A look into one culture’s evolution towards embracing vegetarianism, veganism and animal rights, “The History of Russian Veganism: In A Nutshell” is a fascinating and educational read!
The History of Russian Veganism: in a nutshell
The broad public discussion in Russia regarding the ethics of refusal from eating flesh and consuming animal products, as well as the issues of practicing plant based diets and concerns about rational and efficient use of the environment started in 1878 when Russian magazine “Vestnik Evropy” first published Andrey Beketov’s (1825–1902) essay “Nutrition of a man in his present and future.”
Andrey Beketov was a professor of botanics and the chancellor of St. Petersburg University in 1876-1884.
This work is the first Russian essay on vegetarianism, which gave rise to the moral and scientific education movement in Russia whose primary concern was to shift a paradigm from treating animal foods and products as “normal” and “unavoidable” to immoral and detrimental to humans’ health and disastrous for the environment.
We should note here that as a matter of fact ‘vegans’ were in that times called in Russia “the strict vegetarians.” Thus every time the word “vegetarian” is used in this essay we should understand it as mentioning vegans also. Even now, unfortunately, decades since the term “vegan” was coined by Donald Watson, most of the Russian people do not distinguish these two critically different notions one from another.
Beketov argued that the human digestive system adapted to consume plants, vegetables and fruits. He also considered the practice of livestock production and its inefficiency, drawing attention to the fact that it is always more expensive to grow plants on which we feed animals than would be required if we consume plants directly especially aconsidering the fact that many plants contain more protein than meat, and plant based diet can satisfy all human needs for nutrients.
He concluded that the growing human population on earth will inevitably result in a critical shortage of pasture land and there will begin a natural reduction of farm animals and livestock. There will be simply not enough space to continue the ineffective practice of livestock production and mankind will completely turn to plant based agriculture.
Beketov regarded the myth of the absolute necessity of a mixed animal and vegetable foods as a prejudice and was sincerely convinced that people could draw their power exclusively from the plant kingdom.
He also pointed to the link between meat based nutrition and aggression: “It seems to me that these two abattoirs are in a much stronger connection than we usually think; the meat and cannon fodder (la chair de la boucherie et la chair a canon) are two things which presuppose each other or at least support each other.” (Andrey Beketov “Nutrition of a man in his present and future” 1878).
In the very end of his essay he reveals the moral reasons for refusing to consume animal foods:
“The supreme manifestation of the noblest attribute of a moral person is love to all living beings – to all that constitutes the universe – not only humans. Such a characteristic with no doubt has nothing to do with slaughter of a voiceless animal, and the aversion to any bloodshed is always a first sign of humanity” (Andrey Beketov “Nutrition of a man in his present and future” 1878).
Beketov points directly to the humans’ hypocrisy and insensibility to the suffering of vulnerable animals. He uncovers how deeply the horrible tradition of murdering and eating animals is ingrained in the minds of people, not causing them to even think about the connection between the piece of meat on their plate and pain and death which were inflicted on a poor animal for the sake of this:
“We are all so used to eating or watching other people eat meat, that we never even come to the idea that those animals whose parts lie before us on our platter were slaughtered. Out there, somewhere outside the city, there is a slaughterhouse, disgusting, stinking and bloody place, where cut, tear to pieces, chop and percolate the blood from the veins; but who is looking there!” (Andrey Beketov “Nutrition of a man in his present and future” 1878).
Leo Tolstoy was the first who looked – after 14 years after the publication of Beketov’s essay – inside slaughterhouses and described everything that happened inside its walls. In 1892 he published the essay “The First Step” that caused a great resonance and was called by his contemporaries “a Bible of Russian vegetarianism.” This essay was a call to a moral transformation of the world through the personal effort of each person, whose main idea should be the new birth by means of the application of the principle of compassion for all living beings.
In his work, he emphasized the critical importance of the principle of abstention fromq animal foods for living a moral life and regarded the conscious reducing of consumption as the first stage of self-improvement and a good life.
He confidently states that one can achieve the qualities of a moral life only through personal moral efforts and hard personal work on changing herself. And the conscious abstention from animal foods “will be the sign that one’s striving for moral self-improvement is serious and sincere”.
The 9th chapter describes visiting Tula’s slaughterhouse and this depiction is probably the most painful reading in all of Tolstoy’s oeuvre. Having portrayed all the horror of how the animal foods are produced he calls up that we “can not pretend that we don’t know. We are not ostriches and we can not believe that if we don’t watch, it will not be exactly what we do not want to see. Moreover, it can not be done when we don’t want to see the very thing that we are going to eat.” (Leo Tolstoy “The First Step” 1892).
He argues that there is absolutely no necessity in consuming animal foods for humans’ nutrition and that “living a good moral life is inconsistent with a beefsteak.”
“The consuming of animal foods is directly and unconditionally immoral because it requires an act which is contrary to the moral sense of a person – a murder, and such an act is the result of only greed and a palate pleasure.” (Leo Tolstoy “The First Step” 1892).
In his opinion, the dissemination of ideas of cruelty-free nutrition can be a special joy for religious people who seek the implementation of the ethics of Christian precepts and building of the Kingdom of God on earth.
Tolstoy regards vegetarianism as the ethical movement of a mankind and emphasizes its unstoppable and constantly accelerating character.
The publication of this essay has influenced the lives of many people in Russia and worldwide who after having read this work changed their former nature and perceived moral and physical renewal. Among others we have to mention here Ilya Repin, arguably one of the greatest Russian realist genre-painter and portraitist (Barge Haulers on the Volga (1873), Ivan the Terrible and his son Ivan 1581 (1885), Krestny Khod (Religious Procession) in Kursk Gubernia (1883), etc.), Nikolay Ge – famous Russian painter and author of “Last Supper” (1863) and “Portrait of Leo Tolstoy” (1884), Nikolay Leskov – the great Russian writer who was the first in Russian literature who represented a vegan as a main hero of an art-work (“Figure”, 1889 and “Midnighters”, 1890).
Tolstoy himself became a vegetarian, and later a vegan, in 1884. Significant influences on his choice were Beketov’s essay “Nutrition of a man in his present and future” (1878) and Howard Williams’s book “The Ethics of Diet. A Catena of Authorities Deprecatory of the Practice of Flesh Eating” (London, 1883) in which the author cited judgments of the world famous thinkers, poets, and educators about the immorality and impermissibility of eating animals.
Unfortunately, Tolstoy’s veganism was fleeting in nature and he later turned back to eating eggs and wearing fur and leather clothes.
The Russian orthodox church became indignant toward Tolstoy’s preaching veganism and announced that he strongly distorted the meaning of Christian virtues and that complete abstention from eating animals was heresy and the execution of carnal affairs.
The church did not also regard the statement that a progress of a mankind is possible only through personal efforts of each person on the path to moral self-improvement, and accused him in an underestimation of faith in the power of the Lord and the Christian hope of salvation through grace. Subsequently, Tolstoy was excommunicated from the Russian orthodox church in 1901.
Another outstanding figure of Russian veganism was Paolo Trubetskoy, a world renowned sculptor and painter who portrayed Leo Tolstoy and Bernard Shaw and was an author of the monument to czar Alexander III in St. Petersburg. He was the first who expressed the idea of veganism in sculpture – “Divoratori di cadaveri” 1900.
It is impossible not to mention here two great women who have dedicated their lives to vegan education and promotion of animal ethics and plant based nutrition in Russia: Nataly Nordman and Anna Barykova.
Nataly Nordman was the first to introduce to the Russian public the theory and practice of the raw vegan diet having read the first lecture on the subject in Russia “The Raw Food as Health, Economy and Happiness” in 1913.
It is difficult to overestimate Anna Barykova’s contribution to the dissemination of the ideas of the ethical treatment of animals and adoption of a plant based nutrition in Russia. She translated in Russian and published five fables of John Gay (1685–1732) which raised questions of cruelty and betrayal and immorality of exploiting animals: “The Beggar’s Opera,” “The Wild Boar and the Ram,” “The Court of Death,” “Pythagoras and the Countryman” and “The Philosopher and the Pheasants.” She also translated in Russian and published excerpts from famous Percy Byshe Shelley’s poem “Queen Mab. A Philosophical Poem.”
On December 1, 1901 in St. Petersburg, the first official Russian Association of vegetarians was founded – “The St. Petersburg Vegetarian Society.” Later the same vegetarian associations emerged in Warsaw, Chisinau, Kiev and Moscow (1909). Numerous vegetarian canteens arose, all which all had great success. The first Russian vegetarian magazine – “Vegeterianskiy Vestnik” – began to publish its materials in 1904. A significant influence on the spread of veganism/vegetarianism in Russia at that time, it had the Russian translation of the novel by Upton Sinclair “The Jungle,” published in the USA in 1906, which described the horrible nightmares of slaughterhouses of Chicago.
The first Russian vegetarian cookbook “I Do Not Eat Anybody” was published in 1911 and it contained 365 vegetarian menu and 1500 recipes.
The greatest Russian thinker – Vladimir Vernadsky (1863–1945) – one of the founders of the theory of the noosphere, the ideologist of non-violence and moral improvement of the world, put forward the idea that people will stop killing living beings, not only of the animal but also vegetable world, and mankind will turn to eating anorganic substances.
He believed that the goal of humanity should be to move towards a new form of nutrition which is the transition from “heterotrophy” to “autotrophy” and direct synthesis of food from solar energy bypassing the organic substances (as plants do).
The First all-Russian Congress of vegetarians which was held in Moscow in April 1913 became a culmination of the development of the vegetarian movement in Russia in the period before the first world war and the October communist revolution in 1917.
After the October revolution of 1917 and the subsequent change of government in Russia, the spreading of vegetarian ideas slowed. The new communist authorities understood the incompatibility of ideas of non-violence and compassion to all living beings – humans and non-humans – with their preaching a doctrine of the inevitability of class struggle and the readiness to resist the enemies of working class with arms in hand.
The ethics of non-violence was declared a bad idea which paralyzed the indignation of the masses who were expected to be ready to wage a class war.
Since that time, Tolstoy’s essay “The First Step” has never been published in Soviet Russia and his humanitarian views and ethics of nonviolence were diligently concealed. The new authorities attempted to replace the ethical non-violent basis of Russian veganism with the scientific and hygienic substantiation. However, later they completely refused, even from such attempts as having declared vegetarianism a false sentimental bourgeois heresy, a whim of the ruling classes and unscientific illusion.
The Soviet government began to put pressure upon vegetarian societies and its members which led to the closure of the last vegetarian society in Soviet Russia – The Moscow Vegetarian Society – in 1930.
In 1951, the second edition of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia formulated the final position towards the ideas of plant based nutrition and vegetarianism: “Vegetarianism being based on false hypotheses and ideas has no followers in the Soviet Union.” (GSE, 7 V., 1951)
The demolition in the end of the last century of the old social order and so-called “iron curtain” that resulted in rapid development of international cultural relations led to a resurgence of interest in the society about ideas of cruelty-free nutrition and animal ethics. In December 1989 the “Vegetarian Society of the USSR” was founded.
The most valuable contribution to the revival and development of animal ethics and theory of animal rights in Russian has been made by Tatiana Pavlova (1931 – 2007) who prepared and published the first Russian book on animal ethics – “The Bioethics in a High School” (1998). She was the founder of the first Russian vegetarian society after the October revolution of 1917 – “Vegetarian Society of the USSR” (1989).
Today, in modern Russia, there are dozens of vegan communities in the Russian Internet segment that numbers in the tens of thousands of vegans. People who embrace the morality of animal ethics, veganism and a non-violent attitude towards vulnerable living beings, live everywhere, even in the most extreme cold regions of Siberia and the Far North. Many vegan shops have emerged.
Gradually there are studied and discussed such fundamental notions and concepts of animal ethics and theory of animal rights such as speciesism, ethical (abolitionist) veganism, personhood of animals, property status of animals, sentience as the only criterion for moral consideration, the roots of “happy” exploitation, the connection between human rights and animal rights, the tragedy of domestication, the “similar mind approach” and single issue campaigns, and non-violent creative vegan education.
A great influence on Russian vegans is the abolitionist approach to animal rights by Professor Gary Francione that advocates complete abolition of animal exploitation, abrogation of their property status and the recognition of their personhood. The most effective way to achieve this is to shift a social paradigm by means of creative vegan education in order to be able to change the laws that allow the enslavement and exploitation of sentient non-humans.
Ethical motivations are still dominant for Russian veganism – exploitation and slaughtering vulnerable living beings is immoral in its essence. That is why veganism is the only rational and moral response for the injustice and horror of animal exploitation. You are either a vegan or you directly participate in imposing suffering and death on animals.
Alexey Shulga was born in 1975 in Moscow, Russia. In 1997 he graduated from MGIMO (Moscow State Institute of International Relations) where he was studying international law. Shulga has been vegan since 2012 when first got acquainted with the abolitionist approach to animal rights developed by professor Gary Francione. He spends his time doing abolitionist vegan advocacy in Russia (translation work, lectures, conversation on veganism and bioethics) and researching the history and heritage of Russian veganism, feminism and bioethics.