The Lure of Paradise

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Portraits of young women in Khabarovsk


Lena entered my room, draped her fur coat on my arm and eased her 18-year-old body onto my bed. She wore bright-red lipstick and knee-high black leather boots. Like most English-speaking Russians, she spoke with a British pronunciation. Her accent, however, was more formal than most, and more irritating.

“Tom,” she said, batting her eyelids. “I want to help you.”

Her purpose for visiting me, as I had understood on the phone, was to give me a letter she wanted delivered to America. When I asked for the letter, she pouted and said she’d forgotten it.

Back home in Anchorage, I didn’t have any 18-year-old women chasing me like this. But here in Russia, I’m a rich man in a poor country, sought after by women who dream of snagging an American husband. I can’t blame women like Lena for trying. Most woman in Russia, it seems, work all day at their jobs and then come home for their second job. They wash their clothes in the sink, cook all the meals from scratch, spend every summer weekend in the garden or dacha growing food for their families. Without women the men of Russia would probably live in squalor and die eventually of malnutrition.

Russian women know how American women live because they see them three nights a week on the hugely popular American soap opera, “Santa Barbara.” Women on the show don’t do much besides lounge around their beautiful homes wearing elegant clothing.

“American women are rich and independent,” a young woman at the Khabarovsk teacher’s college told me. “America is like a paradise.”

Women I don’t know call me wanting to introduce me to their daughter, a “young Elizabeth Taylor” or their friend, a tall “Vivian Leigh.” I suppose I could take more advantage of the circumstances. But I’m faced with two dilemmas: 1) How do know if I woman likes me or just my passport? 2) How can I date someone without raising the expectations that I’ll take her to a new life in Santa Barbara?

These young women are hard to resist, though. Flirtatious, demure, ultra-feminine, they’re the kind of women that American men haven’t seen in 30 years. Even their appearance is from a different era. It’s an Old World look — with gobs of make-up, high heels, fur hats and matching fur collars in winter, mini skirts in summer. For lonely Alaskan men, this is an easy place to fall in love. I occasionally see them at the Khabarovsk airport — the grinning, 50-year-old bureaucrat from Anchorage squeezing hands with his busty, bleach-blonde 23-year-old pen pal from Vladivostok; or the married, foul-mouthed Fairbanks hunting guide with his cultured Russian sweetheart; or the overweight 62-year-old Baptist preacher with his fiancee, a petite 24-year-old atheist. I suppose it’s a good trade off. The men get something they can’t get in America — a beautiful young wife. The women get self-cleaning ovens.

It’s not just the women who are eager to please you. Many people here go out of their way to befriend you and lavish upon you such warmth and hospitality it’s overwhelming. For the visiting American, this sudden rise in status is a wonderful feeling. Only later do you learn that for many Russians a friendship with an American means opportunity — maybe it means the possibility of a loan, or business contacts, or a trip to America; maybe it only means a chance to speak English or meet someone from another world. At the very least, an American friend brings prestige to any relationship and to any social gathering. As one Russian confided to me, “You’re like the general at the wedding.”