For Better, Then Worse

Jonathan Stavole

Despite the Herculean efforts of the computer wizards downstairs, we still get reams of spam on our server. A few weeks ago, a bunch of us started receiving e-mails with the subject line, "For better or worse, Russian brides work," containing a web link to a mail-order marriage site, complete with Kmart-quality glamour shots, a numerical rating system (with one being "plain," and 10 "ready to model"), and answers to what I can only assume are the most frequently asked questions.

Why date or marry a Russian woman?: American women can have attitudes that are difficult to deal with. They are often demanding and hard to please. Russian women on the other hand are so unspoiled. In many less-developed countries, like countries of the former Soviet Union, women have a much lower social status than men. Russian men are often abusive and disrespectful toward women. This is what Russian women are used to. Compared to that, the life you can give her will make her happy and grateful.

Normally, I would have sent the message straight to the virtual trash heap, but having just interviewed a Russian native named Tatiana, who was introduced to me by local immigration attorney Sonseere Goldenberg, it was harder to dismiss the site as just another insignificant, albeit sickening, sign of the times.

Goldenberg, who spends 10 hours a week doing work for a St. Paul-based nonprofit called Civil Society, says that local shelters for battered women are crowded with Eastern European women like Tatiana who met and married men from the U.S. via online dating services or mail-order bride schemes. There's no available data documenting how many women have left that part of the world--often to escape poverty or some form of persecution--only to find themselves subject to abuse, servitude, or sexual slavery. Over the last 18 months, though, Civil Society has taken on at least three clients a week whose experiences are similar to Tatiana's--women who are seeking asylum and hoping to keep the legal immigration status that was initially sponsored by their citizen husbands. And these clients represent just a very small sampling of the women in Minnesota who have dared to come forward. A congressional study done in the early '90s estimates that 70 percent of those women whose immigration status is dependent upon their husbands suffer some form of "battery or extreme cruelty."

The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which was passed in 1994 in large part because of lobbying work done by the late Sheila Wellstone, allows a foreign spouse or child who is being abused to file for legal immigration status without the knowledge or involvement of the husband. Oftentimes, though, women from other countries don't know anything about VAWA--or, if they do, don't have the language skills to take advantage of the law without the help of a lawyer.

That's why groups like Civil Society, which conduct clinics and do immigrant outreach in community centers or social service agencies around the state, are so crucial. "The advocates we work with are often the only people these women can trust; they are of their own culture, speak their language, and many even know them personally," Miller explains. "It usually takes that amount of trust for these women to come forward."

Once a woman does cry for help, capable attorneys such as Goldenberg are available to usher them through a legal labyrinth presided over by the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services; that agency, formerly know as the INS, was made an integral part of the Department of Homeland Security by Attorney General John Ashcroft in late January. Hypothetically, the system is supposed to take its cue from VAWA, and err on the side of protecting the abused. Since 9/11, however, the process has been bogged down by bureaucracy and paranoia, leaving the status of a number of women in limbo while their applications crawl through the system. "Even if you do everything right," Goldenberg complains, "Immigration Services just isn't equipped to handle the volume, and women are getting stuck."

In other words, while the nation wrings its hands over the status of 18-to-34-year-old males, abused women are being pushed to the back of the line. "Things have definitely gotten more difficult post-9/11," Miller says. "There are more delays and much more scrutiny. And, yes, I fear that it will only get harder."

To make matters worse, state budget cuts are playing havoc with the social service agencies Civil Society depends on to help reach victims. "People on the frontlines are being eliminated," Miller concludes. "For instance, we do work at the Fifth District Planning Council in St. Paul. Three years ago, there were three full-time employees there. Now there is an executive director, and no one else. We just have a key and use the space. So that means that the net those people cast--one man who worked there was Hmong--is no longer there. We can use the site, but it's not nearly as valuable.  

"We are a group of lawyers, mostly, so we are not poised to be on those front lines alone. We are not automatically trusted. We don't speak Hmong or Spanish or Russian."


"When I came here, I suddenly had no money. I had no rights. We were trapped like animals. Now, it is just like Soviet Union. It is just the same. I've done nothing wrong and I have been turned into a prisoner."

The agency for battered women that has been housing Tatiana since August requires that no one but authorized personnel see the houses where client families are placed in groups of two or three. The first time we are to meet, I'm told to look for her at a bucolic park in the southern suburbs.

Tatiana is easy to spot among the softball players and joggers who are sweating out the winter on an unusually warm spring day. Sitting alone at a picnic table, the 40-year-old, who is shielding her eyes from the sun, is wearing a long wool dress and brown silk scarf. When she recalls her first day in America, she wraps her arms around her shoulders and shivers.

She met her 44-year-old, soon-to-be ex-husband Andy online in June 2001, through the personals on Yahoo. After exchanging introductions, they began to correspond twice daily via e-mail, and then, eventually, five times a week on the phone, for an hour at a time. Andy, who was working for a small Internet start-up, always paid the tab, and seemed "sweet," Tatiana recalled. She was smitten. Four months later, Andy announced that he would be coming to Moscow. Before leaving Minneapolis he picked out a diamond engagement ring.

In November 2001, the two exchanged vows at "Wedding Palace Number 4" in Moscow. After the ceremony, which a family friend captured on video, one of Tatiana's cousins commented that the couple seemed lost in a fairy tale, their eyes "shining with love."

Five months later, their paperwork finally in order, Tatiana and her 14-year-old son Yuri traveled to Minnesota with only two suitcases and a sewing machine. When they arrived at Andy's apartment, Tatiana knew immediately that she had made a "horrible mistake."

"I couldn't imagine something could be so dirty--all the floor just one big stain," she remembers. Mother and son cleaned for days, but failed to scrub away the rancid smell.

When Tatiana asked if she could look for a job, Andy said he would only allow her to work where he worked, so he could "keep an eye on her." On the rare occasions when they did leave home, Andy angrily insisted that Tatiana was looking at other men. She was not allowed to use the phone or correspond with her family online. When he left town on business for days at a time, he would disconnect the computer and leave just enough money for staples such as milk and peanut butter. During one of Andy's trips in July 2002, however, Tatiana managed to talk to a friend who had also come from Russia (and who had just escaped an abusive relationship). She told Tatiana that there was a battered women's shelter in the area, where there would be someone who would understand her problem and who could help her leave Andy while remaining in the country. Tatiana wrote down the phone number and hid it away.

When he returned from his trips, Andy would be kind for a day or two, then a rage would "grow inside of him." One night in early August, after failing to get an erection, Andy began shouting threats and demanding Tatiana have sex with him every day. A few nights later, when Tatiana refused, he went to a hall closet and retrieved a small club used to stun fish. He swung it over her head for what seemed like an eternity, screaming over and over for her to "fuck" him. Eventually he threw it across the room, putting a dent in the wall.

"The next morning I called number and said, 'Please help me,'" Tatiana says, wiping tears from her eyes. "I really loved this man. Then something went wrong in his head. He was going to hurt me or my boy."

Taking advantage of legal services Civil Society had made available at the shelter, Tatiana was able to secure a restraining order within a few weeks. She also filed papers for divorce (which Andy still hasn't signed). Thanks to VAWA and Goldenberg's counsel, Tatiana 's self-petition for an immigrant visa has been approved.  

Unfortunately, backlog at the BCIS has kept Tatiana without a work visa for nearly nine months. As I write this, she has been unable to work for over a year, even though the process is only supposed to take four to six weeks. So, assuming the shelter stays open (which these days is certainly not a given), she and her son will continue to share a small space--and a fear of the unknown--with two other displaced families.

"[Andy] is like spy. He's brave only with me, no police," she says."But if he finds out where I am, I don't know what feelings will be stronger, his fear or his anger."

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