Regina Burstein was born in the city of Kharkiv, Ukraine. She came to the U.S. with her family, eventually settling in Eden Prairie.
Burstein lived in Eden Prairie from ages 6 to 18, moving away for college after graduating from Eden Prairie High School in 2010. Her parents still live here, and she has moved back a few times, too, most recently in 2018.
The Minneapolis resident is working on her master’s degree in urban planning at the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.
After Russia invaded Ukraine last week, I began asking around if anyone knew of people I could interview with connections to Ukraine and Eden Prairie.
I hoped to gather perspectives and opinions from a few Ukrainian Americans on what was happening in their homeland and compile them in one story.
I didn’t have much luck (at first) finding anyone, so I searched on social media. That is where I found Burstein and several others.
Her answers to my five emailed questions were so detailed about her life and the current events in Ukraine that I opted to use most of what she wrote. (Both the questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity).
The following is what she wrote on Feb. 26. (Some facts have changed since then. For instance, the Russian attacks in Kharkiv have intensified, according to media reports.)
1) When did you first come to the United States?
Burstein: We came to the U.S. in 1995, directly to Minneapolis, when I was 3 years old. It was me, my parents, and all four grandparents.
My great-grandmother, great-aunt and great-uncle were already here, as well as some more distant family who came earlier. My aunt, uncle, and cousin came here a few years later, after first moving to Israel from Ukraine. It was essentially a “chain migration” situation, as conservatives like to call it.
My family is Jewish, and we came here as refugees due to the antisemitism of the time. That, and to pursue the “American dream,” like many other immigrants to the U.S.
After a few years in Minneapolis, my parents and I moved to Eden Prairie. They wanted the big house, two cars, big-yard suburban lifestyle because that was portrayed as the epitome of the American dream.
2) How did your experience coming to the country as a youngster shape your life?
Burstein: That’s a big question, one that I could probably write an entire book about.
The biggest thing was the duality of my life as I was growing up, sometimes uncomfortable because it was often confusing for me. My experience at home with my family was very culturally different from my experience with friends and other non-immigrant Americans.
I felt like I was very different from all of my friends because of all the ways in which my family life differed from theirs. That was due to being from Ukraine but also because I was the only Jewish person in just about every friend group I was in at school and in my neighborhood.
Speaking a different language at home with my family made me feel even weirder, although I now very much appreciate knowing more than one language.
My family is from Kharkiv, but I don’t remember anything about living in Ukraine since I was very young.
My parents and I went back to visit when I was 15. I actually spent a few weeks at a summer camp in Crimea called Artec, apparently a place that my parents dreamed of attending themselves when they were young.
After that, we traveled to Kharkiv, where we used to have some family and my parents still have friends, followed by taking the train to visit Moscow and St Petersburg.
Something I never really thought much about before was that my entire family and all of their Ukrainian friends in Minnesota speak Russian amongst themselves. My family all learned Ukrainian in school, but they told me most people in Kharkiv speak Russian, despite knowing both languages. I grew up speaking Russian but never learned Ukrainian.
3) How have you and your family dealt with what’s happening in Ukraine?
Burstein: Up until (the day of the invasion on Feb. 24), I wasn’t worried about it. I asked my family earlier (last) week what they thought. They didn’t seem especially concerned, telling me that it’s likely just a show of force by (Russian President Vladimir) Putin.
My parents’ reaction has been very strange in the last few days, though. They seem to be downplaying the situation, even though they’ve been talking to their friends in Kharkiv. They’re very conservative, voted for Trump, and tend to read and watch right-wing news, so I wonder if that’s skewed their perception of this. As of (Feb. 24), the last time I talked to them, they told me a few of their friends evacuated, but not everyone, and that although people were worried, they didn’t seem to be scared for their lives.
Yesterday was rough for me. I didn’t think it would affect me so much because my family here isn’t in any danger, and we no longer have family in Ukraine.
The videos are what did it for me, especially the one of the woman on her bike killed by a missile, probably because that’s how I get around. So, I related to her immediately. The video showing a blanket or sheet draped over her dead body with the bike a few feet away was devastating. It triggered something in me, a feeling I can’t quite explain.
Then there was the video of hundreds of Ukrainian women hiding in an underground shelter singing songs and waving their cell phones with the flashlights on like people do at concerts.
Watching videos of explosions in the city I was born in broke my heart even more. I spent the entire day in shock, unable to do anything because I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
4) Were you surprised the situation got to this point?
Burstein: I’m surprised it’s gone this far, but I also don’t know the entire context. My family didn’t think it would go this far either, and they do understand the context, at least more than I do because they grew up there.
From my understanding, this is almost entirely the result of Putin’s personal choices. It seems like he’s trying to show the world how powerful Russia can be.
I’ve read a few people’s theories about this that make a lot of sense. One of those theories is that Putin doesn’t feel like he or Russia has been getting enough international attention lately. This is how he decided to get it. It also seems like he wants to recreate a Russian empire, and Ukraine is the first step. Considering what happened with Crimea, this seems like a plausible theory.
Ukraine also has some of the best agricultural lands. I’m sure that’s a factor, even if it’s a small one. Putin seems like a very insecure man, trying to parade as a strongman. He’s hungry for power and will go to great lengths to get more of it.
5) How can Americans help? What do you think the U.S. government needs to do?
Burstein: There’s not much that the American people can do except donate to aid funds for Ukrainians and hold protests across the country to pressure our government to do more.
(President) Biden and the U.S. government need to impose much harsher sanctions on Russia. He needs to cut all financial ties, even if it’ll hurt our economy. I can tell that he’s holding back because financial interests are still more important to him than the lives that have already been lost and will be lost in the coming days. Russia is one of the largest exporters of oil. I have no doubts that this is a major factor preventing the U.S. and other countries from doing more.
This isn’t the first time Biden, or any other U.S. president, has chosen profit over people’s lives in situations of war, and armed conflict, like in Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Palestine, and those are just this year.
This country’s firm commitment to capitalism and the state of the stock market are at the root of our hesitance to do more.
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