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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Promises of Love and Pineapples

ZELENODOLSK, Tatarstan -- Irina was drinking tea with her 5-year-old daughter when the long-awaited call from the Internet matchmaking agency came through.

"Prepare for a nice surprise," the voice said. "We've got a man for you. An American, aged about 40. But hurry up if you don't want to miss him, he will be leaving soon."

After months of waiting, it was indeed a pleasant surprise for the 26-year-old who had started to lose hope that good looks and the Internet would help her find a foreign "prince" to take her away from her rundown town just west of the Tatar capital of Kazan.

Buoyed by growing demand, cross-border matchmaking has spilled outside big cities and is spreading across the provinces. But ancient telecommunications systems leave mail-order brides at the mercy of their agents.

Twenty minutes later, Irina was staring in bewilderment at a frail, balding man in his late 50s, a Uruguayan. The agency gave her an interpreter and an hour to decide how much she liked Lionel, who was heading off to Moscow to catch a plane home.

After some hesitation she made a snap decision to accompany her surprise guest on the 12-hour journey to the capital to check if there was any chance their chemistry could work. "I think I was lucky. Others don't get anything. They just pay and pay, and nothing comes out of it," she said, resignedly.

Internet matchmaking agencies have proliferated in Irina's native Yoshkar-Ola, a town of 250,000 in the Mari El republic east of Moscow, luring swarms of lonely women with dreams of starting a new and happy life abroad.

But their services come at a price.

With few households having an Internet connection and even fewer would-be brides speaking a foreign language, candidates are torn between a desire to try their luck and the need to constantly deplete meager budgets with agency fees.

Adding to their misery are persistent rumors that the matchmakers engage in foul play to keep girls on the hook.

Foreigners to Yoshkar-Ola are often offered a choice of at least 10 female contenders, presented one after the other. After two such shows, an embarrassed Irina decided to stop trying. "Lionel came to meet someone else. Their date did not work out and he chose me by photograph," she said as her companion, dressed in pink trousers, a light blue shirt and a pair of sneakers, leafed through a Spanish-Russian phrasebook.

"The problem is nobody knows anything about Uruguay," she said, a note of panic creeping into her voice. "In the encyclopedia there are just three lines about it. I called the library and the only book they have on South America is called 'One Hundred Years of Solitude.'

"I don't know what to do."

A hundred kilometers further south, in Zelenodolsk, Svetlana Krylova and her one-person agency are helping Internet matchmaking get off the ground. Svetlana first got the taste of Internet-age opportunities two years ago when she convinced a retired Belgian to pay for her trip to Paris. Their date was an expected failure. But news of Svetlana's weeklong free vacation in Europe whetted appetites and led many to believe that if not marriage then at least a trip abroad was up for grabs.

Currently Svetlana had more good news for her 20-odd clients, relaying the latest developments in a month-old romance between Albina, a local nurse, and a man from Barbados. "He has taken her on a Caribbean vacation! She says she has been eating pineapples for a week now, as many as she wants!"

With few in Zelenodolsk's depressed community able to afford the exotic fruit, pineapples have now become a bizarre symbol of a sweeter life that only wealthy foreigners can offer to deprived Russian women.

"I often feel like crying when I look at our women. Look what they have to choose from," Rita said, waving to groups of noisy, disheveled individuals in tracksuits lounging around the main square.