Salad days: the return of the vegetarian

Salad days: the return of the vegetarian

After decades of ignorance and indifference, vegetarian cuisine is now all the rage in St Petersburg. Carlo Martuscelli looks back at the long history of vegetarianism in Russia and examines the reasons for its renaissance

3 June 2013
Text Carlo Martuscelli

Russia — the homeland of beef Stroganoff, stuffed pelmeni and jellied meats — hardly seems like a go-to destination for a vegetarian. But in the past couple of years well-appointed new veggie venues have suddenly started springing up, particularly in more counter-cultural St Petersburg. The diverse crowds at places like Botanika and Mansarda Lemonade show that meat-free is going mainstream and that attitudes are changing. Vegetarianism has a long and distinguished history in Russia — Tolstoy was a famous advocate, but what’s spurring the revival?

It’s hard to pin down the precise number of vegetarians in Russia, but Victor Stepanov, editor-in-chief of Vegetarian Magazine Russia, puts the number in the hundreds of thousands. A quick look around St Petersburg suggests a sharp rise in popularity: the city is now home to 15 vegetarian restaurants and cafes — an impressive statistic when you consider that the first, Troitsky Most, which opened in 1995, remained an exception for a long time.

“Every self-respecting cafe or restaurant offers a special Lent menu these days”

The fall of the Soviet Union seemed like a great opportunity for the adherents of “the vegetable diet”, as it is sometimes known in Russia. But anyone who has requested vegetarian food in a Russian restaurant in the last ten years is familiar with phrases such as “It’s OK, it’s chicken”, or, “Don’t worry, it’s wafer-thin ham”. It is only now that vegetarian restaurants are ceasing to be a sideshow, largely because the economic and cultural situation has shifted in their favour. In the first place there has been a general rise in median income, which has funded the emergence of a small middle class that use their disposable income to express their identity through food, helping to diversify the restaurant scene. Neither the conspicuous consumption culture of the high Nineties, or its counterpart — the ever-present poverty of post-Soviet Russia — was crying out to be accessorised with alfalfa and falafel. Only now is there a sizeable portion of society that is comfortable enough in its wages and its taste to make a diet into a way of life.

This youngish middle class have also adopted and adapted the western obsession with healthy eating and fitness. Combine this with the consistent popularity of traditionally vegetarian cultures (Buddhism has remained popular since the Nineties and cheap flights have made a trip to India a must for a certain generation), and the community-forming potential of the internet, and you have all the ingredients for a vegetarian renaissance.

And it really is a rebirth. Vegetarianism of a sort has always been practised in Russia. Orthodox Christianity requires long periods of meat-free fasting — a tradition that has now come back into fashion: every self-respecting cafe or restaurant offers a special Lent menu these days. But vegetarianism as a reasoned, scientific approach to food really began in 1878 when botanist Andrei Beketov published The Present and Future of Human Nutrition, a treatise in defence of a vegetarian diet and when, at about the same time, Russia’s first vegetarian society, Neither Fish Nor Fowl, opened in St Petersburg.

“Russian vegetarianism was born with a divided soul”

But the movement really picked up steam, when Leo Tolstoy, who had already made his name with Anna Karenina and War and Peace, published The First Step in 1882, a pamphlet that vividly describes the workings of a slaughterhouse and publicises the cruelty inherent in the meat-production process. Tolstoy argues that vegetarianism is not just a diet, but also an act of self-abnegation that springs from a deep-rooted compulsion not to harm, and is as such a necessary first step towards leading a moral life.

Russian vegetarianism was thus born with a divided soul. On the one hand, there were the scientists and doctors, like Beketov, who promoted a meat-less diet for medical and economic reasons. On the other hand, there were the followers of Tolstoy, spiritual Christians for whom vegetarianism was part of a larger worldview which strove radical social change by following in the footsteps of Christ, turning their backs on the sinful life of luxury and vice in the cities and returning to work the land in peasant communes.

Leo Tolstoy, Russia's most famous vegetarian, as painted by Ivan Kramskoy (1873)
Leo Tolstoy, Russia’s most famous vegetarian, as painted by Ivan Kramskoy (1873)

These two groups were often bitterly critical of one another: Pavel Biryukov and Nikolai Gusyev, Tolstoy’s biographer and secretary respectively, derided medical interest in a meatless diet as “gastric vegetarianism”. By 1913 their “ethical” vegetarianism had gained the upper hand: Moscow’s Spiritual Awakening society organised the first All-Russian Vegetarian Congress, which discussed such topics as vegetarianism’s relationship to morality, beauty, religion and education.

“Vegetarian societies were increasingly marginalised, their journals censored and, eventually, their members jailed”

The outbreak of the war put an end to the congresses and presented vegetarians with a dilemma. How could they participate in killing other people, when they so scrupulously avoided harming animals? In their eyes, sympathy towards animals was a way of stimulating and expanding the natural brotherhood of men; it was, in fact, the needless and sinful spilling of animal blood that had brought on the violence and folly of war. The particularly ethical character of Russian vegetarianism ultimately meant that the movement was largely against the war, something that brought them vitriol from pro-war demagogues.

Their pacifism meant that vegetarians initially greeted the October Revolution with enthusiasm, as an opportunity to end the war. But it was the 1917 revolution, and the subsequent years of Soviet centralised control over production, that really put paid to vegetarianism, like many other aspects of Russia’s historically diverse food culture. State officials largely regarded vegetarian societies with indifference bordering on disdain: in Moscow, economic scarcity meant that the Union of Consumer Societies refused to give vegetarian canteens the necessary materials to prepare their food. Vegetarian agricultural workers were refused special dispensation from participating in meat-production. With the outbreak of the civil war, the state, suspicious of vegetarianism’s decidedly un-Marxist roots, took a more active stance in suppressing it. Vegetarians were condemned as “unscientific” and “bourgeois” by Communist Party ideologues, Vegetarian societies were increasingly marginalised, their journals censored and, eventually, their members jailed. The Moscow vegetarian society was refused official recognition, and in 1929 its application for a new lease on its headquarters was refused. Not much later, a protocol was passed announcing the self-liquidation of the society.

“‘Vegetarianism, a docrtine founded on false hypotheses and ideas, has no followers in the Soviet Union’”

In Leningrad, the society tried to continue by renouncing any religious or moral motivation. It changed its name to the Scientific and Hygienic Vegetarian Society and even published an article celebrating the fight against ethical vegetarianism. It was all to no avail, and by 1930 the word “vegetarian” was removed from the society’s name. Vegetarianism became a taboo in the Soviet Union, persisting only in the works of some science fiction authors. In 1952 the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia felt confident in saying that “Vegetarianism, a doctrine founded on false hypotheses and ideas, has no followers in the Soviet Union.”

This statement can hardly have been true, but meat, or at least the desire for meat, was omnipresent in Soviet cuisine. By the end of Soviet rule, very little remained of a native vegetarian culture. It is, therefore, questionable what, if any, connection there is between today’s revived vegetarian cuisine and the ethical movement of the previous century. But the prevalence of Lent menus harks back to the pre-revolutionary diet, and quotes from Tolstoy do adorn the menu in Botanika. When I ask the waitress the reasons behind the sudden popularity of vegetarian and vegan restaurants in the city, she said it was concern for the treatment of animals. To be expected, maybe, but definite common ground with Tolstoy and his followers. Perhaps a new crop of vegetarians is rediscovering its roots.

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