[Stop-traffic] News/Europe: The House of Brides - Where Men Come to Buy a Wife

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Subject: [Stop-traffic] News/Europe: The House of Brides - Where Men Come to Buy a Wife
From: Melanie Orhant (morhant@igc.org)
Date: Sat Sep 23 2000 - 15:52:19 EDT


The House of Brides - Where Men Come to Buy a Wife
By Sanjiv Bhattacharya
The Mirror (U.K.), July 25, 2000

People find their partners in all sorts of ways these days - over the
Internet, through dating agencies, via the small ads. But there's now a
place in Norway where men looking for a wife and Russian women looking for
a passport to a better life are brought together. Welcome to the
International Marriage Camp.

In a rudimentary, two-storey timber building in the picturesque village of
Evje, southern Norway, seven Russian women sit at a table struggling to
make small talk with a balding Norwegian baker, the only male in their
midst. The baker has travelled 400km and paid 1,000 kroner (about pounds
80) to meet these women in the hope of making one of them his wife. The
women, who arrived a few days ago from Russia in search of a Norwegian
husband, are coming to terms with the language barrier for the first time.
Only one of their group, Helena, a bookkeeper from Murmansk, has even the
slenderest grasp of English - none speak Norwegian - so, nervously smoking
cigarettes, they thumb through various pocket dictionaries, resorting to
sign language where necessary.

'I read about this camp on the Internet and also in Russian newspapers,'
says Helena, a bubbly fortysomething. 'I came here for a holiday, to walk,
to enjoy the clean air, and maybe to find a nice man.'

She is being disingenuous, for walking and clean air are neither here nor
there - this sparsely furnished boarding house is not a holiday resort but
a purpose-built 'International Marriage Camp' (IMC), perhaps the first of
its kind in the world. The 'international' part is an empty boast since the
camp's only visitors are Russian women who arrive each month of the summer
in batches of up to 20 at a time. But the 'marriage' part is deadly serious
- as the house rules stipulate, only the 'marriage minded' are welcome. The
camp's entertainment facilities consist of a table, some sofas and a basic
kitchen - there is no pool, music or television and alcohol is prohibited.
Having fun is not on the agenda.

Helena will stay here for a month or two in one of the basic single rooms,
awaiting Norwegian men who visit in dribs and drabs. As they arrive, she
scrutinises them to find one with whom she might go home and live until her
three-month tourist visa expires. If they get married, she stays, and if
she remains married for three years, she achieves her ultimate goal -
citizenship of a country with one of the highest standards of living in the
world. If her husband divorces her, however, before the three years is up,
she will be forced to return to Russia, a country of instability,
unemployment and poverty.

'Russian men sometimes cannot find jobs,' she explains, a little
defensively, 'or money for a family, for the children. If I find a nice man
I can stay here, start a new life. But if not, it is a holiday, and I just
go back.' She shrugs and smiles, as though nothing could be more
straightforward.

Now in its third year, the IMC was conceived and built by 57-year-old
Norwegian science teacher Alf Loining. Notorious in his homeland, where he
is reviled as a cold-hearted trader in desperate women, Loining launched
the camp as an extension to his successful pen pal business which produces
catalogues listing Russian women available for marriage to Norwegian men.
The catalogues include pictures, contact details and, increasingly, video
introductions. Loining would assist his customers with writing a letter of
invitation to their chosen girls - as required by immigration regulations -
and his involvement would end there. 'But then I thought, why have just one
man meeting one girl at a time?' says Loining. 'Why not bring lots of girls
and men together - there's more chance of making a match.' Not to mention
more chance of making money.

There is an attractive, rustic peace about Loining's camp, with its view of
fjords, forests and smoking cottage chimneys in the distance. One of the
women has brought her two small boys, who play on the slope leading from
the camp down to the street. But the tranquillity belies the anxiety
endured by the women within. Living in cramped and sparsely furnished rooms
- each has only a bed, hanging rail, drawers - the women nervously await
the Norwegian men, their tickets to a new life. They are always able to
leave the camp, but despite their relaxed talk about 'going back to
Russia', none actually plans to return.

To a flurry of excitement, the cigar-chomping Lars Johannsen arrives to
view the new batch of imports. A far cry from the social misfit you might
expect, Johannsen is a well-spoken 34-year-old boat builder from Lillesand,
100km away, who was divorced four years ago. 'Norwegian women are very
independent,' he says. 'I am divorced, and women here do not need men any
more. They get divorced and they never marry again. I am hoping the Russian
women will be more like Norwegian women used to be - keeping the home nice
and looking after the family.'

Johannsen visited the camp last year with his older brother, Arvid, and
although he took a pretty 20-year-old home with him, it didn't work out.
'She was too young for me, and, coming from St Petersburg, she didn't like
the quiet country life,' he says. However, his brother found Tatiana, a
Murmansk divorcee to whom he remains happily married. They are trying for a
child this year. 'I am very happy with Arvid,' says Tatiana. 'He is a
gentleman. I have brought my child from my first marriage, and he is only
five so I'm hoping he can learn Norwegian quickly. Perhaps he can teach me!'

Tatiana went home with Arvid after spending barely a fortnight with him at
the camp. 'We talked for one day, then the next day, and he came back again
every day to see me,' says Tatiana carefully. 'I didn't just jump. He
seemed like a nice man, and serious, so I thought OK, let's try it.
Everything he said about his home was true. Lillesand is a very pretty
place.' Arvid himself is practical about affairs of the heart. 'It was not
love at first sight, but we are learning. Marriage is not a game, of
course, and it is important to be honest. Many men go to the camp and tell
all kinds of lies about how they live, what their job is. But how can you
marry like that?'

Norwegian men pay a set fee of pounds 80 for a month's access to the camp.
On top of that, if, like the baker, they have travelled a long way and need
to stay the night, Loining charges pounds 15, although men are forbidden to
stay in the same building as the women. 'This is not prostitution,' Loining
says gravely. 'This is about marriage.' And if the men get lucky and decide
to take a prospective wife home with them, for the first step towards what
could be a lifelong commitment, Loining receives a further pounds 350.

As for the women, there is some doubt about how much they pay. Loining
insists that bed and board at his camp is free to all women, that he pays
for their return flights and charges only a nominal fee of pounds 200.
'Just to deter the tourists - to prove they are serious about marriage,' he
says. He claims to foot every bill for food for the Russian women, funding
them from his salary as a teacher - his critics object to the fact that he
is even teaching children - and claiming to make a huge loss each year.
'This is not a money-making business,' he insists, 'this is a lifestyle.
These women have no money, how else can they come?'

Yet, despite his appearance as a humble, avuncular old duffer, Loining is
infamous for his profiteering approach to importing Russian women. His
detractors, including feminist groups and his ex-wife Irina, insist that
the women pay huge sums to attend the camp and that Loining is far from the
magnanimous old gent he portrays. Irina, a Russian doctor from Murmansk,
worked as Loining's secretary at the camp. Her vitriol for Loining knows no
bounds. 'He is a bad man,' she spits. 'He thinks Russian women are just
cheap life. I worked for him for one year and he made two million kroner.'

Irina also claims she has documents drafted by Loining's agent in Murmansk
- he has several agents in Russia - demanding fees of pounds 1,300 from
Russian women who wish to marry foreign nationals.

Irina now lives with another Norwegian man on the other side of the
country, but her testimony may explain the reluctance of the women at the
camp today to reveal their own financial arrangements. Asking Olga, a
single mother of 40, the simple question, 'How much did you pay to come
here?' provokes blushes and an intense ten -minute discussion with the
other women before she delivers the committee -approved response. 'I pay
nothing, Alf pays for everything.'

Olga, like most of the women, is a well-educated professional - an
economist - and cagey when questioned about her life in Russia in case her
son at home finds out what she is doing. She even accuses Larissa, the
translator, of being a spy - Larissa is a Russian who came to Norway five
years ago via Loining's pen pal club, and married a Norwegian oil
contractor. The marriage ended recently in divorce.

When another hopeful male turns up to talk to the women, Olga leaves the
table to retouch her make-up, but the man is more interested in the
youngest girl of the bunch, a big-boned twenty-something who has changed
her clothes three times in an hour. The pair move off to the kitchen and
sit behind a partition to get to know each other better. It seems he has
already made his choice and Olga's face falls.

There is an element of urgency among the women. Most are in their late 30s
at least and, despite their best efforts, not quite the attractive young
things whose photographs fill Loining's pen pal catalogues. Whenever a man
poses a question the women erupt into frantic Russian bickering - what did
he say, what does he do, how do you say...? And although they appear to
support each other through the language barrier, some cross their arms and
look out of the window grumpily.

Olga sips her coffee steadily, insisting that she is not desperate. She is
not fleeing her home country, she says, whatever will be will be. 'I still
have a flat, a job, friends, family in Russia,' she says defensively.
'Russian women are not stupid.'

However, some will go to great lengths to ensure that they won't have to
return to a dead-end life. 'These Russian women know that they can stay in
Norway, even if their marriage doesn't work,' says Loining. 'They just try
to prove that they have been abused, then they can go to a women's shelter.'

Bente Rasmussen, the manager of a women's crisis centre in the nearby town
of Arendal, admits she has received Russian women from the marriage camp
who have lied about abuse in order to remain in the country, but, she
stresses, this is a tiny minority. 'Every year, we get women from the camp.
They have been chosen by these men, and the worst kind of men go to
Loining's camp - alcoholics, people with psychological problems, with no
jobs. They think Russian women are less than Norwegian women - like
prostitutes to be bought and sold. They threaten to divorce these women and
send them back to Russia. But many can't go back, they have burnt their
bridges, so they become like slaves or sex toys.

'One woman was locked in a cupboard, another was forced to sign a contract
handing over her earnings for the next ten years.'

In recent years, the road to the IMC has been picketed by the Norwegian
feminist group Ottar, protesting against the trade in foreign women. 'It is
disgusting, selling women from one country to another just like cattle,'
says Ane Sto, an Ottar spokeswoman. However, as sterile and tasteless as
the camp seems, it appears that occasionally - rarely - the marriages
actually work. Demand for the arrangement certainly exists among Norwegian
men and Russian women, and apparently Loining now has competition in
Lillesand, where more Russian girls are being imported.

'But I don't just want Russian girls,' says Loining, puffing on a soggy
roll -up. 'This is an international camp. Soon maybe I will have German
girls, French girls, and maybe even English girls too.'
Melanie Orhant
Stop-Traffic Moderator

Please contact me off-list for any questions about Stop-Traffic at
<<morhant@igc.org>>.

Women's Reproductive Health Initiative
Program for Appropriate Technology in Health
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sweatshop labor, domestic service and some coercive mail
order bride arrangements.
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