Ekaterina Pronina and her husband opened a Russian store in 2009 with “no idea how many Russians were around.” Business has been stable.
After more than a decade of living in the U.S., 35-year-old Ekaterina Pronina still can’t quite explain why she and her husband Alexey, both originally from Russia, decided on such a major relocation.
“That’s a good question after 13 years,” Ekaterina says, letting out a chuckle. “I don’t know, we were young. We wanted to live in a different country. There was no reason at all.”
Ekaterina met Alexey in the Wisconsin Dells in 2001; she was working as a summer volunteer for Easter Seals and he was doing temp work in agriculture. Since the 1990s, the Dells has drawn large numbers of international workers.
Their relationship blossomed, and the two married in Madison the following year. The couple returned to Russia in 2002, where Ekaterina finished her college degree. In 2003 they had a daughter, Darya, who turns 14 in April. By 2004, they were back in the U.S. Ekaterina says they did not experience any difficulties obtaining visas to live and work here.
In 2009 the couple opened Intermarket, a pan Eastern-European grocery store, the only one of its kind in the region. Almost hidden on the ground floor of an apartment building on the city’s west side, it offers a taste of home to people from Eastern Europe: beautifully wrapped chocolates and assorted Russian wafer cookies, and freezers stocked with caviar, smoked fish, cured meats and pelmeni (dumplings). The store also sells teas, vodka and greeting cards and children’s books in Russian.
The couple got the idea for the market after visiting a similar one in Milwaukee. They did no market research. They opened with one freezer, one cooler and zero advertising.
“When we opened, we had no idea how many Russians were around,” says Ekaterina, looking out from behind her cash register. Luckily for them, on their opening day, dozens of patrons visited the store — confirming that a Russian community did, in fact, exist. Ekaterina suggests “invisible forces” were working in their favor. A healthy Russian speaking community on the west side certainly didn’t hurt.
Business has remained stable ever since.
On a cold, February afternoon Lonya Nenashev stops by the store to grab some “salo” — cured slabs of pig fat. Nenashev, once married to an American woman, is now living with a Russian woman. “A lot of things changed in my life. Now suddenly I want to cook Russian food. I want to get salo. I realize there is no way to escape from your roots, from the cultural connection.”
Nenashev emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1991 where he engineered sound for USSR pop concerts. He stayed after getting married. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, he felt he had dodged a bullet.
“I thought I was lucky to escape the nightmare there,” Nenashev says. “It was total chaos. The big government organizations started dissolving. Then it became dangerous — racketeering. You’d go for a tour, and people would come to you and ask for money.”
Nenashev has no desire to go back. “You can probably get away with more money [in Russia] than we get here running small businesses, [but] it’s much easier to run a business here because it all makes sense.”
Ekaterina agrees. But she is hesitant to weigh in on politics or the national conversation about immigrants and the United States’ relationship with Russia.
“I just live in the country, I obey all the rules, we don’t discuss the political situation here or there,” Ekaterina says. “We just live.”
They live hoping for a better future for Darya and their son Dmitry, 5, who are taking advantage of the education and extracurriculars that their school in Waunakee offers.
“The kids, they have perfect language, they have friends, they have this American school,” Ekaterina says. “They grow in this culture and this community, and they become Americans. Hopefully they will go to university, graduate and get a better job.”