A Siena professor born and raised in Ukraine looks back at his homeland and postulates that Russia’s gamble of invading its democratic neighbor will help spell the end of totalitarianism in Europe.

Dmitry Burshteyn, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology, is proud of Ukraine’s bravery and resilience since its invasion by Vladimir Putin’s military forces on February 24.

“Ukrainians want to be a part of Western political culture, and they aspire to the same values of liberty, freedom, and democracy that are important to Americans,” he said. “Ukraine has a strong ally in the United States, and the relationship that is being forged now will hopefully be long, fruitful, and mutually beneficial for both countries.” 

He believes the heroic resistance of the Ukrainian people has earned them the right to be a part of “a robust economic and military alliance with the United States and Europe.”

Burshteyn has mixed feelings about Ukraine dominating world headlines. It’s not the first time in recent memory the country has been in the spotlight: in 2014 when Russia violated Ukrainian sovereignty by annexing Crimea, and again in 2019 when it was the focus of an American impeachment inquiry. 

“I can’t wait for Ukraine to finally be the center of the universe for some good news. Hopefully, when this war is over, Ukraine can be the focus of the world's attention for more positive reasons, but we are not there yet,” he said.

Burshteyn does not have any relatives left in the country, and any friends who remained were able to escape to Poland and Romania. He and his parents left Ukraine when he was 19, a year before the Soviet empire crumbled. They ultimately settled in Brooklyn, where his mother and father, both qualified engineers, pivoted to new careers. 

The knowledge they had of the world outside the USSR was very limited, but word of the United States as a land of opportunity for immigrants had filtered through even tight Soviet controls.  He fears that Russia is on the way back to Soviet times as its authoritarian leader is cracking down on the remaining free press while lowering the Iron Curtain once again for its citizens.

“Behind the Iron Curtain, not much information got through, but we did know that America was a land where people could follow their dreams and succeed through hard work,” he said.  

Burshteyn was educated in New York City, and joined the Siena faculty in 2000 after completing his doctorate at the City University of New York. 

He believes that Ukrainians who have fled their country are now experiencing the “euphoria of relief” that they have safely made it out of the horrors of bombardment. In the longer term, they are likely to experience the trauma of displacement, personal loss of family and property, and the shock of returning to a country that could take years to rebuild. They will need a lot of help from the international community and he hopes to do his part when the war ends. 

“Some people may never go back; they may want to re-establish themselves in the West,” he said. “But I strongly believe that the vast majority of Ukrainians will want to come back, rebuild their country, and become part of the European Union.”

Until that time, Ukrainians and their allies are eagerly watching daily developments in the beleaguered nation. Burshteyn thinks that at this point the fastest path to peace is being delivered by the heroism of the Ukrainian troops. 

“There is a chance that the war could lead to Russia suffering a crushing military defeat and being forced to withdraw its troops.  Unfortunately, the situation could also drag on and cost even more lives. Putin, who is a war criminal, will only stop when he is forced to do so.” 

Burshteyn believes that at this point Putin is supported by a large segment of the Russian population. He explained that Putin maintains his hold on the Russian population through the alliance of organized crime tactics, KGB/FSB power structures, and now total government control of media led by charismatic propagandists. 

“The people eat propaganda because they have so little,” he said.  “The Kremlin propagandists have been defining their reality via government-controlled media for many years. This built up an image of Putin as a savior and protector of Russia’s historical greatness defined by moral superiority to the West.”  

“The pivot to diplomacy may come sooner if Putin’s regime is to fall from within.  This will most likely come from the Russian establishment/ oligarch class when his close business, political and military allies decide they have sacrificed enough due to Western economic sanctions. “The oligarchs in Putin’s close circle are very much impacted by the sanctions. If this goes on long enough and they find themselves not only in financial but also in physical danger from Putin’s repressions, those people might have second thoughts and organize a revolt.”

Burshteyn said his Siena students and colleagues have been “very sympathetic, very kind,” asking after his family and friends and discussing developments in his homeland.  

“I tell people to keep listening to the news. Don’t get apathetic. Keep looking for new ways to help,” he said. “People of Ukraine appreciate your support and are very grateful for it.” 

One student in particular is as interested in Ukrainian politics as Burshteyn: Cristian Spariosu ’23 is taking his statistics class this semester and said it’s nice knowing that one of his professors “understands emotionally what my family and I, along with the entire Ukrainian community, are going through.”

“Going to a college in upstate New York, I would have never expected to have a professor from Ukraine,” he said. “It’s nice being able to share a classroom with someone from the same cultural background.”

Student and professor agree that Ukrainians want to live in peace in a sovereign democratic country. 

“This war is about Putin not wanting a country like this right next to his empire,” said Burshteyn. He muses that if democracy and freedom prevail in Ukraine, and if Putin’s military and the ideology that powers it are defeated, it could “send a defining message to the world’s other dictators.”

“Putin’s hypocritical war of ‘denazification’ of Ukraine and pseudo-liberation of the Russian-speaking population has clearly backfired. Putin is now isolated, much weaker than he was four weeks ago, and is desperately afraid of losing power,” he noted. “Hopefully what could eventually come from this horrible war is ‘denazification’ of Russia, coupled with its nuclear disarmament and leadership change.”

“I hope this will be a wake-up call to the world that will lead to totalitarianism's last gasp.”