There she was. Glistening underneath the fluorescent lights of the bar, she sat, waiting…for something. And then, he approached. In his red velour tracksuit. Kneeling casually against the bar he asked the girl with the glistening hair, “Hi. What’s your name?” And the rest? Well, as they say, the rest was history.

This is how I, the romantic, imagines in my head, the first meeting between my friend Nikolai* and his now-wife Maria*. In reality, I’m positive he was not wearing one of those ridiculous track suits, and she was actually not sitting at the bar alone, but rather waiting for her friend to arrive. Regardless, he worked up the nerve to talk to her, and the result was a meet-cute for the 21st century that would culminate in a beautiful wedding ceremony a few years later.

When I think of Russian romances, I always think of their relationship. Although, to be honest, I would say it’s a bit atypical for Russia: she was a little bit too old by Russian standards. He wasn’t already in a relationship. They didn’t meet in college or at work. But, even if it’s not typical, it’s one of my favorites.

See, I saw my first romantic comedy at the ripe, formative age of 8—Pretty Woman. It was the movie that started a long-term love affair with Julia Roberts—and unrealistic romantic expectations. I would see any movie as long as her name was in the credits, and, as you can imagine, that included a significant number of romantic comedies. Over time, the leading ladies began to diversify and my shelf of DVDs grew, but I rarely expanded my genre horizons. You know you have a problem when your “Amazon Also Recommends” just regurgitates films you’ve already seen. Needles to say, I’m a romantic—a personality trait I took with me when I traveled to Russia.

But dating in Russia is a tricky thing. Like many other aspects of life in the country, it has one foot firmly planted in the world of 50 years ago and one foot planted in modern society. Perhaps this is no more evident than in the attitudes towards online dating.

While on my Fulbright in 2016, my American friends that were visiting, my ex-boyfriend, and the other Fulbrighter in Nizhny, along with his wife, had traveled from Nizhny for a weekend of fun in the country’s imperial capitol. One evening, we wound up at a bar where we met an American man from Texas who was engaged to a Russian woman (Americans somehow always seem to find one another in Russian bars). Naturally, we asked how they met.

At this point, she lowered her voice to a whisper, and, as if she was confessing a sin, she answered, “Online”. I am positive that if she hadn’t been so drunk, she wouldn’t have told us the truth to begin with.

The secrecy with which she whispered this came as a shock to myself and my American counterparts. What was so shameful about meeting online? As of 2019, meeting online has become the most popular way US couples meet. There are also literally more than a thousand dating apps available, with many seeming to originate in the United States. I, myself, had met my previous boyfriend via Coffee Meets Bagel. What’s more, it’s not like we were in the Far East or even a “smaller city” like Nizhny. We were in St. Petersburg—the most European of all Russian cities.

But if you think about the stigma attached to online dating in the United States 10, 20 years ago, then that’s the kind of stigma this woman in the bar felt in 2016. In fact, I’m not even sure they met via a traditional app. It could have been just an online community. Either way, he decided to pack up his bags and relocate to Russia for her. For me, I thought the chance encounter via the Internet only added to the charming nature of the relationship.

Fast forward a year. I had moved from Nizhny Novgorod (the regions) to Moscow, and—as anyone who knows anything will tell you—Moscow is not Russia. Moscow is a modern city of nearly 12 million people, a somewhat disorienting mix between developed Western cities and the Soviet legacy. And, like other large cities, unless you meet someone at work or happened to get married to someone you met in college, it’s incredibly difficult to meet a potential partner. The one time I actually managed to meet someone in a bar, he texted me the next day to ask me out only to blow me off later in the week. Go figure.

In fact, many people lament how difficult it can be to date in Moscow—especially the women. You would think then that dating apps would be a booming business, but “real-life” still seems to be the preferred method.

While people do online date in Moscow, the options are considerably limited compared to the US. Online dating began to evolve in the US in the early 1990s, but it didn’t begin to make an appearance on the Russian market until the early 2000s. The first sites that did appear—most notably Mamba and Badoo in 2003 and 2006, respectively—were berated for their lax security features. Catfishing appears to know no borders—and never seems to die. As recently as a month or two ago, my friend was catfished on Mamba by two young men as part of what seemed like a childish prank.

Things appear to have changed a bit with the advent of mobile dating apps Younger users enjoy their convenience and, rightly or wrongly, trust them in an age where practically all services, from taxis to doctors’ appointments, can be ordered via apps. In fact, Russia ranks thirteenth in terms of dating audience size for Tinder, with half a million users downloading the app in 2015 alone. Of course, to put that in perspective, there are nearly 12 million people in Moscow (where I’m willing to bet the vast number of users are registered).

For a long time, my dating app of choice has been Bumble, but the lack of users on the app is noticeable. Only in Moscow are you able to flip through literally all available “Bees” and receive a fun notification I didn’t even know existed: “Sorry, there are no more bees near you. Check back later.” It’s also only in Moscow that you can run into the same bees multiple times.

Then, as the world plunged into lockdown, including Russia, a strange thing started to happen. Relegated to months of isolation and no longer able to enjoy real-life meet-cutes, Russians (at least in Moscow) cracked and downloaded dating apps. Even if they weren’t going to meet in person, they enjoyed the digital connection. Suddenly, in May and June, I was swimming in bees (even if I still received a lot of repeats). Many young men I talked to mentioned that this was their first time on a dating app; boredom coupled with isolation had finally convinced them to take the plunge.

Even though online dating is becoming more popular (Tinder experienced a massive growth in popularity after the 2014 Sochi Olympics as athletes publicly discussed their use of the app in the Olympic villages), hushed whispers, like those I encountered in St. Petersburg, are still present. My ex-boyfriend refused to tell his parents and friends the true story of how we met—via Bumble. Instead, he told a tale straight from a romantic comedy: he was drawn to me from across the room at Starbucks, struck up a conversation, and the rest was history. Only over these past few months (again, thank you pandemic) did my Russian friend finally declare defeat in the battle to meet someone in person and dipped her toes into the world of online dating. Even I, not one to shy away from even my most “unconventional” tastes, feel a twinge of embarrassment when I tell my more conservative Russian friends how I met my past and current boyfriend.

But here’s the thing. For all those who deride the romantic comedy genre or find love stories mawkish, there’s a reason both are immensely popular. Humans crave connection, and few forces influence human behavior more than love. Honestly, the day when love stops being a motivator—a driving force behind the best and worst things we do—then that’s the day I swear we really are doomed.

So, if we all really do need some kind of romantic connection, then what’s a modern urbanite to do in an increasingly isolated and remote world? Date online. The phenomenon is here to stay, and even Russians can’t escape the inevitable.

Now, what it’s like to actually date a Russian man? Well, that’s a story for a different day.

*Names have been changed to protect my friends’ privacy

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