Norwegian Wife Camp

The Mirror, 2002

The House of Brides: Where Men Come To Buy A Wife – People find their partners in all sorts of ways these days – over the Internet, through dating agencies, via the small ads. But there’s now a place in Norway where men looking for a wife and Russian women looking for a passport to a better life are brought together. Welcome to the International Marriage Camp.

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In a rudimentary two storey timber building in the picturesque country village of Evje, southern Norway, seven Russian women sit around a table struggling to make smalltalk with a balding Norwegian baker, the only male in their midst. The baker has travelled 400km today and paid 1000K (about £80) to meet these women in the hope of making one his wife. And the women, who arrived a few days ago from Murmansk, St Petersburg and Tolliati in search of a Norwegian husband, are coming to terms with the language barrier for the first time. Only one of their group, Helena, a book-keeper from Murmansk, has even the tenderest grasp of English – none speak Norwegian – so nervously smoking cigarettes, they all thumb through various pocket dictionaries, resorting to sign language where necessary.

“I read about this camp in the internet and also the newspapers in Russia,” explains Helena, a bubbly fortysomething and self-elected spokeswoman for her compatriots. “And so I come here for holiday, to walk, to have the clean air, and maybe to find a nice man.”

However Helena is being disingenuous, for the walking and the clean air are neither here nor there – this sparsely furnished boarding house is not a holiday resort but a purpose-built “International Marriage Camp”, perhaps the first of its kind in the world. The ‘International’ part is an empty boast since the camp’s only visitors are Russian women who arrive each year in monthly batches of up to 20 at a time. But the ‘marriage’ part is deadly serious – as the house rules stipulate, only the ‘marriage-minded’ are welcome. The camp’s entertainment consists of a table, some sofas and a basic kitchen – there is no pool, music or television and no alcohol is permitted on the premises. Having fun is not on the agenda.

Helena will stay here for a month or two in one of the 20 or so basic individual rooms, awaiting Norwegian men who visit in dribs and drabs over the course of her stay. And as they arrive her mission is to find a suitable husband with whom she might go home and stay until her three month tourist visa expires. If they get married, she stays, and if she remains married for three years, she gains her ultimate goal of citizenship to a country with one of the highest standards of living in the world. If her husband should choose to divorce her, however, before the three years is up, she will be forced to return to Russia, a country of instability, unemployment, crumbling infrastructure and poverty.

“I am not saying anything bad about Russia, I am a Russian,” she insists defensively, “but Russian man sometimes cannot find job, cannot find money for family, for children. Maybe if I find a nice man I can stay here, for a new life. But if not, it is a holiday, and I just go back.” She shrugs and smiles as though nothing could be more straightforward yet she later reveals that she has a job, a flat and two young children in Murmansk. She won’t say anything about the father, other than “he is in Russia.”

“My children do not know I am here,” she adds, quietly. “But I will not leave them, no mother can leave her children.”

Now in its 3rd year, the IMC was conceived and built by a 57-year old science teacher called Alf Loining. A notorious figure in his homeland, Loining began the camp as a means of expanding his successful ‘Pen Pal’ business which sold to Norwegian men catalogues of available Russian women categorised by age-group, complete with pictures, contact details and, increasingly, video introductions. Loining would assist his customers with writing the letter of invitation to their chosen girls – which were required for visa purposes – and his involvement would end there. “But then I thought: ‘why have just one man meeting one girl at a time? Why not bring lots of girls and lots of men together, there’s more chance of making a match, yes?’”

There is an attractive rustic peace about Loining’s camp, with its glorious view of fjords and forests and the gently smoking chimneys in the distance. One of the women has brought her two small boys who play on the scrub slope leading down from the camp to the street. But the tranquil belies the trauma and tension of the camp’s women. Living in cramped and sparsely furnished single rooms akin to enhanced cells – bed, hanging rail, drawers – the women anxiously await Norwegian men each day, their tickets to a new start. They are always able to leave, and despite their faux-nonchalance about “just go back to Russia”, none plan to return.

Loining’s home is at the foot of the slope, where he lives in some dishevelment with his mother – there is old furniture in the forecourt, his office is a mess of papers. Yet despite the impression Loining gives of a humble, avuncular old duffer with a simple business, he is a highly controversial figure in Norway, not least for his cold and mechanical approach to importing Russian women.

Financially, it works as follows: the men pay a set fee of 1000K for a month’s access to the camp’s women. If, like the baker, they have travelled a long way from home and need to stay the night, Loining charges 200K – although it is strictly forbidden for men to stay in the same building as the women. “This is not prostitution,” he says gravely, “this is about marriage.” And if the men get lucky and decide to take a prospective wife to their homes, for the first date of what could be a lifelong commitment, Loining receives a further 100K.

As for the women, there is considerable debate about the sums involved. Loining insists that bed and board at his camp is free to all women, that he pays for their return flights and that he charges them only the nominal fee of $300, “just to deter the tourists, yes, to prove they are serious about marriage”. He implausibly claims to foot every bill, bar food and drink, for the Russian women who stay at his camp, funding them from his salary as a teacher – it abhors his detractors that a man of Loining’s dubious morality should remain a teacher – which entails his making a huge loss each year. “This is not a money business,” he chuckles benignly, “this is a lifestyle. These women have no money, how else can they come?”

Loining’s detractors however, tell quite another story – that the women pay huge sums to attend the camp and that Loining is far from the magnanimous old gent he portrays. His fiercest critic is his ex-wife, Irina, a Russian doctor from Murmansk whom Loining had invited over initially as a wife, but she eventually became the secretary for the IMC. Irina’s vitriol for Loining knows no bounds. “He is a bad man, a sick man,” she spits. “He used to drink and he would beat me, he burnt me with cigarettes. He thinks Russian women are just cheap life. For 1 year I worked for him, I did everything, but he didn’t pay me, he just threw me out onto the street, but Loining he makes 2 million K last year. Now I cannot go back to Russia, because Alf has told many people that I am a mad woman, he has told the Mafia. He knows the Mafia, he is a dangerous man. His idol is Hitler.”

Loining dismisses Irina’s tirade as that of an embittered divorcee. “She is mad woman,” he sighs. “Very violent. These Russian women know they can stay in Norway even if their marriage doesn’t work. They just have to prove that there is abuse, so they fight and provoke until the man hits back so they can have a mark on their skin. Then they can go to the women’s shelter and so on.”

However Irina’s allegations find credence with Bente Rasmussen, the manager of a women’s crisis centre in the nearby town of Arendal. Rasmussen has seen her scars. Admittedly she has received Russian women from the camp who have lied about abuse in order to remain in the country, but Rasmussen stresses, this is a tiny minority. “Every year, we get women from the camp. They have been chosen by these men, and the worst kind of men in Norway go to Loining’s camp – alcoholics, people with psychological problems, unemployed. They think Russian women are less than Norwegian women, like prostitutes or something to be bought and sold. And they threaten to divorce these women and send them back to Russia. But many can’t go back, they have burnt their bridges so they become like house slaves, or sex toys. One woman was locked in a cupboard, another was forced to sign a contract handing over her earnings for the next 10 years.”

Irina also has documents drafted by Loining’s agent in Murmansk – he has several agents scattered around the country, eight is his estimate – demanding fees of $2000 from Russian women who wish to marry foreign nationals. Loining is never mentioned in the contract, but the fee, it explains, is split 50/50 between the Russian office and the foreign firm, presumably Loining’s IMC. Rather ominously the contract states, in a rather stilted translation: “You shouldn’t think about lie from me and the foreign firm which will find fiancé for you. Besides whether you want it or not, you will have different kinds of trouble and you will be ready to give not only 2000 dollars but many times more to avoid that! You can say that you are not frightened easily and all these threats don’t worry you, but it’s not true! You say this now, when you don’t even know what kinds of troubles can ruin your whole life!”

Irina now lives with another Norwegian man on the other side of the country – she is afraid to give her address. Her scarred and fearful testimony may explain the reluctance of the women at the camp today to reveal their own financial arrangements with Loining. Ask Olga, a single mother of forty from Tolliati, the simple question: “how much did you pay to come here?” and she blushes, discusses the issue with the others for a good ten minutes before delivering the committee decision. “I pay nothing, Alf pays for everything. Why do you ask these questions?”

Dressed in a gaudy yellow and black number, like a big bee, Olga, like most of the women here today, is a well-educated professional – she is an ‘economist’ – and she is deeply suspicious when answering questions about her home life in Russia. “There have been stories about the camp in Pravda, our Russian newspaper,” she explains. “How can I be sure your story will not come in our paper? I have one boy, he is 15 and I told him I am going to Norway for holiday. I don’t want him to see that I have come here.” She even accuses Larissa, the translator, of being a spy – Larissa is a Russian who came to Norway five years ago via Loining’s Pen Pal club, where she married a Norwegian oil contractor. It ended recently in divorce, after a period of what she describes as “psychological torture” and she has spent the last three months in Rasmussen’s shelter. Remarkably she was regarded with beady-eyed suspicion by the women throughout.

When two men turn up from nearby Lillesand, Olga leaves the table to tweak her make up, but the men appear more interested in the youngest girl of the bunch, a big-boned 20something who has nipped off to change three times already in an hour. They move off to the kitchen, behind a partition to get to know each other better. He has chosen and Olga’s face falls. There is an element of urgency among the women. Most are at least in their late 30s and despite their best efforts, not quite the attractive babushkas that fill Loining’s Pen Pal catalogues. The table periodically erupts into frantic Russian bickering whenever the men pose a question – what did he say, what does he do, how do you say… – and although the women appear to support each other through the language barrier, some cross their arms and look out of the window grumpily.

Olga sips her coffee steadily, insisting that she is not desperate. She is not fleeing her home country, she says, whatever will be will be. “I still have a flat, a job, friends, family in Russia,” she says defensively, “Russian women are not stupid. We don’t close our bridges.”

In recent years, the roads to the IMC were picketed by the Norwegian feminist group Ottar who would protest against this trade in foreign women and take name-and-shame Polaroids of any men arriving as though the IMC were some kind of brothel. “It is a disgusting industry, selling women from one country to another like cattle,” says Ane Sto, an Ottar spokeswoman. “It merely exacerbates the prejudice we see in Norway against Russian women.” This year the Ottar protestors haven’t bothered to the collective relief of all concerned.

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“They just hate men, they want to make trouble,” says Lars Johannsen, chomping on a cigar. A far cry from the alcoholic or social misfit you might expect from Rasmussen’s forecast, Johannsen is a well-spoken 34 year old boat-builder from Lillesand who got divorced four years ago. “In Norway, feminists have nothing to protest about,” he says, “in fact Norwegian women are very independent. I am divorced, for example, and if I don’t pay alimony because I have no work, it just piles up, but if my ex-wife cannot work, the government pays for her. And in Norway many women get 12 months maternity leave, no questions. So this is my trouble – women do not need men any more. They get divorced and they never marry again. I am hoping that Russian women will be more like Norwegian women used to be – keeping the home nice and together, looking after the family.”

Johannsen visited the camp last year with his older brother Arvid and although his own pretty 20 year old didn’t work out – “she was too young for me, and, coming from St Petersburg, she didn’t like the quiet country life” – his brother found Tatiana, a Murmansk divorcee to whom he remains happily married. They are trying for a child this year. “Yes I am very happy with Arvid,” says Tatiana, “he is a gentleman. I have brought my child from my first marriage, and he is only five so I’m hoping he can learn Norwegian quickly. Perhaps he can teach me!”

Tatiana went home with Arvid after barely a fortnight at the camp last year. He was the first man with whom she dared take the leap to actually visiting his Lillesand home, over a hundred kilometres away.  “We talked for one day, then the next day and the next, like that,” says Tatiana, carefully. “I don’t just jump! He seemed like a nice man and serious, so I thought OK, let’s try. And everything he said about his home is true. Lillesand is very pretty place.” Arvid himself is the model of rationality about affairs of the heart. “There was not immediate love but we are learning. Marriage is not a game, of course and it is important to  be honest, this is the thing. Many men go to the camp and tell all kinds of stories about how they live, what their job is. But how can you marry like this?”

So, as sterile and tasteless as the IMC seems, particularly given its pervading mood of secrecy and fear, it appears that occasionally, very rarely, the marriages actually work. Certainly the demand exists both among Norwegian men and Russian women – apparently Loining now has competition in Lillesand, where more Russian girls are being imported.

“But I don’t just want Russian girls,” says Loining, puffing on a soggy roll-up. “This is an International Camp. Soon maybe I will have German girls, French girls, English girls too…”