From cooking to blowjobs, special ‘language schools’ in Belarus, Ukraine and the Balkans train poor, mostly provincial young women in the art of seducing and holding onto Western men, before sending them ‘into the field’ as au pairs or in-house nurses. That’s how Tatsiana and Iva got their visas out of poverty and moved to Berlin. But as each found out, marrying a German is only half the story…
The 24-year-old wants to meet in a tiny café, with hidden corners, to retain some of her privacy. She agrees to talk on the condition of anonymity. Tatsiana K. was born and raised in the town of Lipavaja Kaloda, about 30km from Minsk. As a girl she dreamt of a better life for herself and her parents, and she was willing to do all it took to achieve that.
“My mother has worked all her life as a tailor, for very little money, fixing someone else’s nice clothes. Her hands are sore, her eyesight has gotten weak. My father works in a factory now. We used to have a piece of land, but we sold it about 10 years ago. Most of the money we got went to my brother’s education – they were hoping he’d become a doctor and support them when they grew old. But my brother died.” Tatsiana’s green eyes suddenly fill with tears, her perfectly round face shrinks, her cheeks turn red and she bites her lip. She jumps up and leaves for the bathroom. A couple of minutes later she returns, all cleared up again. Smiling, she apologises and sits back down on the sofa a s if nothing has happened.
“It was a stupid accident. Harvest, seven years ago. My brother was helping a friend; they were drunk and messing around on a pile of corn. They climbed up on one side and slid down the other. He just somehow sank and couldn’t come up anymore, and he suffocated… I was 17 back then, and I saw how devastated my parents were. That’s when I decided that I would fulfil their dreams instead of my brother.” When she told her parents this, however, they were less than supportive.
“I was always a good student but still, it’s not so common in Belarus for a woman to aim for higher education. I started nursing school, tried to learn English in the library by myself. Then one day, a girl at school told me how she was planning to move to the US, once she found someone to marry. She’d signed up for a workshop in Minsk where they would teach her English – and also how to get a wealthy American husband. She convinced me that it would be a good opportunity for me too and I could support my family if this all worked out. I decided to go – if nothing else, then to learn more English! I told my parents I was going to take a language course and asked them to give me the rest of the money we’d gotten for the land. A couple of weeks later, I went to Minsk.”
Hands-on training in Minsk
Every weekend for the next two months, Tatsiana and five fellow female students met in an old army building, in the suburbs of Minsk. They slept, ate and learned there, and were only allowed out for two hours a day. The then-19-year-old girl was shocked by the intensity of these weekends. “I was naively thinking they would teach me how to cook and bake better, and maybe some beauty tricks. But the workshop offered so much more!”
The workshops are not official and usually registered as ‘language schools’. Their basic concept? To teach you to please a man so well that he’ll never want to let you go again.
The origin of these so-called ‘man-catching schools’ is unclear. Usually registered as ‘language schools’, the unofficial workshops operate independently in Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Balkan countries like Bosnia and Serbia. Their basic concept? To teach you to please a man so well that he’ll never want to let you go again.
“The teacher, Mrs. Malashkevich, was terrifying and amazing at the same time. She was in her fifties, but it was hard to tell at first because she wore all this makeup. You could smell her perfume before she arrived, and long after she left. She was a very tough woman. At first, I was actually very concerned that she just took the €100 fee from us – which is a lot of money in Belarus – and perhaps she wouldn’t let us out of that creepy, cold building anymore!
“The first morning, Mrs. Malashkevich told us how to do our makeup, hair and nails ourselves to always look perfect. She replaced mascara with cheap shoe polish to colour our eyebrows and lashes. It stung and my eyes were bloodshot, but it lasted a long time and was cheap. I got used to it in a few weeks. She told us how to behave in order to seem innocent and harmless, when to shut up, how to gaze into someone’s eyes, when to stop flirting to leave a guy craving more and how to compliment a man on all levels, from how nice his hands are to how big and hard his penis is…”
Coming from a conservative family, Tatsiana had a hard time coping with the workshop’s ‘sex education’ aspect, but her fellow students convinced her that this was the only way forward.
‘Nobody wants to marry a log of wood, no matter how good her meatballs are!’, Mrs. Malashkevich used to tell us. That’s how I learned how to give deep-throat blowjobs – we had to practise and then present in front of the others on a banana.
“’Nobody wants to marry a log of wood, no matter how good her meatballs are!’, Mrs. Malashkevich used to tell us. That’s how I learned how to give deep-throat blowjobs – we had to practise and then present in front of the others on a banana. She showed us how to touch a guy’s prostate to make him come better, and how to fake an orgasm well. She had us buy these silicone tubes to hide when we were menstruating – a man hates a menstruating woman, she said. We all had to place this finger-glove piece into our vaginas and try how it felt with our fingers. A few of us were still virgins and I remember being afraid to hurt myself. But slowly, my disgust passed and I was really determined to learn all of it. I actually find it exciting to this day to see how men react to certain things.” Tatsiana talks about all this with a very natural tone – like it’s a recipe and she’s just listing the ingredients.
A field trip to Potsdam
Through connections with international au pair agencies, children’s camps and home nursing services, ‘man-catching schools’ like Tatsiana’s are able to send their girls out into the field. Tatsiana wanted to go to the UK or the US, destinations Mrs. Malashkevich discouraged because of their visa difficulties. In the end, she got an au pair position with a British famil y living in Potsdam. Her contract and visa were for half a year: six months to find a wealthy German boyfriend.
“The family was alright. The kids were spoiled, but they didn’t treat me impolitely at all. But for me, the point was to look for opportunities. I started to learn German in the local Volkshochschule, but I knew that wouldn’t get me a husband. So I made friends with others in the course and started pushing them to go out. I met a couple of weird guys, but four months in, I still had nothing. Then, I was invited to another au pair’s house for her farewell party. The family had an older son who came to visit that weekend and brought his flatmate, Stefan with him. He was very different from the guys I’d met earlier – very gentle, a quiet but interesting person. He was finishing his master’s in Amsterdam and was about to become the CEO of the Berlin branch of his father’s logistics business. We talked at the party and he asked me if I wanted to spend the next day, my day off, with him. We went to Berlin and we had a lot of fun. We walked around, he invited me for lunch and drinks, I even got a little tipsy. Everything worked exactly how I imagined!”
Tying the knot
By the time Stefan went back to Holland, says Tatsiana, “I hadn’t slept with him, but I’d done enough to keep him interested.” The pair stayed in contact. “Two weeks later, he showed up as a surprise, with a bunch of flowers and a smartphone, so we could communicate more easily, and I knew I had won him. We only spent two months together but by the time I had to go, he was headover- heels in love with me. I liked him, but I saw this only as a chance to break out.”
Unable to get an extension on her visa, Tatsiana went back to Belarus. Stefan was devastated. “I’d learned how to pressure a guy by describing how sad and poor our lives are at home, but with Stefan I didn’t need to act much. He came to visit me after he graduated, but he had to start working so he couldn’t stay. I told him that the only way we could spend more time together would be to marry. He hesitated for a while, but a few weeks later he called me on Skype and said, ‘I’m coming to you in two weeks, let’s get married!’ It wasn’t the proposal a girl usually dreams of, but it was exactly what I wanted to hear. We got married and my family was over the moon – his parents knew nothing. Five months later, I moved to Berlin.”
As the months passed, living with her new husband, Tatsiana began to feel remorse. “I realised how unfair I was to him, tricking him into this. And I’d started to fall for him too. So one evening, I sat him down and told him the whole story. He was taken aback and hurt, but he didn’t leave. Since then I’ve been trying my best to prove to him that our marriage is real! I would like to study further and become a nurse and have a real life and family here.”
Tatsiana’s story is exceptional. Many of the girls trained in the art of husband-catching return home empty-handed and with little hope of a second chance. As for the ‘lucky’ ones, they usually have to keep faking the relationship until they reach their ultimate goal: Western citizenship. But material comfort doesn’t always make up for unhappy love.
Better than prostitution
Take Iva, a 31-year-old Bosnian woman married for four years to a German 22 years her senior. “On paper, I have it all. I live in a beautiful, huge Prenzlauer Berg Altbau; my husband is a respectful, wealthy man; I have a son, a cleaning lady, a babysitter. I can travel wherever I want to, whenever I want to.” Iva is not her real name; she picked it – one of her many conditions to share her story. Her chosen meeting point is a Japanese restaurant. Iva dresses in stylish brands and thinks sushi is posh. “Every time I eat it, it reminds me how far I’ve come,” she says. But then announces point blank: “I can’t wait to divorce.”
Iva ‘trained’ in Sarajevo before being placed in Berlin as an in-house nurse. “My life in Bosnia wasn’t very cheerful. I grew up in Sarajevo during the war, my dad died, my mum had many different boyfriends, and some of them were violent. I got married at 18 and ran away. I soon realised I wanted something more; I wanted to be rich and safe. I got a divorce when I was 23, and went to the husband-catching workshop a year later at the suggestion of my friends. I was one of the ‘oldies’ in the class.”
Like Tatsiana, Iva had a formidable teacher. “She was incredible. I’d been sexually active since I was 14, but I had no idea how I could use my body. As a weapon…”
Many girls in Iva’s situation end up being lured abroad and exploited by sex traffickers, and “this was definitely much better than prostitution,” she says. “Okay, you could say it’s a form of prostitution because it’s sleeping with men for their money – but a more luxurious one, where I at least only sleep with one man and won’t have to be afraid of getting killed if I want to leave!” says Iva with a bittersweet laugh.
Her husband, Hannes, was the son of one of her nursing patients. “He often visited his mother. We didn’t have a big connection, but I knew he was my chance. So I flirted, I played until we started an affair. He was just in the middle of his first divorce – lucky for me! Our relationship lasted about half a year. It was an awkward situation as I lived with his mother and most of the time, we had sex in the room next to hers. He kept saying it made him feel 16 again.”
When Iva’s visa expired, she returned to Sarajevo. “I begged him to visit me. The night before he arrived, I ran against the wall on purpose, so I’d be bruised and he’d pity me. We learned stuff like that in the course – how to bruise ourselves or each other and then say a relative did it! He was really worried, but not worried enough to ask me to marry him and return to Germany. So I faked a pregnancy. We learned that if you put a little baking soda in the glass before peeing in it, the test will be positive. It worked. I sent him a photo of the test and he offered to marry me. After the visa was in process, I pretended I’d had a miscarriage.”
She moved to Germany a few months later, and eventually she and Hannes did have a child. The two-year-old boy is Iva’s guarantee that she’ll always be taken care of. Meanwhile, Hannes has no idea he’s in a sham marriage.
“I don’t love my husband, I never did,” says Iva. She’s skinny and suddenly looks way older than her age. She claims not much gets to her anymore. “This was a business, and still is. He is a good man, he provides a wonderful life for us and he loves our kid. But I would like to move to the US with my son. I want to get my citizenship here and then leave him. I have no idea what I would do in America. I just always dreamed of living in Los Angeles.”