One of the earliest things that I noticed during my first weeks in Moscow was just how many people were surfing dating sites in internet cafes. Over the following year both expats and Russians friends admitted to using such sites, recounting sometimes hilarious, sometimes wince-worthy stories. Having never used such sites, and always keen for new experiences, it seemed only right that I too should sign up to one of the many internet dating sites. There are many dating sites to choose from, but because of my lack of Russian I sign up to www.minijuegos.com (the Spanish partner site to www.love.mail.ru). To create a profile, I upload some photos and answer the various questions about myself. I decide not to answer the more intimate questions such as the size of my penis.
Having created my profile, I sign in and my profile automatically goes to number one of over 2.5 million registered users. I choose to search the ages of18-35 and start to trawl through pages and pages of thumbnail photos, complete with peoples’ names, ages and what they are looking for. I decide to be as proactive as possible, sending messages to anyone who looks nice, says something interesting in their profile, and speaks English. Those who don’t specify that they speak English, but who catch my eye, I send a “wink” to – alerting them that I am interested in them.
Many profiles have “intimate” photos posted on them, and one such profile, ‘Svetlana’, is indeed incredibly intimate. The site tells you if people are online, and ‘Svetlana’ is, so I send her a wink. A minute later a little peep and a flashing envelope tells me ‘Svetlana’ has replied. I have received a wink back. What to do next? I ask if she speaks English, hoping to God the answer will be no, and am relieved that the latex-clad lady did not.
As the hours tick by, I notice that my profile has dropped to 3,227th place, essentially meaning that nobody is actually going to view my profile. For $1.00 I can send an sms which will put my profile back to first place, and it is at this point that I realise what a great business idea such ‘social networking’ sites are and why www.mamba.ru was recently sold for $20 million. These sites, both in Russia and abroad are a money making machine. In Europe and the US, most online dating sites have a subscription fee, and according to the internet-tracking firm comScore Networks, internet dating is now globally the most profitable form of online content, knocking pornography off its top spot. While the sites in Russia are free, the $1.00 sms system generates a lot of money.
The first girl that I have any real connection with is 20 yearold ‘Sacha’. Her photos are not the average bikini or holiday shot, but are strange and impressionistic and she writes that she likes Bossa Nova music. Both facts suggest she is different and therefore probably interesting. Over the next few days we chat about our experiences of the site, about travel, art and literature, and swap website addresses of things and people that interest us. We both say we would like to meet up, so swap telephone numbers, set a time and a place, and she says she will call an hour before, in case she is running late from work. The call does not come. I send an sms. Nothing. I call. No answer. I send another sms saying I hope she is ok (I am genuinely a little concerned), but hear nothing back. Two days later ‘Sacha’ deletes her profile. A few days later I receive an sms saying she had an accident and that she will contact me soon, which she does, asking me to call her in the evening. I duly call, but she does not answer. Not an auspicious start!!
Midway through this episode I receive a message from ‘Julia’; “I’m a student of English, so I need some practice speaking English. The problem is that all my efforts to find a native speaker failed because all male expats in Moscow are after sex and not language exchange, do you think it’s possible to find someone interested in language exchange and making friends not love (because I’m happily married)?” ‘Julia’s’ profile is completely blank and I can tell by the counter at the bottom of her profile that I am the first person to have viewed her profile. My profile is languishing in the 20,000s, which means somebody must have given her the link direct to my profile. Either what she has told me is true, (maybe she has been told by a friend I have been chatting with that I may be the type who would be happy to help), or she has been sent as spy to check on me. Either way, she has definitely created a profile to get in touch with me and I am intrigued. I write back and say that I would be happy to meet her.
On meeting ‘Julia’ I am unable to contain my curiosity and immediately ask her how she found my profile amongst so many others. She looks uneasy and says she just spent some time looking at different profiles (all 19,999 of them!!). Over coffee, ‘Julia’ tells me about her marriage to a man nearly three times her age. Her parents are very conservative and felt she was “living like a prostitute” because she was having sex outside of marriage. So after only three months she got married, and now three months down the line she tells me she thinks she has made a mistake. “Its odd that I can tell a stranger this”, she says with a rueful smile as the bill arrives. I tell ‘Julia’ to put her purse away and that she can pay for the coffees next time. Her expression suggests there is not going to be a next time.
If my first two dates were rather confusing, my next ‘encounter’ is typical of internet dating – a case of a fraudulent photograph. I send a message to ‘Vika’, complimenting her on her photo (naked in azure blue waters) and asking where it was taken. She thanks me and says “Yemen”. I smell a rat and point out to ‘Vika’ that not many blond tourists go to Yemen, and stripping naked on the beach of a traditional Islamic country would be verging on the suicidal. ‘Vika’ admits it is not her photo and explains that she cannot use ICQ at work, so she and her friends chat using www.love.mail.ru. She chose the photo to see what men’s reaction would be.
Over the next few days we chat regularly and I ask her on several occasions to post a photo of herself. She keeps making excuses and I realise that she is not going to look like the girl on the beach. She tells me how much she likes me and then posts her photo. She is not my type and I tell her this, feeling terrible for my honesty. I say I am happy to continue chatting with her. ‘Vika’ says this would be pointless and that she will delete her profile, but does not. Over the next two days I keep noticing her online. I receive a message from a male friend of ‘Vika’s’ telling me she really likes me. ‘Vika’ then gets back in touch, saying she misses me and seeing me online chatting to other girls is “a punishment”, before deleting her profile.
Another typical internet dating experience, here in Russia, is the plethora of prostitutes who use such sites. It makes total sense – no need to stand on a street and no need for a pimp. They are fairly easy to spot – their photos generally involve a lot of lingerie, sex is a predominant theme in their profiles and they say they are looking for “a sponsor”. Most send a website link with a map of how to get to their house, although one, ‘Lena”, said she would come to my apartment after I said I was shy! She kept asking me to invite her for the next few days.
I start chatting with ‘Anastasia’, a 25 year-old brunette, who is intelligent and who’s photo looks interesting. In her profile she says she is looking for “A perfect Gentleman”. I rather cheesily tell her that Englishmen are the original Gentlemen, to which she replies; “Oh really? I will have to check…”. The next day she writes; “There is a problem. Gentlemen prefer blonds.” Only in the movies I tell her, and we agree to meet for tea.
I am late for our date, and ‘Anastasia’ looks none too pleased about this, as well as looking different to the one I had chatted with online. Annoyingly she keeps sending sms messages and looking at herself in her compact mirror while we are talking, or rather while I am talking. My conversational skills are put to the test due to her monosyllabic answers and the fact that she doesn’t ask me anything. It is a relief to say goodbye.
After a couple of weeks I realise just how addictive such sites are. On returning home I find myself wondering who might have sent me messages, I am spending hours online and I am starting to get a bad back because of it. I decide to take a few days off.
During my time off I realise that all of the girls I have been chatting with are under 30, so I decide to look for someone older. ‘Tatiana’s’ mischievous smile looks interesting, and I am impressed by the fact that she speaks five different languages. We start to chat, first in English and then in French because she says it is easier for her. She tells me she owns some fashion boutiques and is also a singer. Within about ten minutes she asks me (in French) if I would like her to come over and sing to me later. I back off, but over the next week have some interesting conversations with her and agree to meet.
I meet ‘Tatiana’ and the girlfriend she is sitting with for coffee on Novy Arbat. I wonder whether ‘Olga’ is going to stay. ‘Tatiana’ lights up a Monte Cristo cigar - classy lady! We talk about Moscow and the changes they have both seen, and they ask me of my impressions of the city. I find ‘Olga’ far more interesting than ‘Tatiana’, a fact not lost on ‘Tatiana’. Again I leave feeling relieved.
Just as I am getting bored of looking at endless photos of girls on their mobile phones, striking poses on holiday, holding cuddly bears, or wondering what the wallpaper, or what is lying on the sideboard, might say about a person, I see an interesting photo of a 29 year-old girl wearing a bowler hat. At first, ‘Maria’s’ answers to my questions are short, and seem frosty and rather guarded. Her profile says she is interested only in friendship and chatting, which she confirms in our conversations. She is a freelance interior designer, works a lot on her computer and uses such websites when she wants to take a break from her work. She confesses to having had several different profiles, and tells me she once posed as a man, using a Brazilian actor’s photo, as a role-reversal experiment.
Over the following two weeks we chat daily. ‘Maria’ is extremely smart and witty, as well as being very knowledgeable about how these sites really work. She explains that the reason only foreign girls have made first contact with me is because it is not the done thing here in Russia. ‘Maria’ agrees to meet me, so it comes as quite a shock and a disappointment when I next log on and see that she has deleted her profile. I am genuinely upset, but four days later I receive a message from ‘Masha’, a new profile of the same lady.
We meet for dinner and the conversation flows naturally for the next two hours. The following week we play pool. I realise I have made a new friend thanks to the dating website.
Similarly, without this site I would not have found out about a variety of peoples’ lives, their hopes and dreams, or heard their moans about family members, Russian men, bad university lecturers or office politics. At times this was excruciatingly boring, at other times utterly hilarious. My email inbox was jammed with over 200 photos of a girl who I should have said “no” to when asked if I would like her to email more photos. One girl told me she had just found her boyfriend’s profile on a dating site and that he was looking for a man, not a woman. A beautiful girl said she would happily be my girlfriend, but she needed $1500 per month as a shopping allowance. I was asked to help ‘Perkins’ from Sierra Leone recover his late father’s hidden millions from his time in government, and I was even invited to go skydiving in Spain with an English girl who I didn’t even know what she looked like. I was sorely tempted.
(All names have been changed to protect the identity of the individuals.)