International Vegetarian Union (IVU)
IVU logo

Russians Go Veggie!
from IVU News 2002
This article was also the text a talk at the World Vegetarian Congress, in Edinburgh 2002,
entitled: 'Vegetarianism in Russia, Past Present and Future'.

By Nikolai Kalanov
President of the Eurasian Vegetarian Society

You got to be pulling my leg! Veg-etarianism in Russia, in the country of Borsch, pirozkhi and pelmeni which have been Russian traditional meat dishes since the Slavs settled in this northerly part of the world? Green meals in a coun-try where on the most territory winter reigns for as long as six months in a year? Impossible!

But yes, it is indeed possible no mat-ter how incredible this might sound. Moreover as the last decade's observations reveal, lately many Russians are inclined to give up meat and turn to healthy diets. To make sure this is not just a joke and to prove that vegetarian-ism does exist in this country, the Eur-asian Vegetarian Society decided to conduct a special survey and turned for help to a group of young journalists, students of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO University)

The results of the sociological study surprised us, but before we confide them to the world, we'd like to recollect the peculiarities of the Russian vegetarian movement in order to give you a complete picture of what has been going on here in the north.

What's significant for vegetarianism in Russia is that for over 60 years this movement was prohibited and vegetar-ianism was ruthlessly persecuted in this country. Before the revolutionary came to power in 1917, the Russian Empire, one of the most developed countries, kept up with the newest trends including vegetarianism. That's why in the beginning of the 20th century, vegetari-anism preached by the celebrated writer Leo Tolstoi and a number of other prominent personalities was spreading vigorously and joyfully. All over the country opened many restaurants and canteens that offered exclusively meatless menus. When the Bolsheviks overthrew the Tsar and established their rule, one of the first things they did was that they got rid of all the religious institutions that were considered by them useless and even harmful for the new society. Mistakenly, vegetarianism fell a victim to their vio-lent attacks. Thus this way of living was banned for many years, and its persis-tent followers ran the risk of being imprisoned for their "greenish" convictions.

Vegetarianism was forbidden, but not forgotten. It went underground and officially it didn't exist in the Soviet Union. Only with the "perestroika" turning all the sacred Soviet values upside-down did vegetarianism come to light in the late 80s.

Today much public work is lead by the Eurasian Vegetarian Society, a young but very active non-governmental and non-commercial organization. The EVS not only publishes its own specialized magazine "Vegetarianets" but also runs the Vegetarian Club and regularly ar-ranges meetings with well-known Russians who speak on their roads to vegetarianism. Inviting scientists and doc-tors to give lectures on different topics connected with the healthy lifestyle makes an important part of the work of the Eurasian Vegetarian Society. Its main goal is to popularize this healthy way of living and to attract as many people as possible to this view on life. Owing to the EVS, the vegetarians in Russia now have an opportunity to get in touch with each other, to communicate, and to share their vegetarian experience. For ex-ample, quite recently, in December 2001, they celebrated together the 100th anniversary of the vegetarian movement in this country. (Exactly one hundred years ago), on the 1st of December, the Ministry of Internal Affairs had registered the Russian Vegetarian Society. As mentioned above, it had been closed down Soon by the Soviet government.)

The growing popularity of this lifestyle is evident and it is no doubt connected with the expansion of the new fashion - with the fashion of exotics. Many Russians come to adore the origi-nal ancient cultures. They revere every-thing that is brought from the Orient, Africa and Latin America. Exotic clothes, home decorations and unusual foods are very popular. The capital of Russia has been overflowed with eastern-style res-taurants - phenomenon not only caused by the curiosity but also causing people to conceive a liking for such extraordi-nary atmosphere and quite special food-stuff. Even exotic sports and methods of physical training are eagerly taken up by many in Russia. The desire to achieve self-perfection leads them to yoga and other spiritual teachings. Eventually they discover vegetarianism and realize that this is the only possible way of a healthy life.

It is important to mention that do-mestic scientists in the field of health have also developed their own ideas of ideal nutrition and lifestyle basing on meatless diets. Galina Shatalova, for example, who cooperates eagerly with the Eurasian Vegetarian Society, has cured many by prescribing a vegetarian diet and special physical exercises.

While some Russians have to deny meat for health reasons, some others fast. The rise of the veneration for the Orthodox Christianity is especially obvious. As is well known, it obliges Orthodox believers to keep 200 days of fast per year, which involves not only giving up meat, but also fish and other albumin-ous foods.

Whatever the reasons for self-restrictions are, vegetarians in Russia need encouragement. They are often criticized by their family, friends, doctors, many of whom are by an old habit very dis-trustful of this style of living. Russian Vegetarians want to receive informational and moral support. They are in need of a special infrastructure which could allow them to live the way they choose. And that is exactly what the ac-tivity of the Eurasian Vegetarian Society is devoted to. The results of the sur-vey, which we are about to present are especially important for the EVS because they show what vegetarians in this coun-try are like and what their concerns are about.

The poll itself was conducted during October-December 2001. We will tell you a hit about the plan of the surv-ey. Preliminary observations and reflec-tions let us hypothesize that some Rus-sians are indeed ready to turn to meat-less diets. Once again, the aim of the study was to reveal the different reasons why people become vegetarians in Russia. We were especially interested in the situation in Moscow because, as it was mentioned above, it is in the capital where this "green" fashion is the most vivid.

Proceeding from the theoretical and methodological base, we have divided the population of the capital city into several strata, according to the follow-ing indicators: gender, age, professional activity and financial state. This helped us to determine these orders:
- School children
- Young people aged 18-25
- Grown-Ups of intellectual labour
- Grown-ups of manual labour
- Working people earning over 1000 dollars per month (these we named "the rich")
- Working people with a monthly earning less than 100 dollars (we called them "the poor")
- Pensioners

Ii the course of the survey, a num-ber of methods was used: affiliated open observation, documents analysis, interviews. For the mass of figures we used a written form of sociological study. Our questionnaire consisted of both multiple-choice questions and of questions that required original answers from the respondents. As a whole, 295 people took part in the poll.

Let's now take a look at the concrete figures that we have received. The first thing we intended to find out was whether Muscovites at all know who vegetarians are. According to our statis-tics. 32 % of the respondents think that vegetarians are believers in some kind of religion, 15% consider them simply queer, 5% are sure that this is how the members of the Green Party are called. Nevertheless, 37% of our respondents have at least one vegetarian acquain-tance and 66% are cool about vegetari-anism, saying that this is up to every-body personally to decide whether to accept this way of living or not. Inter-estingly, 9% of those surveyed feel pity for vegetarians. 15% respect such people for their willpower, and 13 % be-lieve that this lifestyle does harm health.

On average, half the respondents to the question "would you like to become vegetarian." answered a firm "no'. This index is the highest among children of school age (69%), manual workers (64%) and pensioners (62%). Tue percent-age of those who could out of curiosity give up meat is the highest among manual workers again (32%), followed by students (31%) and poor people (28%).

The intelligentsia (32%) and the wealthy (25%) turned out to be the most staunch vegetarians. The least was among people of manual labour (only 2%). Pensioners and the poor seem to pay special attention to health and be-lieve that vegetarianism is not suitable for them because of its supposedly harmful effects.

Now, let's turn to those Muscovites who, according to our survey, someday in the future might join vegetarians. We'll consider women and men separately. As a whole, more curiosity has been expressed by men. Almost a half (49%) of the wealthy Muscovites who took the questionnaires are prepared to give up meat in order to keep their health. Male manual workers, school boys and male pensioners appear to be driven by ideological reasons. Indeed, 74 % of male manual workers said that ideological reasons would be the main reason for them abstaining from meat. Poor people expect to save money on a meatless diet.

Only 18% of the rich women partici-pating in our survey believe that veg-etarianism helps to keep them trim and shapely. While 39% agreed to become vegetarians because "it is fashionable now." Economic reasons appealed to 8% of manual female workers and to 4% of girl students.

In general, young Muscovites are the only ones concerned about their physical good looks, with 22% of students and 27% of school kids refusing meat for this reason. The question of re-ligion, contrary to our expectations, does not seem to play a big role for the inhabitants of Moscow. Faith influenced only 2% of students to turn to a meatless lifestyle.

The results of our study have shown that over 10% of the respondents con-sider themselves vegetarians. Of course, we have to take in account that the ma-jority of Russian people believe that veg-etarianism means simply the restraint of meat. But still, we should admit that this fact more than surprised us, for we hadn't expected the percentage of meat-haters in Moscow to be so large.

Why don't we now look at the rea-sons that caused these people to become vegetarians. Interestingly, 33% of those surveyed, who actually do not eat meat, explained that they simply don't like the taste of meat. The second most popular reason was compassion for animals (29%). Religious grounds limit 23% of our vegetarians. And 21% of the respon-dents of this group said that they had refused meat because of health problems. Only 12% of vegetarians admitted that they were driven by a desire not to get fat. Ideological convictions made 10% of vegetarians forget the taste of steaks. And it is interesting to note, that 8% be-came scared off from meat because of "Mad Cow" disease.

Most of the Moscow vegetarians (as far as our study shows) consider the cho-sen way to be individual. Nevertheless 23% of them propagandize their views and do their best to convince others by their own example to give up meat.

Thus we can conclude that the be-havioral attitude of the Muscovites, who contributed to our survey, is quite di-verse. The results of the survey let us declare that the most conservative meat-eaters are pensioners and working grown-ups of manual labor. It has also become clear that the attitude of school children to vegetarianism depends greatly on their family traditions. In general, as we recall, some Muscovites have com-plained that it is impossible to become vegetarian if the rest of the family continue to eat meat.

Verification of our hypothesis has confirmed our estimates. We do believe that this survey can be considered as a pilot study. In such a dynamic country like Russia it will no doubt be interesting to conduct a panel survey on the scope of the whole country in order to see how the attitude of Russians to vegetarianism will be changing.

Authors of the sociological study (the members of Eurasian Vegetarian Society, MGIMO students): Elena Antonova, Maya Balbanova, Natalia Leibnina.