willing to pay for things, so they choose to use that to their advantage.”

This raises the issue most people will think of when hearing of the mail-order bride industry: worries of exploitation, usually of the women. However, others argue that many mail-order brides simply make use of the untapped potential that a lonely man with a bank account may hold for them. As with many things, reality lies somewhere in the middle.

While it’s true that some women do find, occasionally, love and fulfilment, or at least some financial comfort through these arrangements, we can’t ignore the stories of those who have fallen victim to scams, heartbreak and emotional trauma.

Suvorora is all too aware of the dangerous situations that being a mail-order bride can leave you in. At seven years old, she and her mother were kidnapped by a man who was supposed to ensure their safety.

Being undocumented in a foreign country, Suvorora’s mother met a man willing to help them, and he took both of them back to his home.

She shares: “He locked all the doors. For five days, we couldn’t get out. I hid in a closet, and my mom was tied to a bed. That’s one of my first memories. One day, he went to work, and we escaped, just took everything we had and ran.”

Mail-order brides in 2023

In the modern-day mail-order bride industry, there are three different streams; mostly, if not all, are online websites but there are also the tour-based companies, who organise trips to certain countries and make people speed date, as well as smaller boutique-style agencies on the ground. Depending on which one clients choose, the experience can vary.

These companies market Ukrainian women based on objectifying stereotypes of Eastern European women. The pre-packaged, sexy, foreign-but-still-white woman holds an undeniable appeal to the male gaze, and many women seek to make the most of it – sometimes to their detriment.

Suvorora shares her concerns for the harmful stereotypes surrounding Eastern European women, saying that the way in which women have been objectified since the invasion of Ukraine reminds her of the ‘saviour complex’ she saw in men trying to help her mother after the fall of the Soviet Union.

The traditional – and frankly outdated – concept of beautiful Ukrainian women as skinny blondes with push-up bras and a desire to please has persisted through today’s mail-order bride agencies, determining which women may be eligible to register.

Elena Vygnanyuk’s agency, Prime Matchmaking, is one of the few remaining boutique-style companies, but she chooses to tailor her approach to her clients. Starting with a modest sign-up fee upwards of $2,000 (roughly £1,613), men can register and start looking for their perfect match with her assistance.

Vygnanyuk tells HuffPost UK: “For us, it’s important to have a big base of women, because that’s how you attract male clients. We interview them, make sure they’re single, and evaluate them psychologically. We also make sure they’re beautiful, because no one wants a fat woman.”

Scrolling through many mail-order bride websites, the profiles confirm this ideology; the women are young, slim, conventionally attractive, and their listed hobbies revolve mostly around homemaking, baking, long romantic strolls and pleasing their other half.

Ethically speaking, the debate also sparks issues of feminism, patriarchal control, and the dangerous potential for abuse these arrangements create.

As Zug and Meszaros both explain, the agencies are not responsible if a man abuses one of these women, but they take it very seriously. Ultimately, it’s the men signing up to these services who are perpetrators of abuse.

Suvorora agrees, but believes the broader system in place needs to change instead of individual action. According to her, the culture making men feel allowed to act this way needs to change, as does the sexualisation and objectification of the young, foreign and attractive women who are treated like a commodity.

Zug says: “We tend not to like these marriages because they’re clear exchanges, they’re not in love, but that doesn’t make them bad.

“When the alternative is being bombed, it’s beneficial. It depends, but that’s what happens when women make the choice.

“If we wanted marriage to be just romantic, we shouldn’t attach immigration benefits to it. The big takeaway is that we can’t impose our views on what a good marriage is on other people. It’s not anyone’s place to say if anyone’s marriage should or shouldn’t happen.”

Help and support:

If you, or someone you know, is in immediate danger, call 999 and ask for the police. If you are not in immediate danger, you can contact:

  • The Freephone 24 hour National Domestic Violence Helpline, run by Refuge: 0808 2000 247
  • In Scotland, contact Scotland’s 24 hour Domestic Abuse and Forced Marriage Helpline: 0800 027 1234
  • In Northern Ireland, contact the 24 hour Domestic & Sexual Violence Helpline: 0808 802 1414
  • In Wales, contact the 24 hour Life Fear Free Helpline on 0808 80 10 800.
  • National LGBT+ Domestic Abuse Helpline: 0800 999 5428
  • Men’s Advice Line: 0808 801 0327
  • Respect helpline (for anyone worried about their own behaviour): 0808 802 0321