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From Russia with love 

Well, the Ukraine girls really knock 'em out

Page 4 of 7

They left the reception and spent the rest of the evening getting to know each other, with the interpreter's help. Lewis was able to brush aside his concern that she was too young.

The next morning, Phil invited her to visit him in the U.S. and the two filled out an application for a fiancee visa. If things worked out between them, they agreed, they'd get married in America and make a home for her daughter, Angelina.

"I wasn't happy with my life, but I had never before thought of leaving Ukraine," Sasha says.

She had to return to work, but later that week, he came to visit her in Sloviansk for an afternoon.

"Her family was very nice, real down-to-earth," says Lewis, who enrolled Sasha in local English classes while they waited for her visa to come through. A few months later, in the spring of 2000, they were married.

Of course, the very term "mail-order bride" has long been a misnomer, having originated in colonial times to describe the practice whereby foreign settlers and immigrants would write home to relatives to select and ship them a wife, sight unseen.

While a couple can meet and even pursue a courtship over the Internet, they must show proof that they've met face-to-face in order to obtain a fiancee visa. And, in the end, it's the woman's decision whether to leave her country for an older foreign man she may barely know. In the former Soviet Union, where an estimated one-third of the population lives in poverty and jobs are scarce, it's become a popular option for many young women. Especially since there's a common perception that Russian men are brutish drunks. Western men are believed to be more sensitive and supportive.

Sasha's friend who accompanied her to the Kiev social is now married to a man in South Carolina, she says. Some of her friends back in Ukraine would ask her how they, too, could meet American husbands.

Which is how Lewis became inspired to start his own Russian dating agency. He spent $6,500 to buy a website from Angelika, which gives him access to its database of more than 15,000 women.

Like other sites, his "Jewels of Russia" contains a brief profile listing the woman's age, height, weight, hometown, education level, languages spoken and other vitals. Most sites contain a few comments from the woman; a few are crass enough to list her measurements.

Some of the information may seem mildly dubious -- since when do so few European women smoke or drink? -- or gently manipulated for a Western audience -- most women assert they're Christian, but few specify Russian Orthodox. Those quibbles aside, much of the data seems reliable enough, as when a profile indicates that a woman speaks poor English or has children from a previous marriage.

The website is strictly a side venture for Lewis, who is a partner in an auto-repair business. He estimates that he spends a few hours a week on the phone answering customer queries about what it's like to marry a Russian woman.

"I enjoy talking about the subject and giving out free advice," he says.

He earns a cut every time a client orders a woman's contact information for $10, or requests to have a letter translated for $15. Sometimes, Sasha will act as interpreter on three-way phone calls, for which she charges $2 a minute.

Customers can also pay to have flowers, candy or perfume delivered to a woman by one of Angelika's local affiliates in Russia. If such items were sent by mail from the U.S., Lewis says, they would likely be stolen and sold by corrupt postal workers. He even makes travel and lodging arrangements for men looking to visit Russia.

"As long as American women keep acting the way they do, this business will be OK," he says, laughing.

At age 61, Art Steckel is tall, probably 6 feet 2 inches, and somewhat gaunt, but has energy to burn when talking about his niche industry.Wearing oversized, tinted glasses indoors, he dresses casually at the office, in jeans and a T-shirt. His conversation is studded with flat declarations that have the ring of a sales pitch.

"No matter who you are and what your drawbacks, your expectations can be much higher with Russian women," he exclaims.

Steckel's joviality seems somewhat at odds with his purported background. An Atlanta native, he says he learned Russian while working in Europe for the National Security Agency, the ultra-secret intelligence agency whose operatives are forbidden to discuss their duties.

In 1989, after entering civilian life and having sold a successful business in California, Steckel was traveling in the Soviet Union when he came across the office of a state-run, local dating agency.

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