After Ken Wells's divorce two years ago, he wanted to date again. But the engineer, 38, had a hard time meeting women. His home is on a U.S. military base in the Pacific Ocean, 2,000 miles from the nearest big cities.

So, he turned to the Internet. He typed in the key words, "Russian women," and for hours each night, he clicked through screenfuls of pretty women. He bought the addresses of about 600 from 15 international marriage agencies.

"I had a file on everybody," he said. "The phone would ring in the middle of the night, and she'd say, This is Svetlana from Russia,' and I'd be digging through my files trying to find who the hell they are."

Eventually, he found Irina Morozova, 22, a shy nurse from outside Moscow, whom he met through a Bethesda-based agency.

Wells is among the growing number of American men turning to international agencies to find wives from overseas -- "mail-order brides." The companies are part of an exploding multimillion-dollar industry that markets women from developing countries as potential brides to men in Western nations. For the last two decades, most have come from the Philippines or elsewhere in Asia.

But in recent years, easy access to the Internet and political changes have sparked huge interest -- and booming business -- for companies seeking to introduce women from the former Soviet Union.

Wells went to Russia to meet Morozova last year. She was cautious at first because a previous American suitor had mistreated her, she said. But Wells was funny and kind.

Over Valentine's Day weekend, she flew to New York on a fiancee visa. At sunset today aboard a sailboat in Hawaii's Kaneohe Bay, the couple plans to wed. Wells figures his happiness is worth every bit of the $15,000 he's spent in the process. "I think it will be the greatest day of my life," he said last week.

Across the country, agencies have sprung up. "It's really, really just ballooned in the last couple of years," said John Adams, a co-owner of A Foreign Affair. The Phoenix-based company has had more than 15,000 male customers since it started three years ago -- when there were "a handful" of competitors.

Now, there are 200 to 250 introduction companies doing business in the United States, and a third started within the last year, according to industry estimates. At least 80 focus exclusively on women from Russia and Eastern Europe; others expanded to include Russian women.

Adams's company features about 3,500 women from Russia, Eastern Europe, Asia and Latin America on its Web site. The agencies portray Russian women as "traditional" and "family-oriented," untainted by Western feminism. "Their views of relationships have not been ruined by unreasonable expectations," says one Web ad. They play to men's desires for women who are white - -- yet exotic, several men said. No one knows how many marriages take place each year through such companies. The companies say they don't keep statistics, and Immigration and Naturalization Service records don't distinguish between foreigners who married Americans the old-fashioned way and those who used an agency. Critics of the companies say they not only demean women, but as unregulated international enterprises, they are fraught with potential problems, including marriage fraud and domestic violence.

"This is not to say that some aren't bona fide marriages," said T. Alexander Aleinikoff, a former senior INS official. But "given the chances for abuse and exploitation, should we be handing out visas that are not subject to quotas, where the industry is totally unregulated?"

Several agency owners defended their services as a cost-effective way to increase the options when looking for a mate.

Congress, reacting to the industry's growth and to anecdotal evidence of problems, passed a 1996 law that requires agencies to give information about marriage fraud, legal residency and domestic violence to women they recruit or risk $20,000 fines. The legislation, introduced by Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), estimated that 2,000 to 3,500 American men find wives through such agencies each year.

The INS plans to report to Congress this spring on the extent of suspected fraud and abuse in brokered marriages. The agency also hopes to publish proposed rules by June to implement the law.

INS and State Department officials say problems appear to be rare. But they say they don't really know.

A check with area prosecutors turned up at least three criminal cases in the Washington area involving battered women who met their husbands through agencies or the Internet, but none of the women would agree to be interviewed. Rise in Visas

The number of visas issued to foreign-born individuals intending to marry U.S. citizens has risen in the last five years, with some of the sharpest increases for "fiancee visas" for Russia and Ukraine, State Department statistics show. Almost all go to women, and the majority met their intendeds through international matchmaking, officials said.

To get the visa, an American man petitions the INS for the woman to come to the United States. The visa is valid for 90 days; if the couple doesn't marry within that time, the fiancee must return home.

David Besuden, 53, a Kentucky businessman who met his Russian wife, Elena, 27, through an introduction service in 1991 and now operates a company called Anastasia with her, said problems about the firms are being blown out of proportion. "My big fear is that they're going to legislate whether a man is able to meet and marry a girl from a foreign country."

The "mail-order bride" phenomenon dates to frontier days, when men in the West corresponded with women from eastern cities. During the early 1900s, Asian immigrants in the United States often relied on family and friends back home to match them with "picture brides."

Today, the women's pictures are on Web sites and in catalogues. Many agencies allow searches by height, weight, age, even hair and eye color.

Larissa Mihailova, 25, an accountant from Tver, Russia, with red hair and green eyes, describes herself in the online catalogue of Lifetime Partners as "even-tempered, kind, tender, and sensitive." She is looking for a man "under 50" who is "decent, kind, intelligent, good-humored."

Women do not pay to be listed by the agencies on their Web sites or in catalogues; the fees come from men who typically pay $7.50 apiece for a woman's mailing address.

But the big bucks are made -- and spent -- in "romance tours," with packages to St. Petersburg, Moscow or Kiev costing $3,000 to $4,500. The tours feature socials, where women commonly outnumber men 5 to 1.

Some tours, especially larger ones promising "2,000 different ladies," have acquired reputations as nothing more than "meat markets" where men look for quick sex.

The interest in Russian women is such that two years ago, a Houston computer systems programmer put together a 650-member Internet group interested in finding an "RW." Today, the RWL, or Russian Women's List, has more than 800 members -- almost all men. Discussion topics have included agency rip-offs and the appropriateness of potato peelers as gifts for the women.

Men listed as members include military personnel, computer programmers and a corrections official whose Web site says he borrowed a catalogue from a prisoner. (Agencies say they do not mail catalogues to prisons.)

Agencies claim varying success rates, but most boast of testimonials to love. A Foreign Affair claims a marriage or engagement a week. Bethesda-based Encounters International, which only does personalized matchmaking, began in July 1993 and claims 104 marriages, 55 engagements and four divorces as of February, according to owner Natasha Spivack. Wells met his bride through Encounters International.

Larry Holmes, a California lawyer, devoted his practice to fiancee visas seven years ago and has seen 600 marriages and 21 divorces. His biggest group of clients is doctors.

Holmes said he takes referrals from only a few agencies because "it's too easy to be a crook and cheat people when you're dealing with their emotions."

Not only emotions, but fantasies.

One member of RWL put it this way: "I wanted a drop-dead gorgeous woman." The man, in his early forties, wanted a woman in her twenties for a stable commitment. In the United States, his chances were zero, he said. But in Russia, "you're batting close to 100 percent."

For Russian women, often breadwinners and housekeepers in a country where alcoholism and unemployment are rampant, Western men are often seen as less macho and more family-sensitive.

Valentina Steba, a blond gym teacher from a St. Petersburg suburb, grew up in an orphanage, married young and worked five jobs to support her husband and young son. She left him after he struck her, she said.

"I've had nothing good here in 28 years," she said recently, while mingling with American men at a St. Petersburg social.

Oliver Beale, 59, a Fort Washington commercial artist, is a twice-divorced grandfather who blames his failed relationships on "spoiled American women." He acknowledges that "a regular, normal-type woman" might not like his hobbies and lifestyle -- he keeps his three motorcycles and a Ford Mustang Mach 1 inside his house.

The Russian woman he plans to marry this year also is an artist. He met Irina Shumilova, 29, in Moscow last year. "I don't think she's looking for all the goodies that we have," he said.

Loren Zarelli, a San Antonio computer consultant, flew to St. Petersburg last month carrying an $8,000, 1.6-carat diamond engagement ring for Marina Kurinskaya, an accountant from Siberia. She said yes.

Kurinskaya, 24, said a friend sent her picture to A Foreign Affair after Kurinskaya's Russian boyfriend became a small-time hood.

"I felt in my heart that I found a very good man" in Zarelli, she said, speaking in Russian over dinner in a St. Petersburg pizzeria. "Whatever I asked him about, his answers were just like I feel."

Said Zarelli, 36: "I want . . . a woman to whom I can be a prince and she can be a princess. I want a woman who doesn't need me, but who wants me. With Marina, that's what I feel."

But not all stories have fairy tale endings.

Bob, 42, a San Francisco nurse who does not want his last named used, says he was duped by the 35-year-old Russian dentist he married in April. They met through an Internet personal ad. Now he thinks she used him to bring her children to United States.

One giveaway, he said, was that her children didn't attend their wedding. Also, after she got here, he said, she didn't want to have sex.

The woman, who does not want to be identified, denied marrying Bob for a "green card" or legal residency. She said he seemed "loving and caring."

She agreed to get married quickly at his insistence, she said. But she didn't tell her children, 13 and 8, because she wanted them first to adjust to a new country and language.

INS officials said it is nearly impossible to prove marriage fraud in "he-said, she-said" situations. Sometimes, things don't work out.

"Even if in the back of her mind, she's thinking to herself, I'm going to go with this guy, then I'm pulling out,' short of giving her truth serum and interrogating her with secret agents, it's hard to prove," said Jim Goldman, head of investigations at the Washington district office of the INS.

Cases of abuse also prove troubling, given foreigners' ignorance of U.S. law, language and various cultural barriers.

Said Gillian Caldwell, co-director of Global Survival Network, a D.C.-based human rights group that conducted a study of trafficking in women from the former Soviet Union: "These women are invisible unless some lunatic walks into a courthouse and shoots his mail-order wife."

In 1995, a computer lab technician shot and killed his Philippine wife in a Seattle courtroom. In 1996, a Texas man was convicted of murdering his fourth wife, also a Philippine bride.

Current law requires only the foreign-born applicants provide criminal history information to the INS. Some advocacy groups say it makes more sense to require Americans seeking foreign fiancees or spouses to turn over information about their criminal records or protective orders issued against them, said Leslye Orloff, program development director at Ayuda, a D.C. nonprofit legal service for immigrants.

Agency owners say they are not responsible for, nor do they have the capacity to do, background checks on the men. Recourse for Abuse

Battered immigrant women and children do have recourse under a two-year-old INS rule that allows them to petition for permanent residency on their own instead of relying on their husbands.

The INS is expected make that decision this spring about a case brought by a Russian woman who met an Atlanta man during a romance tour in Moscow, married him and later, she said, was abused by him.

The thrice divorced 59-year-old man met the petite 41-year-old with blond hair and brown eyes in 1995.

The woman, a sales executive, had gone, uninvited, to the Moscow party with a friend. The gatekeepers "thought I was pretty" and let her in, she said.

"He told me later it was love at first sight," said the woman, who does not want to be identified. She liked that he was "old-fashioned" and wanted to be a father to her son. Nine months later, they married in Atlanta.

Soon after, she said, he became abusive, demanding she repark her car in the middle of the night, demanding sexual threesomes -- which she refused -- and ultimately threatening her life. She sought help from the Refugee Family Violence Prevention Project, which assists refugees and immigrants in the Atlanta area. A judge issued a protective order on her behalf. In April, she filed a petition with the INS seeking legal residency as a battered immigrant woman.

The couple are divorcing.

The husband, who declined to be interviewed, denied mistreating his wife. His divorce attorney, John Matteson, said the husband became "enamored" of her after she "made a heavy play for him." Now he believes she was out only for legal residency, Matteson said, a charge the woman denies.

"I'm sure they had problems" in the marriage, Matteson said. "But this whole concept of him abusing her, that only came up after they split up." While INS reviews her case, the woman waits.

"Many times, I am thinking, I have better living in my country," she said. Special correspondent Sophia Kishkovsky in St. Petersburg and Metro resource director Margot Williams contributed to this report. CAPTION: Here Comes the Bride The number of visas issued to foreign-born individuals intending to marry U.S. citizens has increased in the last five years. While traditionally high in the Philippines, some of the sharpest increases since the early '90s can be seen in countries like Russia and Ukraine. (This chart was not available) CAPTION: Anticipation: Ken Wells awaits his Russian bride-to-be at JFK Airport. CAPTION: Elation: Ken Wells greets Irina Morozova after she lands in New York. CAPTION: Irina Shumilova submitted this picture of herself to the agency that offers foreign brides to American men. She caught the eye of Oliver Beale, of Fort Washington, who plans to marry her. CAPTION: Svetlana Nazariva tries to decide which picture to use in her biography as she joins other women in Russia signing up to be part of the catalogue that offers foreign brides. CAPTION: Loren Zarelli, of San Antonio, dances with Marina Kurinskaya, of Siberia, at a social in St. Petersburg last month. He proposed. She accepted. CAPTION: Elena Kobyakova, of Russia, blushes as her groom, Norman May, of McLean, kisses her. They met through Bethesda-based Encounters International.