From Russia with love: Encounters International finds profit in matchmaking
Jan. 16, 2004
C. Benjamin Ford
Staff Writer

Susan Whitney-Wilkerson/The Gazette

Natasha Spivack of Encounters International in Rockville expanded her matchmaking business, opening an office in Kiev, Ukraine.

Construction company president Frank Lauria, 52, seems too tough to be easily swept off his feet.

Yet as he stood waiting at the apartment office of Natasha Spivack's Encounters International in Rockville, he said that's exactly what happened to him.

Lauria, who is divorced with an adult son, said he decided to use the service after he heard Russian women are more "traditional," emphasizing their home life over a career.

"When we met it was like love at first sight," he said of Elena Tsilinko, his Russian betrothed, whom he met through Spivack's matchmaking service.

Encounters International held a party recently to mark its 10th anniversary of matching Russian women with American men, bringing back many of the 247 couples who have met and married through the service.

Indirectly, a personal tragedy prompted Spivack to launch the business.

In 1988, Spivack and her husband, Boris Yudzon, emigrated from the Soviet Union to the United States. However, 18 months later, Yudzon was killed in a car crash. Spivack, newly single with two teenage boys to raise in a new country, found herself trying to date again to find a mate.

"My children needed a role model," Spivack said. "I needed somebody -- you know, a husband."

With the collapse of the Soviet Union soon thereafter, she returned to Moscow and met with her women friends, who shared their own complaints about the dating scene.

So Spivack gave up her job as a Russian language professor at Johns Hopkins University and began her own business, arranging marriages between Russian women and American men.

During an interview in her small Rockville apartment, Spivack juggled three phone calls in two different languages: one from her office in Moscow, another from a man interested in her services and another from a BBC reporter who was also interviewing her.

Spivack said her service, which charges $1,850 for a membership, works, saying that only 12 of its 247 marriages have resulted in divorce.

Encounters International differs from international "mail-order bride" services because the company does not just sell addresses of single women, she said, but tries to match people whose personalities mesh.

The Internal Revenue Service does not track the number of marriages linked to matchmaking services. In 1996, federal law was changed to allow foreign-born women to petition for citizenship, protecting them from deportation should the marriage not work out.

Spivack said she interviews the women and men to find the best matches. She also has videotapes of interviews with the women that the men can view, and arranges for the men to travel to Russia and Ukraine, where she recently opened an office in Kiev. As the Russian economy has improved, fewer Russian women are looking for American men, leading her to open the additional office.

Spivack herself is currently single. Several years ago, she remarried, but the marriage ended in divorce. She declined to discuss her company's revenues because of a pending court action with her former spouse, but in a 2001 interview with Business Forward magazine she said the business makes between $90,000 and $200,000 per year.

The business tends to slow down in the summer, when single men hope they can meet someone at the beach or other vacation sites, she said.

"It can be cyclical," Spivack said.

As he waited to hand Spivack his paperwork to arrange his next trip to meet his fiancée in Russia, Lauria said "It's a wonderful experience.

"If you want to talk about a dream come true, this is it. I don't speak in dreams and fairy tales, but this is my dream come true. This is my fairy tale."