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Analysis & Opinion
22.03.10 Connecting Lonely Hearts
By Svetlana Kononova

When the six-month-long Russian winter just seems like it will never come to an end, when a busy city lifestyle leaves little free time away from work, and when it is sometimes easier to keep in touch with friends thousands of kilometers away than with next-door neighbors, millions of Russians turn to their computers to find love.

Online dating has become so popular that dating Web sites are still a growing and profitable business, despite the economic crisis. And despite the skepticism of critics who doubt the wisdom of using the Internet to find friends, lovers or spouses, numerous success stories testify that dating sites really do work.

About half of active Russian Internet users have profiles registered on dating Web sites, according to a recent statistic. “More than 2,000,000 people visit our site daily,” said Olesya Kuznetsova, a PR and advertisement director at the biggest Russian Internet dating service, Mamba, which has grown rapidly every year since it was established in 2004 and now contains more than 12,500 profiles. “About 140,000 people visit the portal at the same time in peak periods,” she added.

Despite there being more women than men in the country, most visitors to Mamba are men: they form 52 percent of the site’s audience. Sixty-two percent of users live in Russia, 20 percent in the other post-Soviet countries, and the rest are elsewhere in the world. About half of Russian visitors live in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Most visitors are 23 to 33 years old, followed by teenagers and people in their middle and late 30s. The majority are students, professionals and managers with university degrees.

Although men spend twice more time daily on dating Web sites than women, women are more active and send more messages than men. But men are more willing to spend money on dating services. One record-holder spent about $6,000 over four days to keep his profile in pole position and to attract female attention. Another spent $4,400 over three days. Women never spend that much.

Despite numerous negative myths about online dating, many users say they are happy with this form of communication. “Many users of dating Web sites are too direct and say what they want without any regard for the norms of etiquette, probably because they can remain anonymous. But despite this you have a chance to find the right person,” said Alena, a 32-year old architect who found her boyfriend through a large free dating portal. “I registered not long ago, but I have received most messages from nice, intelligent ladies,” said Lautisse, a 24-year old artist. “The only thing that makes me annoyed is the messages from gay men. I’m fed up with having to explain that I am heterosexual.”

There are more than 400,000 gays and lesbians registered on Mamba, and probably many more on other Russian dating Web sites. This large army could compete with any Love Parade in West European capitals.

Besides “general” dating Web sites, there are many that specialize in introducing Western men to potential brides from the former Soviet Union. “Eastern Europe is famous for beautiful, attractive and very well-educated ladies, who treasure traditional family values. These women are well-known for their loyalty, faithfulness, kindness, understanding and devotion to their husbands, children and families. They see marriage as a lifelong commitment, they become best friends, perfect wives and excellent mothers,” said Olga Nazarova, a director at the London-based Harmony dating agency. Most of the women who register with the agency are aged 25 to 45. They are from different social backgrounds and include students, single mothers, teachers, business ladies and doctors. Most of the men are aged 35 to 55 years old. Many of them are educated professionals and business people who have traveled or worked in Russia and Eastern Europe, and some have interest in foreign culture, history or art. Since 2003, Harmony has helped many ladies and gentlemen to meet each other, and some of them got married.

Nowadays there are dozens of such Web sites, making contact between people from different countries and cultures much easier. “It has always been the case that the dating industry in the former Soviet states simply takes the job more seriously. Most other sites feature ‘real’ pictures of ladies - taken at home, at the beach etc., but with their own camera. They are always amateur, usually pretty poor quality, and not what you would call glamorous. Sites in the former Soviet Union, on the other hand, feature almost entirely professional pictures. Looking between other sites and then sites from post-Soviet states is like looking through someone's family photo albums, then reading a lingerie catalogue,” said 34-year old Jon from England who has met several beautiful ladies through dating Web sites.

Les, a 44-year old businessman from the United States, agrees: “Girls from the former Soviet Union are also a lot more feminine. I never see them running around looking like they just woke up. They take pride in the way they look. American women only try to look nice if they’re going some place special or to a disco.”

“My fianc?e was supposed to be a scammer - I was aware of her reputation before I met her, but I was prepared to give her a chance. It was the best thing I have ever done in my life,” said Brian, a 57-year old businessman from Northern Ireland who is soon to marry a 30-year old ex-model.

Scammers are still a serious problem for Western men looking for Russian or East European wives and girlfriends, and a whole support-industry has grown to combat them. There are already several databases of scammers with fraudsters’ pictures on the Web, and some detective agencies can even investigate a bride’s background.

But despite the success of global dating Web sites, some analysts believe that other Internet services may soon become more attractive for people looking for relationships. “I think many people now prefer to meet on specialized online dating services, for example dog-lovers or over-50s, as I believe it gives a better chance to meet the right person. I also think people try to look locally nowadays, which possibly gives better and quicker chance to meet someone special,” said Nazarova.

Some experts predict a social networking boom, but others doubt it. “Social networks are not our direct competitors,” Kuznetsova said. “They do not let users stay anonymous – they show too much information, such as school and university background, job, friends, family and so on. Moreover, users of dating Web sites focus on searching for a partner, while social networks’ users may have more varied goals.”

The other alternative for people who want to find a soul-mate is advertising in an online newspaper. Irina, a 53-year old dentist, and her 63-year old British husband James, have been happily married for several years. They met each other through “Loot,” an online advertising site. “He wrote nice, intelligent letters to me,” said Irina, telling her story. “We had dated for one year when he proposed at the top of St. Paul's Cathedral in London. Of course I said ‘yes.’” Irina never regretted moving to the UK and starting a completely new life in a new country in her 50s. “If you are looking not for a ticket to a new life, but for the right person, you’ll find it,” she said.
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