The Next Holodomor

“They suffer because they have lost all hope. They walk like the blind, and they fall wherever death strikes them. No one pays attention to the corpses lying on the streets. People either step over or sidestep them and keep on walking. From time to time they are collected and buried in common pits. Seventy and more people are buried together.” 

-Ukrainian woman, describing the Holodomor in 1933 (source)

Holodomor monument, Kyiv (source)

In 2008, the European Parliament formally recognized that the 1932-33 famine in Ukraine was “artificial,” and “an appalling crime against the Ukrainian people, and against humanity.” While the real number will never be known, estimates are that between 3.5 to 7 million Ukrainians died from starvation during this period, known as “the Holodomor” (“death inflicted by starvation”).  

The famine resulted from a combination of factors, among these being the Soviet policy of collective farming imposed on the population. Resistance to collectivization was brutally repressed, quotas of grain and other foods demanded from farms were increased and ultimately exported, Ukrainians were prohibited from leaving the republic in search of food or even to travel from the countryside to cities in Ukraine, and police were tasked with confiscating hidden food from homes. Altogether, these decisions to weaponize food led to massive amounts of human suffering and death, the echoes of which reverberate to today.

In 2015, Columbia epidemiologist L.H. Lumey and colleagues tested whether there was a correlation between prenatal exposure to the Holdomor and subsequent development of type 2 diabetes in adulthood (Lumey et al. 2015). Per a robust body of research known as the DOHaD hypothesis (developmental origins of health and disease), various stressors early in life can increase the risk for a compromised physiology, predisposing people to an array of health conditions. Perhaps the best-known example of this is the Dutch “Hunger winter” during the Second World War. Adults who were exposed prenatally to a Nazi-imposed famine in the Netherlands consistently show elevated risk for diabetes and schizophrenia, as well as other conditions and effects on body size. To be clear, the extreme levels of hunger during famine are not required to see the effects of prenatal deprivation on later health. Rather, such a relationship appears to exist along a continuum in a “dose response” fashion. Yet the pattern becomes more predictable at the extreme end, such as during wars and famine.

To determine whether a similar pattern existed in Ukraine, Lumey et al. obtained government data from nine oblasts (regions), with a sample of 1.4 million adults born between 1930-38, including 43,150 cases of diabetes diagnosed after age 40 years. The study design allowed the researchers to look at temporal and geographic effects, as these birth cohorts straddled the famine years, and were exposed to extreme famine (Luhansk, Kharkiv, Cerkasy, and Kherson oblasts), severe famine (Chernihiv, Khmelnytskyi, and Vinnytsia oblasts), or no famine at all (Volyn and Rivne oblasts, which were under Polish control at the time).

Famine exposure in Ukraine 1932-33 (map from Lumey et al)

After adjusting for confounding variables including seasonality, the researchers found that people born in early 1934 in oblasts with extreme famine had a 1.5 times increase in the odds of having type 2 diabetes, while those born in severe famine areas had a 1.3 times increase. People born in non-famine oblasts showed no increase. Lumey et al. added that the study suggested that early gestation was “a critical timing window for determining risk of type 2 diabetes.”

The Holodomor and the Dutch famine are far from isolated cases. Though there are methodological differences and some inconsistencies in results, for the most part prenatal exposure to conflict and famine has been linked with compromised adult health throughout the world. Examples include the siege of Leningrad, the Spanish Civil War, the Biafran famine in its war for independence, France during WW2, the European Holocaust, the wars in the DRC, the Korean War, and the civil wars in Laos (for a review, see Clarkin 2019).

Could History Repeat Itself?

Could something similar happen today? Russia’s current invasion of Ukraine has been widely condemned as an unprovoked “act of aggression and human rights catastrophe” (Amnesty International) and “a clear violation of international law” and “a violation of the United Nations Charter” (UN Secretary-General António Guterres). It is telling that the oblasts exposed to extreme famine in the early 1930s are some of the same places in the news today, with massive destruction, forcibly displaced civilians, and/or likely war crimes committed by Russian troops in Luhansk, Kharkiv, Cerkasy, and Kherson oblasts. To a certain degree, history may be repeating itself.

At present, there are no reports of widespread famine within Ukraine. Most of the concern about the effects of Russia’s invasion on food has focused on the regional or global supply, as the conflict exacerbates fuel prices and hinders Ukraine’s ability to export agricultural products such as wheat, corn, and sunflower oil.

However, it is exceedingly obvious that it is Ukrainians themselves who bear the brunt of the war, with 7.1 million people displaced, millions forcibly deported to Russia, at least thousands killed, with those who remained behind facing food insecurity. A May 2022 survey of 4,700 Ukrainians conducted by the World Food Programme found that one-third of households were food insecure and had to forgo meals, decrease portion sizes, and eat lesser quality foods. In the highly affected eastern and southern oblasts, with about half of households being food insecure (see map below). Worst of all were internally displaced people in the east, with a rate of 62% (including 14% being severely insecure).

From World Food Programme: Ukraine Food Security Report 12 May 2022 (source)

The food situation has likely deteriorated since then. There are signs that Russia has deliberately targeted the food and water supply in Ukraine, blockading ports, burning wheat fields, exporting grain from occupied Kherson’s farms to Russia, bombing fields outside of Sloviansk, stealing farming equipment, shutting off water in Mariupol, destroying hundreds of small farms and slaughtering livestock, targeting food storage sites (including grain silos, railways, and warehouses), even killing the grain tycoon Oleksiy Vadaturskyi and his wife Raisa in their home in Mykolaiv. Much like the original Holodomor, the current food shortage is an “artificial” one and an appalling crime against humanity.

Yale historian Timothy Snyder has written that such actions indicate that Russian troops are implementing a “hunger plan” concocted by Putin. According to Snyder, such a plan has three main objectives: cutting off Ukraine’s exports in an attempt to destroy its statehood, creating instability in Europe by producing refugees from areas that rely on Ukraine’s food exports sch as North Africa and the Middle East, and to be able to blame Ukraine in a propaganda war should starvation spread abroad and food riots begin.

Accusations of alleged Russian war crimes in Ukraine are extensive and heinous. The weaponization of starvation should not be overlooked among these. Article 54(1) of the Geneva Conventions succinctly states that “Starvation of civilians as a method of warfare is prohibited.” Likewise, Article 8(2)(b)(xxv) of the 1998 ICC Statute notes that “intentionally using starvation of civilians as a method of warfare by depriving them of objects indispensable to their survival, including willfully impeding relief supplies as provided for under the Geneva Conventions” constitutes a war crime in international armed conflicts.

Throughout history, war and hunger have been paired together with regularity and Ukraine is no exception. Yet it seems apparent that there is a deliberate strategy on the part of Russian leadership to exacerbate the situation and punish civilians within and outside of Ukraine by targeting the food supply. As mentioned above, there are multiple examples of such war-related food shortages having costs to health not only in the immediate term, but reverberating decades later. When tallying up all of the costs of the war in Ukraine, the main focus should be on the loss of life, the physical and mental scars, the broken relationships and families, the damaged homes and property. Yet it shouldn’t be forgotten that there will likely be other costs, including to a generation of Ukrainians who have yet to be born.


Clarkin PF. 2019. The embodiment of war: growth, development, and armed conflict. Annual Review of Anthropology 48(1): 423-442. Link

Lumey LH, Khalangot MD, Vaiserman AM. 2015. Association between type 2 diabetes and prenatal exposure to the Ukraine famine of 1932–33: a retrospective cohort study. Lancet Diabetes Endocrinol. 3(10):787–94 Link

A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall

And what did you hear, my brown-eyed son?
And what did you hear, my darling young one?
I heard the sound of a thunder that roared out a warning
I heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world
I heard one hundred drummers whose hands were a-blazing
I heard ten-thousand whispering and nobody listening
I heard one person starve, I heard many people laughing

I met one man who was wounded in love
I met another man who was wounded in hatred

And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-going to fall

The Trapeze Artist

I will have more essays soon. During the pandemic, I hope you don’t mind me taking the easy way out by sharing another song. I can’t say that I completely understand all of the lyrics, though the idea of wanting to be remembered probably stands out.  Perhaps it’s better to let everyone have their own interpretation. Anyway, I just liked it. 

Social Momentum

Still thou are blest, compared wi’ me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But Och! I backward cast my e’e,
On prospects drear!
An’ forward, tho’ I cannot see,
I guess an’ fear!
(Robert Burns, “To a Mouse,” 1785)

This will be a short post. I was thinking of people’s perceptions of the present and the future, with all of the messiness in the US right now: the coronavirus pandemic and the inadequate government response, the BLM protests in the streets against racism and police brutality, the social divisions, the high unemployment rate, and the dual crises of climate change and species extinctions. Things don’t feel great right now.

Some people have tried to predict what the US will look like in the near future, ranging from dystopian hellscapes including the end of the country engulfed in food shortages, unchecked spread of COVID-19, and even civil war. Others have suggested there will be a return to normal with a new, less divisive, administration that will be more proactive in tackling the pandemic and stabilizing employment in an FDR-style presidency.

Predicting the future is not easy (though some, like Peter Turchin have tried). I was thinking that we perceive our current social environment similarly to how we perceive velocity in a car or plane. When a vehicle’s speed is constant, it becomes almost imperceptible to us since we are also going at the same speed along for the ride. In a commercial airplane at cruising speed, people walk freely through the aisle without noticing much. The same applies to the earth, which is rotating at over a thousand miles per hour (and so are we). It’s only when the vehicle slows, accelerates, or turns do we feel the shift.

I’d say that something similar happens in how we perceive other aspects of our environment. A 70°F day (21°C) may feel warm or cool depending on the season or what the temperature the previous day was. Anyway, here’s my point: the way the world feels right now depends on context and how we perceive not only our current position, but the change in direction and where we might be headed.

If yesterday we had just experienced a horrible period that was worse than this one, such as — oh I don’t know — the Bubonic plague, or maybe the Rwandan genocide, then today’s situation would feel pretty good. But perceptions are not always the best guide. As the first cases of coronavirus reached the US, most people reacted with trepidation, since it was new and the future seemed uncertain. Then people became attenuated to the situation over a few months, like the proverbial frogs being slowly boiled. Then almost every state eased their stay-at-home orders, even though the number of new cases per day is higher than when those lockdowns were initiated.

I suppose what I’m saying is to remember that as bad as things are right now, they could always get worse. Hopefully not. With foresight, planning, and effort, we can get momentum going in another direction.

For My Relatives Under Lockdown

“And for the briefest of moments, every last man at Shawshank felt free.”


This is for my friends and relatives (that is, all of you) around the world who are trapped by a coronavirus lockdown, a siege, a refugee camp, a detention center (the Bay Area, Italy, Wuhan, France, Syria, Lesbos, Yemen, El Paso, Juárez). 


Myanmar’s Killing Fields

We watched the documentary below in a class I teach on anthropology and war.  It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever shown in a class. Before the period began, I warned students that it contained graphic violence and that they had the option not to watch. They could choose not to stay,  without it counting against the attendance portion of their grade. A handful of students chose to leave. 

For those who stayed, we were pretty emotionally exhausted by the end of the period. However, I think most people agreed that it was worth watching to see the extent of the violence against the Rohingya in Myanmar, which many people did not know much about. I thought I’d share it here, for anyone interested.

It’s Not Too Late

With the news that Alexandre Bissonnette was sentenced to 40 years in prison, I wanted to go back to one of the more moving speeches I’ve heard in a while, which I don’t think should be forgotten. Bissonnette pleaded guilty to the crime of murdering six Muslim people and wounding nineteen others in a Quebec City mosque in January 2017. Shortly after the shooting, Imam Hassan Guillet tried to salvage something good from the horrific act, by describing the lives of the deceased and the loved ones they left behind, as well as Bissonnette himself:

“Khaled, Aboubaker, Abdelkrim, Azzedine, Mamadou and Ibrahima chose the place they wanted to live in. They chose the society they wanted to be theirs. They chose with whom they wanted their children to grow. And it was Canada. It was Quebec.… It is up to the society to choose them the same way they have chosen this society. They had their dream to send their kids to school, to buy a house, to have a business and we have to continue their dreams. We have to continue their dreams the same way they extended their hands to the others. It is up to others to extend their hands toward them.

Now unfortunately, it is a little bit late. But not too late. The society that could not protect them, the society that could not benefit from their generosity still has a chance….

The hands that didn’t shake the hands of Khaled or Aboubaker or Abdelkrim or Azzedine or Mamadou or Ibrahima, that society can shake the hands of their kids. We have 17 orphans. We have six widows. We have five wounded. We ask Allah for them to get them out of the hospital as soon as possible.

Did I go through the complete list of victims? No. There is one victim. None of us want talk about him. But given my age, I have the courage to say it. This victim, his name is Alexandre Bissonnette. Alexandre, before being a killer he was a victim himself. Before planting his bullets in the heads of his victims, somebody planted ideas more dangerous than the bullets in his head. This little kid didn’t wake up in the morning and say ‘Hey guys instead of going to have a picnic or watching the Canadiens, I will go kill some people in the mosque.’ It doesn’t happen that way.

Day after day, week after week, month after month, certain politicians unfortunately, and certain reporters unfortunately, and certain media were poisoning our atmosphere. We did not want to see it. We didn’t want to see it because we love this country, we love this society. We wanted our to society to be perfect. We were like parents, their kids [are] smoking or taking drugs and your neighbor says that your kid was taking drugs, I don’t believe it, my son is perfect.

We don’t want to see it. And we didn’t see it, and it happened.

Actually here my friends in Quebec, you know a couple of months ago, a certain period of time ago, someone came and put a head of a pig in front of the mosque. The [person] responsible for the mosque they said ‘No, it was an isolated act.’ Nobody is against us and we aren’t against anybody. They acted very generously and I am proud of them and this is what it should be.

But there was a certain malaise. Let us face it. Alexandre Bissonnette didn’t start from a vacuum. For political reasons, and what is happening the Middle East and unfortunately, for ignorance, a lot of things happened.

This guy was empoisoned. But we want Alexandre to be the last one to have a criminal act like that. We want to stop it. One of the definitions of madness is to do exactly the same thing and expect a different result.
If we do exactly the same thing, my friends, we will have exactly the same result. Are we happy with the result? Are we happy with six dead, five wounded, 17 orphans, 6 widows and a destroyed family which is the family of Alexandre Bissonnette and maybe his friends too?
We don’t want that. So let us change. I am getting encouraged with what we have heard from our Prime Minister and Premier, from our mayor yesterday, from a lot of our leaders, I am very proud and I thank them, and I am not surprised.

But all I am saying, we should start changing words into actions. We should build on this tragedy. God gave us a lemon, let’s make lemonade out of that. Let’s make lemonade. Let’s build on this negative and have a positive.

Let’s go from today to be a real society, united. The same way we are united today in our sorrow and in our pain, let us start today to be united in our dreams, our hopes and our plans for the future.

Let the future that our friends planned for their kids, let us build this future ourselves too. In this way we will respect their memory. Revenge will do nothing.”  


Neuro-feedback and Love

This is an interesting video on neuroscience and one individual’s story of getting over a relationship. A while back, I did a series titled “Humans are (Blank)-ogamous,” including romantic love. What I find intriguing about the video is the idea that someone could possibly look at their own brain in operation and use that as a way to intervene and improve someone’s mental state. 

It reminds me of a fortune cookie I once read: “Love is like war; easy to begin but hard to stop.”

By the way, Skunk Bear is the best. 



Anthro Meeting in San Jose

I just got notice from the American Anthropological Association about my session for the annual meeting, to be held this November at the San Jose Convention Center.

Mark Toussaint organized the session (“Knowledge Production and Framing in Biological Anthropology: Perspectives and Case Studies”) and invited me to talk about research on war-affected populations. We’re scheduled for Friday, Nov 16, 2018 from 10:15 AM – noon.

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Most Americans Disagree with the Policy of Parent-Child Separation (But Not All)

This is a brief follow-up from the last post I wrote about the cruelty of separating children from their parentsAccording to a poll by The Economist and YouGov, a substantial number of Americans approve of the Trump administration’s recent policy to separate children from their parents who cross the border without documentation. The good news is that a plurality of people responded that they strongly disapproved of the policy, but about a third of those polled approved of it at least somewhat, while roughly one-fifth strongly approved. The results of Question # 31 were as follows:

Do you approve or disapprove of separating families from each other, including minor children, when the adults are arrested for crossing the border into the United States without proper documentation?

•Strongly approve … 18%
•Somewhat approve … 14%
•Somewhat disapprove … 15%
•Strongly disapprove … 38%
•Not sure … 15%


This is disappointing.

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