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October 6, 2010

My Life as a Mail-Order Bride

To escape an impoverished life in Ukraine, Oksana Makarova married a Florida doctor who could give her young son a future. Things did not go as planned.
As told to Kira Zalan.

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oksana makarova

Safe at last: Oksana Makarova at home today in Kentucky. Oksana escaped a loveless, abusive marriage to a man who selected her using an Eastern European matchmaking service.

Photo Credit: Melissa Golden/Redux/Redux

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The night I met my husband, in the port city of Odessa, Ukraine, in late 2000, I stood against the wall in a restaurant at the Black Sea Hotel along with 200 other young women. They were decked out in their fanciest dresses, their faces caked with makeup. Dressed conservatively in my dark-gray pantsuit, I felt invisible in the sea of ball gowns. The two dozen men seated before us—all from America, mostly in their 50s or 60s—had come to find wives.

My best friend had begged me to come, and we'd ridden for 12 hours on a train from our small town on the Crimean coast. I thought it would be an adventure, if nothing else. Sure, maybe some small part of me entertained the idea of meeting someone interesting, but it didn't seem very realistic.

While the women met with their eager suitors, I leafed through a Russian-language brochure about the marriage broker hosting the event. The Atlanta-based company, European Connections, explained that after decades of feminism, American women had become undesirable partners for marriage, uninterested in having children. Russian women, it said, are more feminine, with old-fashioned family values. I knew nothing about America except for what I'd seen on TV, like old dubbed episodes of Beverly Hills 90210. It seemed plausible enough.

When I noticed a short, stocky man grinning at me, I thought, Oh, no, and quickly turned away. But his interpreter was already walking toward me. "How old are you?" she asked. I said I was 25. "Would you like to talk to my client?" she asked. I shook my head no. "What do you have to lose?" she prodded.

His name was Carl, I learned, and he had a full head of black hair, which made him look younger than the other men, who were fat and bald. I sat at his table, and he asked me questions from a prepared list, speaking to me through the translator. I could understand some English from what I'd learned in school, but didn't speak it very well myself.

"Do you have kids?" he asked.

"Yes, a 2-year-old son."

"Do you like dogs?"

"Sure."

"Do you believe in prenuptial agreements?"

"Yes."

I learned that he was a 50-year-old Filipino-born emergency-room doctor, now living in Cape Coral, Florida. I felt no immediate attraction to him, but when he asked if I'd like to give my son a father, a life in America, and a college education, I had to seriously think about that. I was a single mother, working at a local post office and living in a tiny apartment with no hot water or heat, and sometimes no electricity. Ukraine is a relatively poor country, and the infrastructure was never fully developed outside of major cities during the Soviet years. I'd become pregnant at 22 by my boyfriend, who had then disappeared. And here was an educated man from America, promising my child the world. In return, he wanted a family. I thought, Maybe I owe it to my son, Dimitri, to try.

When Carl asked me to have breakfast with him in the morning, I accepted. For the next week, he treated me to lavish dinners, booked me a private room in his elegant hotel, and bought me a proper black dress to wear to my first opera, Carmen. He was an absolute gentleman: He never touched or tried to kiss me. It was a wonderful fairy tale of a week, and I was taken by how respectful he was. A translator came along on our dates, and on our last day together, Carl asked me to come to America. I would get a three-month "fiancée visa," he said, and then we would marry. (The visa arrangement was legal, I learned, since Carl had met me in person; a man can't just pick a photo of a woman and get her a visa.)

I thought about my son and the new future he could have. I didn't expect to fall madly in love with Carl, but he seemed like a kind man. In Ukraine, women don't necessarily expect to marry the man of their dreams; it's a hard life, and marriage is often more about security and stability than love. I confided in my mom, who worked as a post-office manager, and my dad, an instructor at a driving school, and they agreed: The opportunities for my son were too good to pass up.


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