The Russians are coming!
In fact, they’re already here, and one woman is showing them the way
When Elena Tonetti arrived in the United States for the first time in 1989, she rode into Santa Monica from the airport seeing crowds of people roaming the streets with blood on their necks and fangs in their mouths. These people were wearing strange costumes—they were dressed as witches, penises and other fantastical figures that seemed inappropriate to the newly arrived Russian. Tombstones and carved pumpkins adorned front lawns.
She had never heard of Halloween, and she didn’t know English well enough to ask about what she was seeing. “For me, it was quite a shock!” she recalled. “I was quiet and terrified.”
All her life in Russia, Tonetti had heard America was an “evil empire” full of gangsters and prostitutes and not a safe place to live. While she had thought that was simply propaganda, she began to think it might be true. She thought she had fallen into some wrong reality.
“The next morning, when everything appeared normal on the streets, I knew I’d awakened into the right reality again.” It wasn’t until several years later that she fully understood what she had seen that day. “Halloween was my introduction to American life.”
Now Tonetti has positioned herself to introduce other Russian women—there are about 60 of them locally—to their new home in Butte County, most of them having arrived via the “Russian bride boom” that started about 10 years ago.
Why in the world would Russian women want to relocate to Butte County? Life in Russia (and neighboring countries, such as Ukraine) is difficult even in best-case scenarios, and Russian women desire the kinds of men they’ve heard about in stories of the West. They don’t care whether they go to rural places or urban environs—they just want out of Russia.
Tonetti has spent many years acculturating in the U.S. and rising to the status of successful, globally known businesswoman. She knows what it’s like to arrive in a new country with only a smattering of English words, so she’s tried to help other Russian women find their way, serving as a guide to her countrywomen who find themselves immersed in negotiating a culture and society far different from the one they’ve left behind.
Tonetti had come to America at the invitation of John Lilly, the consciousness researcher who worked with dolphins. Tonetti had worked with the Conscious Birth Movement, which she described as “an intelligent approach to human procreation where people-making practice is embraced with full awareness of the implications of how the quality of gestation and birth affects the quality of health and emotional well being of a new human being.” Her work had included birth camps on the Black Sea where there were wild dolphins, which Lilly was interested in.
At that time in the late ’80s, Russian citizens were not allowed to travel outside Russia unless they were leaving for good. Tonetti, however—through a chain of seeming coincidences—somewhat miraculously manifested a visa to travel abroad for a short, private visit in the United States.
Three months pregnant and understanding no English, Tonetti became acquainted with a Sufi guru who immediately proclaimed her “a goddess” and made room for her at his Malibu ocean-side ashram, transporting her there in a white stretch limousine.
The guru helped her learn English through long, tedious conversations and, in part, by showing her American movies, pausing them after each sentence and explaining them. The first one he chose was Star Wars, and it took them eight hours to get through it.
Soon after, he married her—just two days before her visa expired—allowing her to remain in the United States. Conditions in Russia were quite volatile at that time, and whenever Tonetti called home, her mother implored her to stay in America “until the dust settles.”
When Tonetti left Russia in 1989, the nation was a solid Soviet regime. Within two weeks, the entire country had collapsed, and she became stranded out of her motherland, where there were hunger strikes, tanks in the Red Square, and threats of Civil War. The Berlin Wall had crashed and all of Eastern Europe was in chaos.
At the ashram, Tonetti awaited the birth of her baby while listening daily to the serene chanting of the ashram’s devotees.
After her baby, Christina, arrived in the world, Tonetti’s tenure at the ashram—where the devotees had a “maddening” schedule that started at 4 a.m.—grew more difficult.
As all babies do, Christina cried frequently, and that disturbed the meditating disciples. Then, too, Tonetti didn’t believe the disciples needed to go through a guru to experience God, so she began trying to convince them they didn’t need the guru she had married. Coming from an atheistic communist mentality of total equality, she did not have a concept of gurus.
“I was trying to free the slaves, but they didn’t want to be free! I understood very little about the life in an ashram,” she said.
One day, she walked away from the ashram “into nothing.” She found herself homeless, sitting on the grass in a Santa Monica park crying and nursing her 2-month-old baby, when she heard some people speaking Russian. “It was like a miracle—the first time in eight months I’d heard Russian! I called out to them, ‘Stop!’ ” The elderly couple turned out to be Russian Jews who took her in and fed her and her baby.
A few days later, they took her to a Russian church where she met another couple who were old-school Russian aristocracy. They provided her with fabulous living quarters for a time, treating her like a daughter, allowing her to enjoy their library filled with books—books that had been prohibited in Russia.
Eventually, through receiving an invitation in 1990 from New Age teacher Leonard Orr to his birthday party, Tonetti found her way to Chico.[page]
About 10 years ago, Tonetti was on an airplane flying home to Chico from Southern California when she found herself sitting next to a Russian woman. Delighted to have the opportunity to speak her native language, Tonetti launched into a passionate conversation with the woman. She soon learned her seatmate had an American fiancé awaiting her in Chico. The woman was drop-dead gorgeous, Tonetti said, and, like most Russian women, was dressed to the hilt and fully made up—“like a Barbie doll.”
Much to Tonetti’s amazement, the woman pulled out a huge make-up case shortly after the plane took off and proceeded to apply cosmetics with the concentrations of a hunting cat. “She was completely focused on painting a face on herself,” Tonetti recounted. Having lived in California for many years at that point, Tonetti amusedly considered the adjustments the woman would have to make to American life. Tonetti had long since given up on Russian women’s attention to fashion and cosmetics and had adopted “Chico casual.”
For the Russian brides, Tonetti has served as something of a “mother hen,” helping them acculturate to a society vastly different from their own and assisting them in negotiating life with American husbands. Many of these women barely spoke English when they arrived in Butte County, and most had expectations about life in the U.S. they had derived from movies or television. One woman showed up expecting a Mercedes—with a bow on it, such as seen on The Price Is Right—in her fiancé’s driveway. (She was sorely disappointed when she didn’t find it there.)
Tonetti’s life is quite full these days as she continues her work in the U.S. and abroad, determined to make a difference in birth practices globally. Now a U.S. citizen, she hasn’t had as much time in the past five years to “mother” newly arrived Russian brides, but other more established women help the newcomers in their various phases of adjustment to American life.
Tonetti taught her countrywomen how to shop and speak English, and at times she translated for them. She even served as mediator when they clashed with their husbands—which inevitably happened. “Some of the men who want mail-order brides don’t have the best communication skills,” she explained. Poor communication skills on top of a language barrier have made for volatile experiences in some of the American-Russian unions. Tonetti found herself a little too involved at times—more than once, an American husband forbade his Russian bride to continue talking to her, as they viewed her as having a lot of “American” ideas about women exercising independence.
Often, Tonetti said, the American men who want Russian brides are men who embrace traditional ways. They don’t always care for it when their Russian brides want to learn how to drive a car or get a job outside the home, although some of them are fine with that. “There have been lots of success stories, and then there have been some pretty strange situations, which caused me to step back,” Tonetti said, adding “I am just living my life here—I am not showing the way. Most of the marriages are working out beautifully.”
A few of the Russian brides arrive in the United States thinking they’re coming to “heaven on earth” and will be served on hand and foot, Tonetti said. Some end up disillusioned to find otherwise. Others are happy just to be safe and comfortable. Other ladies roll up their sleeves and diligently work hard every day helping their husbands maintain businesses. Most of the Russian brides are very loyal, practical, and skillful, and most of the marriages are turning out well, Tonetti said—she knows of only two Russian wives who have left their husbands.
Literally hundreds of thousands of Russian women advertise themselves in catalogs online, Tonetti said—hoping beyond hope to meet a man who will get them out of Russia. Hoping to find a husband.
According to Tonetti, Russian women find Russian men undesirable. Too many years of Communist rule have programmed men not to be men, she said, and most of them are “either macho or alcoholics or criminals” who sit around all day and drink or engage in crime. “Very few healthy, intelligent, and family-oriented men are available.” The good men, the good role models, were systematically destroyed over many generations of harsh Russian rule. “The alpha males have been exterminated.”
Besides that, conditions in Russia were and still are horrible. “Life in Russia is very difficult—in just about every way,” Tonetti said. “It’s sort of like a twilight zone, a bit surrealistic.” Supermarkets are rare—women have to walk to a number of shops every day to obtain food. Crime has increased tremendously—people who are lucky enough to have cars, for example, have to take care not to park next to an expensive car such as a Mercedes—it might explode or be a target of some sort. Metal bars cover every door and every window. “You have to be extremely well connected and/or lucky and/or entrepreneurial to survive in Russia right now. Life in Russia is very uncomfortable, and even dangerous.”
Many Russians, to this day, do not have consistent electricity or hot water. Some live in extremely cramped conditions. Women go to great lengths to find a husband in another country—any country. They simply want out of Russia.
Here in Butte County, many of the Russian women get together for their birthdays and holidays, especially Russian holidays, when they share Russian food and songs.
On a late summer evening, in a beautiful Paradise home perched on the edge of the canyon, about eight couples and a few others gathered for the birthday party of Elena Barnaovska, a tall, striking, impeccably dressed Russian woman. Elena’s husband, veterinarian Mike Seely, tended the barbecue out on the deck. The women—all dressed in fashionable outfits—gathered in the kitchen and dining area, speaking fervently in Russian and laughing often, while the men relaxed in the living room just opposite, joking and talking in English.
One of the husbands, an older, white-haired gentleman, came over and introduced himself as Victor, saying he’s a Russian-American who was born in New York. Unlike the other husbands, he speaks Russian, which he used to beckon, Tamara, a vibrant, well-dressed middle-aged woman, his wife of nine years. Soon she began a lively tale—in English peppered with Russian words.
A woman named Galina theatrically told how her American husband, Greg, took her on a trip to Wyoming not long after she had arrived in America. “He take me on horseback ride,” she said with her thick accent, “and it is my first time ever on horse! It is miracle I survive!” Clearly she’d forgiven her husband for that early faux pas.
Food started appearing on the table, including a pinkish pie, appearing quite like whipped cream and berries. “Would you like to try a Russian dish?” Elena offered. When asked what it was, she replied, “herring under coat,” but Tonetti laughed and corrected her translation, saying it’s “herring under cover”—herring under a cover of vegetables, mostly beets and potatoes. Suddenly the concoction is no berry and whipped cream pie, but an exotic foreign dish. Elena served up a huge slice.
During dinner, the women, seated around one end of the spacious dining room table, continued their conversations in Russian. The two non-Russian-speaking women at the table listened politely and curiously, suddenly knowing what it’s like to be an ESL (English as a second language) student thrown into a classroom where only English is spoken. But the sheer beauty of the spoken Russian made the unknown meanings fairly unimportant, and a pleasant vibe prevailed.
Toward the end of dinner, the Russian women said their names all around: Tamara, Galina, Elena, Ala (Elena’s daughter), Marina, and Miya. Tamara then broke into robust singing, and the others joined in, singing lovely Russian lyrics—songs that are mostly about “love and some guy who went off to war and got killed” Tonetti explained. Only Ala held back—apparently the younger generation of Russians don’t like singing the old songs so much.
Soon after arriving in Chico, Tonetti started reviving her passion for working with pregnant women, and she organized a fundraiser, declaring her intention to create conscious-parenting classes. The community responded well.
One of those who responded was Michael Tonetti, who had a robust massage-therapy practice in Chico, and he sent her a hundred-dollar check.
“We had lunch the next week, dinner the week after that, and Christina and I moved in with him the third week,” she recalled. Soon after, they married.
Michael provided the stability Elena and Christina so needed, and he became Christina’s legal father. Elena learned how to keep a house, drive a car, shop at supermarkets (she still didn’t know which box was the soap and which was the pantyhose), talk to the school, and many other activities an American mother and wife typically embraces. She had to learn a different way to teach her classes, as she found that women in the U.S. are different from women in Russia.
“It was exactly what I needed—Michael gave me high-quality friendship and a safe, wonderful home,” she said. They were together 12 years and remain best friends.
Tonetti realized she needed independence if she was to fulfill her life’s purpose—and she’s been making it on her own ever since. “My well being is no longer dependent on whether I have a man in my life,” she said. “I am responsible for my quality of life, and I love it.” She and Christina now live in a lovely north Chico home with rose bushes in the front yard.
“I host a lot of parties and the Russian gatherings because I have a great house for it!”