The Psychological Consequences of the Holodomor in Ukraine

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The Psychological Consequences of the Holodomor in Ukraine1
Viktoriia Gorbunova
Zhytomyr Ivan Franko State University
Vitalii Klymchuk
Institute for Social and Political Psychology of National Academy of Educational Sciences of Ukraine
Abstract: The Holodomor (derived from the Ukrainian words “to kill by starvation”) (1932-33) was the largest famine in Ukrainian history. This article presents the results of a psychological study of personal attitudes to Holodomor events and of worldviews and behavioural strategies connected to famine exposure in the family histories of the survey participants. The results of a survey of 721 respondents showed (1) close connections between a respondent’s pattern of keeping silent about traumatic events that occurred during the Holodomor and the extent of suffering that the respondent’s family experienced during the Holodomor, and (2) close connections between the avoidance of Holodomor-related storytelling and a denial and devaluation of Holodomor events within families. The most common family behavioural strategies of descendants of Holodomor victims showed proper feeding, substantial food storage, and regular health check-in. The most common respondent attitudes comprised a distrust of authority, disappointment with the government, and a priority of family needs over community needs.
Keywords: psychological consequences, Holodomor, personal attitudes, behavioural strategy, family history, trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder, transgenerational trauma.
Transgenerational trauma involves a transfer of trauma from the first generation of trauma survivors to the second and to further generations of descendants. Such trauma can include emotional reactions—for example, fear or helplessness—or even maladaptive behavioural patterns. Conversely, intergenerational trauma denotes an exchange of trauma-
1 This study was supported by the Holodomor Research and Education Consortium (HREC) and the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies. We also acknowledge support from Laura Poole, MA, Clinical Psychology, International Disaster Psychology.
© 2020 East/West: Journal of Ukrainian Studies ( ISSN 2292-7956 Volume VII, No. 2 (2020) DOI:


Viktoriia Gorbunova and Vitalii Klymchuk

related reactions between two proximate generations. Furthermore, historical, cultural, and collective traumas that connect with historical events can have impacts on social life, and affect many people, but they do not necessarily have a transgenerational effect. Transgenerational trauma can affect a small number of people or an entire group or community. Genocide, slavery, terrorism, and famine can result in transgenerational types of trauma. Here, we study the transgenerational trauma that resulted from the 1932-33 famine in Ukraine, known as the Holodomor.
The most common consequences of transgenerational trauma are psychological changes in future generations regarding worldview, values, self-attitudes, and behavioural strategies; also affected are the ways a subsequent generation resolves daily problems and builds relationships. The descendants of a trauma survivor will show emotional, cognitive, and behavioural patterns that can be connected to the original trauma.
The consequences of trauma are frequently explained through theoretical conceptualizations or case analyses, but they lack empirical research. Kellermann highlights four major models of trauma transmission: psychodynamic (unconscious trauma transmission through interpersonal relations), “family system” (enmeshment of trauma through communication within the family), socio-cultural (trauma transmission through parenting and role models), and biological (hereditary vulnerability to post-traumatic stress disorder) (“Transmission”). On the other hand, Bezo proposes five models and classifies each model according to its ability to explain trauma transmission. The first model is Bandura’s social-cognitive theory of learning (behaviour and worldview attitudes may be transmitted through observation without critical estimate of influential events) (Bezo 128-30). The second model is based on Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory of the family (changes in actions and beliefs are transgenerationally transmitted through social and cultural reinforcement systems, for example, the family [microsystem] and the community [ecosystem]) (Bezo 130-33). The third model is associated with secondary (vicarious) traumatization, which links compassion toward survivors and a deep involvement in their traumatic experience (Bezo 133-34). The fourth model is related to the attachment theory and is based on the work of Bar-On and others. In this model genocide survivors are unwilling to talk about their traumatic experiences with their offspring, but demonstrate consequences of their trauma in their behaviour and in their treatment of children. Consequently, their children develop disorganized attachment patterns and problematic behaviours (Bezo 134-36). The fifth model is based on the shattered assumptions theory of Janoff-Bulman, in which trauma breaks or “shatters” a fundamental human assumption that the world is benevolent, and the self is worthy (Bezo 136-37). Bezo individually and in co-authorship with Maggi explains transgenerational influence through the transmission of insecure
© 2020 East/West: Journal of Ukrainian Studies ( ISSN 2292-7956 Volume VII, No. 2 (2020)

The Psychological Consequences of the Holodomor in Ukraine


attachment and social learning (Bezo; Bezo and Maggi, “Living” and “Intergenerational Perceptions”). Some recent studies of different traumas support the idea that intergenerational transmission (from parents to children) of traumas’ consequences can be mediated by parenting style and psychological maltreatment by caregivers (Field et al.; Palosaari et al.).
We see three common types of generational trauma transmission. The first type of trauma transmission over generations is socio-cultural. It is a transfer of interactive and behavioural patterns as well as worldview attitudes at interpersonal, cultural, and social levels through communication, socialization, observation/imitation, compassion, child treatment, and community rules. The second type of generational trauma transmission is an epigenetic transmission, where trauma is inherited by descendants. Such inheritance is derived from the nervous system of parents who were exposed to traumatic events. The third type of generational trauma transmission involves the unconscious reproduction of parental behaviours and attitudes (this type of trauma transmission is related to socio-cultural and/or neurobiological trauma transmission).
Often, the rigorous evidence base of generational trauma transmission is a feature of socio-cultural (e.g., studies by Bezo; Bezo and Maggi, “Living”; Klicperová et al.) and neurobiological (e.g., Kellermann, “Epigenetic Transmission”; Skelton et al.) research, as well as works that consider transgenerational trauma to be caused by vicarious traumatization (where symptoms of trauma are caused not by a traumatic event, but by empathic engagement with traumatized persons). Although vicarious traumatization leads to mental problems and psychological issues, it is not generationally “transmitted” (Baranowsky, et al.; Bryant et al.; Rieder and Elbert; Ahmadzadeh and Malekian). Empirical explorations of the unconscious transmission of trauma are difficult; examples include the transgenerational script (Noriega), the ancestor syndrome (Schutzenberger), and projective identification (Rowland-Klein and Dunlop). Although data derived from the unconscious transmission of trauma typically do not agree with existing research data on post-traumatic stress disorder, approaches to this variant provide strong qualitative descriptions of responses, behavioural patterns, beliefs, and attitudes.
This article describes a study of the psychological consequences and transgenerational outcomes of the Holodomor, one of the most traumatic events in the history of Ukraine. The term “Holodomor” in Ukrainian historiography denotes a famine provoked by the Soviet authority in 193233. The Holodomor was the largest man-made famine in Ukraine’s history (the number of victims reached 4-7 million, according to different calculations). Other mass famines inside and outside Ukraine (for instance in the Kuban and Volga regions) were also caused by the Stalin regime, and aimed at the destruction of Ukrainians, but they are mostly defined as man-
© 2020 East/West: Journal of Ukrainian Studies ( ISSN 2292-7956 Volume VII, No. 2 (2020)


Viktoriia Gorbunova and Vitalii Klymchuk

made famines (“shtuchnyi holod”). On the other hand, much historical evidence indicates that the Holodomor was purposely organized to accomplish Ukrainian genocide (see Bilinsky). The Holodomor has been recognized in more than 20 countries around the world as an attempt to eliminate the Ukrainian people. Data updates for the Holodomor and information about current conferences, publications, and initiatives, can be found at the National Museum of the Holodomor-Genocide (
Masliuk describes five factors of the Holodomor that provoked psychological changes that could have been inherited: information deprivation (people did not know the extent of the starvation and the real aims of the Soviet government), confinement (people did not have the flexibility to escape from their regions), famine (there was insufficient food for survival), a ban on spiritual practices (people were pressed to maintain only communist ideology), and the destruction of traditions (for example, the tradition of mutual help and support). Hornostai referred to the Holodomor as the biggest trauma in the history of Ukraine, and cited four factors that made the collective trauma grave: the large number of people traumatized by their inability to obtain sufficient food, the high level of injustice, the inability of people to resist, and the limitations of emotional response. Hornostai calls the Holodomor the biggest trauma in the history of Ukraine.
Although historical and cultural studies of the Holodomor are prevalent, there is a lack of extensive psychological studies of the consequences of the Holodomor to following generations. As a result, Sysyn does not mention any work on this topic in his “Thirty Years of Research on the Holodomor: A Balance Sheet.” The one exception is the research of Obushnyі and Voropaieva, which surveyed 1000 participants who were between the ages of 1-7 years-old during the Holodomor. This study showed higher levels of conformism, anxiety, phobias, behaviour avoidance, and inner conflicts in persons subjected to the Holodomor than in persons who at the time of the Holodomor lived in territories free of this trauma.
Studies of the psychological consequences of the Holodomor in subsequent generations usually have small sample sizes, lack empirical exploration, or derive only theoretical conclusions and generalizations. Most studies have focused on changes in behaviour, moral attitudes, values, and worldviews of descendants of Holodomor victims. Behavioural features of Holodomor descendants include irrational stockpiling/hoarding of excessive food supplies, an inability to discard unwanted and unneeded items, an extreme reverence for food, overeating, and a permanent state of anxiety regarding survival (Bezo and Maggi, “Intergenerational Impact”). In terms of personal values, Reva observed that Holodomor descendants have a national inferiority complex (for example, they compare their personal
© 2020 East/West: Journal of Ukrainian Studies ( ISSN 2292-7956 Volume VII, No. 2 (2020)

The Psychological Consequences of the Holodomor in Ukraine


abilities unfavourably with the abilities of Russians), a permanent fear of defeat, and low levels of aspiration. Holodomor descendants lack male role models to provide male guidance and support, and with whom they could share experiences and values (Bezo and Maggi, “Intergenerational Impact” and “Intergenerational Perceptions”). There is evidence among Holodomor descendants to suggest the existence of a Stockholm syndrome (a psychological alliance with the captors during captivity) between the Ukrainian people and the aggressor, which results in a deformation of worldview, the creation of a Soviet values system originating from a fear of using the Ukrainian language, and an impulse to appear loyal to any type of national identity (Reva). On the other hand, data also show that religious people, who forgive murderers and pray for the victims, have the most constructive attitudes toward themselves and to life, and these attitudes can be passed to offspring (Hrydkovets').
An avoidance of discussing the Holodomor in conversation should be noted separately, since this pattern is not so much inherited as caused by the Soviet regime. Bezo writes that at least one member from each of the familyparticipants during his research remembered the “closed status” of this subject during the Soviet period.
The psychological consequences of the Holodomor on individuals in succeeding generations showed cognitive (ways of thinking) and behavioural (ways of behaving) patterns. Cognitive consequences were associated with how life is interpreted and how behavioural consequences affect coping strategies and reactions to the world that are determined by the worldview. The inheritance of emotional instability (a tendency to feel fear, horror, sadness, indifference to others, shame, anger), which can lead to a deficit of mental well-being (resulting in general stress, anxiety, and alcohol and drug abuse), should be considered separately. These consequences can be difficult to divide into psychological outcomes and mental health issues (which have neurobiological components), but they have a tendency to decrease in intensity from generation to generation (Bezo; Bezo and Maggi, “Intergenerational Perceptions”).
Similar points are presented in the studies of other transgenerational traumas. For example, Kellermann cites disruptive changes in self, cognition, affectivity, and interpersonal functioning in descendants of Holocaust survivors (“Transmission”). DeGruy describes a particular kind of intergenerational trauma, “the post-traumatic slave syndrome,” a set of behaviours and beliefs (e.g., a general self-destructive outlook, learned helplessness, distorted self-concept) common in African Americans, whose ancestors suffered from a long history of slavery and racism. The postCommunist syndrome, developed from the time of the Soviet Union, is a pattern of symptoms that evoke specific manifestations of immorality/incivility, and a lack of civic culture and civic virtues in regard to
© 2020 East/West: Journal of Ukrainian Studies ( ISSN 2292-7956 Volume VII, No. 2 (2020)


Viktoriia Gorbunova and Vitalii Klymchuk

tragedies (Klicperová et al.; Klicperová-Baker). A dependence on transmitted worldviews and attitudes after trauma is also shown in the qualitative study of Lev-Wiesel. Lev-Wiesel presents three research cases with three different types of traumatic events experienced by the first generation—genocide, a long stay in a transit immigration camp, and a forcible relocation from the homeland. Representatives of the second and third generations feel sadness (as they are encouraged “To remember— never forget”), anger (because they cannot return to their homeland), and shame (regarding their social status).
Other researchers have written about post-genocide mental health outcomes (such as depressive, aggressive, and anxiety symptoms, child conduct problems, hyperactivity, and peer problems) in the second generation of individuals afflicted with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): PTSD afflicted survivors of World War II (Yehuda et al.), the Vietnam war (Rosenheck and Thomson), Holocaust genocide (Flory et al.; Baranowsky et al.), the Croatian war of independence (Klain and Pavić), Rwandan genocide (Rieder and Elbert), and the Isfahan war (Ahmadzadeh and Malekian).
The commonalities of transgenerational psychological outcomes suggest their joint nature in addressing socio-cultural and neurobiological mechanisms of their transmission (they are transmitted epigenetically and have a direct impact on mental health as vicarious traumatization). In psychological studies, socio-cultural transmission plays the main role because the immediate neurobiological trauma responses, such as a reaction or arousal in the amygdala in response to cortisol, are connected with epigenetic transmissions, which are more crucial for mental health outcomes than psychological consequences. Vicarious traumatization is not related to transmission mechanisms as such because it has a direct impact on the mental health and well-being of only those individuals who come in contact with trauma survivors.

Trauma transmission is not well defined or well described in existing research. Table 1 portrays a research model that can be used to analyze the psychological consequences of transgenerational trauma. The model enables us to clarify the mechanism(s) of trauma transmission and to develop a research plan to excrete and analyze different types of psychological consequences.

© 2020 East/West: Journal of Ukrainian Studies ( ISSN 2292-7956 Volume VII, No. 2 (2020)

The Psychological Consequences of the Holodomor in Ukraine


Table 1. Research model of psychological consequences of the transgenerational trauma caused by the Holodomor of 1932-33.





DIAGNOSTIC SECTION in the interviews

Internal/external avoidance (thoughts, feelings/objects, places)
Negative changes in mood/cognitions (amnesia, negative beliefs/emotional state, distorted blame, loss of interest, social detachment, low positive emotions) Re-experiencing (intrusions, nightmares, flashbacks, emotional and physical reactions) Hyperarousal (aggression/ irritability/anger, recklessness/selfdestructiveness, hypervigilance, exaggerated startle response, difficulty concentrating/ sleeping)

_ socio-cultural
epigenetic, with a direct impact on mental health (vicarious traumatization)

_ psychological

attitudes toward events/ storytelling
worldview attitudes and behavioural strategies
physical health and mental health

“Holodomorrelated family history” “Personal attitude to the Holodomor”/ “Holodomorrelated storytelling behaviour within the family” “Family worldview attitudes in regard to the Holodomor and behavioural strategies”
beyond study topic

2 According to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
© 2020 East/West: Journal of Ukrainian Studies ( ISSN 2292-7956 Volume VII, No. 2 (2020)


Viktoriia Gorbunova and Vitalii Klymchuk

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was the starting point for developing our research model and its diagnostic criteria (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders [DSM-5]—a taxonomic and diagnostic tool published by the American Psychiatric Association). PTSD is a mental health disorder with specific symptoms that follows exposure to one or more traumatic events. Individuals who suffer from PTSD persistently avoid trauma-related thoughts and feelings, and try to evade objects and places that have connections with traumatic events. However, the traumatic events previously experienced are commonly re-experienced by trauma survivors in the forms of intrusive distressing memories, nightmares, flashbacks, emotions, and physical reactions. In addition, individuals with PTSD experience negative changes in mood and cognition, hold negative beliefs and have negative expectations, and demonstrate distorted blame, loss of interest, social detachment, and few positive emotions. Symptoms of PTSD include hyperarousal (marked alterations in arousal and reactivity) that manifests as aggression, irritability, anger, recklessness, and selfdestructiveness. Individuals with PTSD find it difficult to concentrate and often experience sleeping disturbances. Appearance of the symptoms described above plus an exposure to life-threatening traumatic events comprise the diagnostic criteria of PTSD according to DSM-5. As famine is a traumatic event with deadly outcomes, many survivors of the Holodomor must have suffered PTSD symptoms.
The question essential to our research model is: how did PTSD symptoms pass through generations? Studies of the neurobiological impact of trauma have reported that changes in the brain and neural system caused by trauma can be passed from the original recipients of the trauma to descendants (Kellermann, “Epigenetic Transmission”; Skelton et al.). Thus, offspring of traumatized individuals can experience trauma and hyperarousal to an extent that is damaging to their mental health. Although there is still little strong evidence for the epigenetic transmission of trauma in humans, some evidence has been suggested in animal models (Yehuda and Lehrner). In any case, neurobiological consequences are far beyond the scope of our study. Here we ask if the consequences of personal and societal trauma can reach succeeding generations by socio-cultural transmission. That is, whether traumatic worldview attitudes and traumatic behavioural strategies can be passed to succeeding generations via copied behaviour, conversations, non-verbal reactions, and decision-making styles. In addition, a later generation might inherit attitudes toward Holodomor-related events through the storytelling of a previous generation.
As the result of a literature review and observations made during focus groups, we derived three hypotheses. (1) The more extensive the suffering experienced by families during the Holodomor, the less inclined they are to tell stories about the Holodomor. (2) The fewer the Holodomor-related
© 2020 East/West: Journal of Ukrainian Studies ( ISSN 2292-7956 Volume VII, No. 2 (2020)

The Psychological Consequences of the Holodomor in Ukraine


stories told by families, the more negative are the attitudes toward Holodomor-related topics. (3) Of all the Holodomor-related worldview attitudes and behavioural strategies present in families, attitudes and behaviour concerning food, weight, health, and life-saving are the most widespread.
The research model showed connections between (i) the diagnostic criteria of PTSD; (ii) the most obvious transmission mechanisms for each criterion through generations; (iii) the consequences of the action of each mechanism; (iv) changes in attitude and behaviour, and (v) diagnostic sections in the structured interviews of participants (see the Appendix). Thus, the exposure to a traumatic event is revealed through the diagnostic section “Holodomor-related family history.” Two subsequent diagnostic sections of the interview (“Personal attitude to the Holodomor” and “Holodomor-related storytelling behaviour within the family”) show how internal and external avoidance of traumatic experiences can pass from ancestors to descendants. Unwillingness to think, talk, and learn about the Holodomor, a refusal to honour the victims of the Holodomor, and a predisposition to believe in the Soviet version of the causes of the Holodomor can be consequences of PTSD diagnostic criteria, such as internal and external avoidance of traumatic experiences. The final diagnostic section “Family worldview attitudes in regard to the Holodomor and behavioural strategies” shows that worldview attitudes and behavioural strategies in families can be a result of the socio-cultural transmission of PTSD symptoms—such as negative alterations in mood and cognition—from ancestors to descendants.
The research was performed with a structured interview method developed in Google Forms for online use, and the information was shared on Facebook and via personal mail (see the Appendix). The survey was launched in January 2017 and was open for one year.
It is important to mention that the term “Holodomor” was not in use in the Soviet period. Our ancestors could not talk about Holodomor events using this word. The subjects of famine, Soviet grain procurement plans, and Stalin’s actions were discussed without using the word “Holodomor.” However, the term “Holodomor” is currently recognized in Ukraine, and its meaning is clearly understood by contemporary Ukrainian citizens. For that reason, we decided to use the term “Holodomor” in our project.
Project participants took part in an interview that involved four diagnostic sections and one information section (see the Appendix). The first diagnostic section, “Holodomor-related family history,” investigated whether the participant’s family lived in a territory affected by the Holodomor and whether there were Holodomor victims in the family. This section of the interview also looked at the extent of family members’ suffering (“One or more of my family members died,” “All my family
© 2020 East/West: Journal of Ukrainian Studies ( ISSN 2292-7956 Volume VII, No. 2 (2020)


Viktoriia Gorbunova and Vitalii Klymchuk

members survived but starved and suffered a lot,” “Our neighbours/distant relatives suffered or died,” “My family starved, but not so much that it threatened their life,” “My family experienced no suffering”). The second diagnostic section, “Holodomor-related storytelling behaviour within the family,” asked respondents to describe their experiences of family storytelling regarding the Holodomor, the frequency of such storytelling and the acceptability of such storytelling from “often and in detail” to “family stories exist but were not retold” with additional options for cases in which the participant knows nothing about Holodomor-related family stories or knows for sure that there are no Holodomor-related family stories. The third diagnostic section of the interview, “Personal attitudes to the Holodomor,” sought information about participants’ positions regarding the avoidance or devaluation of Holodomor-related topics/actions, and vice versa. The fourth diagnostic section, “Family worldview attitudes in regard to the Holodomor and behavioural strategies,” inquired about participants’ behavioural strategies and worldview attitudes and the relevance of these attitudes to other family members.
The statements for the two final sections of the interview were drafted on the basis of preliminary work that asked focus groups (92 individuals) to share Holodomor-related experiences and questioned them about persistent attitudes and behaviours related to these experiences. After grouping and generalization, these attitudes and behaviours were included in the pilot version of the questionnaire, which was amended based on the feedback from individuals in the focus groups.
The information section of the interview contained data regarding gender, age, current family residences, and family residences during the Holodomor. Data were subjected to descriptive statistics, frequency analysis, and correlation analysis. Study participants included 721 persons—81% female and 19% male—some from different regions of Ukraine and some from foreign countries (U.K., Georgia, Canada, U.S.A., Russia, Israel, Germany, Norway, Portugal).3 The average age of individuals who completed the questionnaire was 38.7 years; questionnaire participants comprised the following age ranges: 17-29 years (146), 30-39 years (239), 40-49 years (214), 50-59 years (101), and 60-69 years (21). The interview did not collect information about a participant’s place in the generation line, but the overall age range indicates that no participant belonged to the first generation of Holodomor survivors. Representatives of second, third, and fourth generations of Holodomor survivors took part in the study.
Participants whose families lived in the territory that suffered from the

3 More than 1000 individuals took part in the survey, but only participant data that were complete, with no missing answers, were selected for analysis.
© 2020 East/West: Journal of Ukrainian Studies ( ISSN 2292-7956 Volume VII, No. 2 (2020)

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The Psychological Consequences of the Holodomor in Ukraine