Russia’s Vegetarians Thrive, Despite Prejudice
Published: May 16, 2012 (Issue # 1708)
ALEXANDER AKSAKOV / SPT
Fruit and vegetables were grown in allotments on New Holland island last summer.
Although vegetarianism is not as popular in Russia as in many Western countries and some Russian psychiatrists even consider some of its forms to be indicators of mental illness, the number of Russian vegetarians and vegans continues to grow.
St. Petersburg resident Lembit Lemsipp, a 33-year-old Russian translator who gave a pseudonym for this article, said his major motivation for becoming a vegan was “feeling disgusted with the idea of brutality and torture.”
“I reckon there was some influence from the hardcore punk scene and the health and environmental benefits of the vegetarian diet were appealing,” said Lemsipp, who became a vegan in 1997 when he was 18.
Lemsipp said that now it is quite easy to find most of the vegan food he needs in St. Petersburg.
Vera Kozlovskaya, 30, who teaches at St. Petersburg Polytechnic University, said it took her about five years to make her decision to become a vegetarian.
“We always had animals in our family, and my parents taught me to love animals and nature, and at some point I realized it was hypocritical to say that I love animals but at the same time eat them and wear clothes made of leather and fur,” Kozlovskaya said.
Kozlovskaya said she then thought that vegetarians were doing the right thing by not eating meat, but she still couldn’t make a final decision for herself. She thought she wouldn’t be able to avoid eating meat and didn’t want to inconvenience her parents, with whom she lived, by making them cook special meals for her.
However, when Kozlovskaya was 22, she came home one day and told her mother that she would not be eating meat anymore. Three years ago, she switched from vegetarianism to veganism. She does not wear clothes made from leather or fur, and tries to avoid buying things made of wool.
Kozlovskaya said her parents soon accepted her choice. The other advantage of her new lifestyle was that she finally learnt to cook herself, she said, and it even became a hobby.
Nadezhda Davydova, a 45-year-old PR manager, became a vegetarian “in a completely natural way,” as she put it.
“In fact, I never felt any particular inclination to eat meat, but would eat barbequed meat at picnics with my friends two or three times a year. Then, 12 years ago, I suddenly noticed that I hadn’t eaten any meat for more than a year, just because I didn’t feel like it. At that time I would still have fish at my friends’ for dinner or at a restaurant, but gradually fish also disappeared from my diet,” Davydova said.
Davydova finds it difficult, however, to follow a vegan diet in which people don’t eat any animal products.
“It’s really hard not to eat eggs because I have a sweet tooth and eggs are common ingredients in cookies, cakes and ice cream,” she said.
Davydova said she never feels critical of people who eat meat.
“I feel perfectly comfortable at a dinner table with other people who are eating non-vegetarian food. If I have guests I certainly buy sausage or other meat products. The most important thing for me about people is not their food choice but their good nature,” she said.
Davydova said she was against violence of any form and that for her, eating a rabbit would be like cooking a cat. However, she said she felt uneasy about people who wanted to impose their vegetarian lifestyle on other people.
“We won’t be able to survive if we don’t cultivate balance, non-violence and care about our planet and those who live on it,” Davydova said. “However, in order to ensure that vegetarianism doesn’t become some sort of psychiatric problem or cult, the decision to switch to it should be voluntary, conscious and happy. There should not be any arrogance and pride in one’s ‘heroic’ deed.”
Dmitry Koretsky, who is 25 and the coordinator of the Vegan Club project, said he became a vegan when he was 18 after talking with some of his friends who didn’t eat animal products.
“It took me a while to do my homework on the topic and find out the influence such a diet can have on one’s health. After that I became a vegan overnight,” he said.
Koretsky said he didn’t experience any difficulties in becoming vegan.
“The major difficulty was explaining to my relatives that a vegan way of life is normal and that I wouldn’t die from it,” Koretsky said. “About a year later, everyone had accepted my choice,” he said.
Koretsky said he felt “excellent” about his diet. Last summer he took part in a bicycle marathon from St. Petersburg to Novgorod and traveled to the Crimean Mountains, and this year he took up ice swimming.
“After I switched to veganism I virtually stopped catching colds and my allergies disappeared,” he said.
Koretsky said it was not very hard to be a vegetarian in St. Petersburg, where the food selection is quite rich.
“It’s a bit harder with veganism, but it depends on what people want,” he said.
At a recent press conference in St. Petersburg, the city’s head dietitian Vladimir Dotsenko said that vegetarianism and raw food diets were dangerous for children and pregnant women.
“Vegans practice raw foodism. Such a diet results in a lack of vitamins A and D, calcium and protein, which are all found in animal products,” Dotsenko was cited by Interfax as saying. “‘Rational’ vegetarians consume milk and eggs, giving them close to optimal nutrition. However, children need to eat meat to grow and pregnant women also need to in order to help the development of a normal fetus.”
The Head of the Hepatology Center at Mechnikov Medical University, Valery Radchenko, said human nutrition depends on age, genetics and illnesses.
“If a young woman doesn’t eat meat, she will give birth to a non-healthy child who will suffer from anemia and that child will be ill for the next several years,” Radchenko said.
Some foreign experts share Radchenko’s opinion. Nina Planck, author of the Real Food series and the Farmer’s Market Cookbook, shared her view in an article that she wrote for the New York Times.
“For babies and children, whose nutritional needs are extraordinary, the risks are definite and scary,” wrote Planck, who used to be a vegan but stopped practicing veganism during pregnancy. “The breast milk of vegetarian and vegan mothers is dramatically lower in a critical brain fat, DHA, than the milk of an omnivorous mother and contains less usable vitamin B6. Carnitine, a vital amino acid found in meat and breast milk, is nicknamed ‘vitamin Bb’ because babies need so much of it. Vegans, vegetarians and people with poor thyroid function are often deficient in carnitine and its precursors.”
Kozlovskaya said, however, that some of her vegetarian and vegan acquaintances had given birth to healthy children despite their diets. They also put their children on full-fledged vegetarian diets and the children grow and develop well, she said.
Kozlovskaya said to get enough protein she eats different kinds of pulses, adding that this gives her enough protein to cycle to work almost all year round.
“The only vitamin that is difficult to get from vegetables is B12. That is why I drink B12-enriched soymilk and take special vitamins developed by the Vegan Society of Great Britain,” she said.
Scientific endeavors in the area of vegetarianism have shifted from concerns about nutritional adequacy to investigating its health benefits and disease prevention. The American Dietetic Association and the Dietitians of Canada have stated that at all stages of life, a properly planned vegetarian diet is “healthful, nutritionally adequate, and provides health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.”
Many studies have shown that the percentage of deaths caused by heart disease was 30 percent lower among vegetarian men and 20 percent lower among vegetarian women than in meat-eaters.
Vegetarians tend to have lower body mass index, lower levels of cholesterol, lower blood pressure, and less incidence of heart disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, renal disease, metabolic syndrome, dementias such as Alzheimer’s disease and other disorders. Non-lean red meat, in particular, has been found to be directly associated with increased risk of certain cancers.
Under the Orthodox calendar, there are more than 220 fasting days per year.However, modern vegetarianism first came to Russian in the 1890s.
Thanks to the influence of famous Russian vegetarians such as the writer Leo Tolstoy and botanist Andrei Beketov, a strong vegetarian movement appeared in Russia before World War I.
After the Bolshevik Revolution, the topic of vegetarianism became taboo and the Big Soviet Encyclopedia said that “vegetarianism, which is based on false hypotheses and ideas, does not have followers in the Soviet Union.”
Today in western European countries and the U.S., between three and 10 percent of the population follow some kind of vegetarian diet. In the U.S., about 12 million people are vegetarian, in the U.K. there are 3.5 million and in Germany about 3 million, researchers say. The number of vegans is much lower, with only half a million vegans in the U.S. and about 200,000 in the U.K.