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Looking at the photos posted on the wall, he says, "I was amazed by the number of beautiful women. I thought, American guys would really go for this."
Asking if these women might also be interested in foreign men, he was told, Da, da. He bought 1,000 of the women's files for $1 apiece from the delighted agency bureaucrats.
Two years later, when the Soviet Union fell apart, European Connections was born.
"It started big and has only grown," Steckel boasts. After a year of building up his client base, he launched his proudest creation, the romance tour. Before tourism fell off on account of 9-11 and the deflating economy, he estimates his company took 1,000 men a year on trips to Moscow, St. Petersburg, Odessa and Kiev.
The idea is simple: Three days of receptions are followed by a week of sightseeing and organized events during which the men have the chance to get to know the women they've met at the socials.
Steckel allows that seeing 400 women in one afternoon can be a bit overwhelming, but when it's a life partner you're looking for, better to have too many choices than too few.
Often, his biggest challenge, he confides, is persuading the men not to limit their opportunities.
"It's a constant battle to protect the client from himself," Steckel says, shaking his head. "I tell guys all the time: Don't fall in love with a photograph, don't pick an interpreter you're attracted to, don't go off with the first pretty girl you meet, leave the engagement rings at home -- but they sometimes just ignore us."
Then there are the Type-A's who set themselves a strict timetable, as if they were running out to buy a new lawnmower.
"We've got guys who are on a mission -- gotta go over, get a wife, come home and get back to work," Steckel says. "Obviously, that's a big mistake."
But there are worse dangers associated with the mail-order bride industry than irrational male exuberance. Steckel concedes that many agencies operate like get-rich-quick schemes, keeping up photos of women long after they've married, booking customers into fleabag hotels, and sometimes allowing prostitutes and con artists to post profiles on their site in order to milk gullible men for money.
Then there are the women who are simply looking for a ticket out of Russia and plan to dump their husbands after two years of marriage, when they become eligible for permanent resident status.
"Many of these women are looking to get into the country any way they can," says Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services spokesman Garrison Courtney, who added that some immigrant women accuse their new husbands of domestic abuse, which can automatically entitle them to a provisional green card. But he admits that the bureau has no statistics to determine how common this is.
The biggest risks, however, are faced by the women, who are leaving behind their families and their support network to come to a place where they don't know the language and often don't know their husbands.
"The profile of the average guy who's using this service is someone who's not able to relate to local women," says Donna Hughes, professor of Women's Studies at the University of Rhode Island and one of the few academics who has spent any time investigating the mail-order bride industry.
"Many of these guys are control freaks and some are abusive," she says. One of the main reasons that men are drawn to much-younger, less-sophisticated women is the Pygmalion impulse, the desire to tell the woman what she needs to know and teach her how to act, she says.
Also, because the woman is in the U.S. under the man's sponsorship, he can hold her immigration status over her head to make her do what he wants, Hughes adds.
On the other hand, she admits that there is little solid evidence to show that mail-order brides are abused any more than the average. Preliminary data by the INS indicates that 80 percent of marriages between an American man and a foreign wife are still intact, versus a 50-percent divorce rate for the general populace, although there's no prevailing theory as to why this might be.
"No one's really studied it enough," Hughes says. "There are no statistics."
But there are a handful of horror stories, the best-known being that of Anastasia King, a 20-year-old mail-order bride from Kyrgyzstan whose estranged husband was convicted of her murder in Washington state in 2002. It turns out he had divorced a previous foreign bride -- who had taken out a protective order against him -- and was seeking a third at the time of the murder.
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