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Leo Tolstoy on Vegetarianism

In a meat-loving culture founded on kolbasa and pelmeni, and buttressed by kebabs and shaurma, it's difficult, almost sacrilegious, to imagine a life sustained by vegetables.

But Leo Tolstoy did, in 1885.

That year, a Russian aristocrat turned commune member known by his assumed name Frey -- researchers differ on his first name -- convinced Tolstoy to accept vegetarianism. In 1892, Tolstoy wrote "Pervaya Stupen," or "The First Step," in which he extolled a simple diet as a means of mastering gluttony and tempering human desires.

Russian monks and Eastern Orthodox Christians have observed a regime of fasts for more than a millennium, wrote Peter Brang, professor of Slavic philology at the University of Zurich, in a book on the history of Russian vegetarianism, "Rossia Neizvestnaya," or "The Unknown Russia." These meat- and dairy-product-free fasts include the Veliky Post, or Great Lent, which this year began on Feb. 19 and continues until Easter, April 8.

After Tolstoy's 1892 paper, a group of followers who became known as Tolstoyan vegetarians developed, Brang said by telephone from Zurich. Vegetarianism then grew until the 1917 Revolution, after which the Soviet government declared it a cult. The last vegetarian society was shut down in 1929, and the word vegetarianstvo disappeared from usage in the 1930s.

Since perestroika, vegetarianism has been rehabilitated. It's impossible to estimate the number of vegetarians in Moscow or Russia today, said Nikolai Kalanov, president of the Eurasian Vegetarian Society, or EVO, and Pavel Voitinsky, who runs the Vegetarian Moscow web site (, in addition to a budget travel business.

Kalanov said the number of vegetarians has stabilized and is not growing. But Yelena Maruyeva, director of the VITA animal rights group, said there was a definite growth in vegetarianism. As an example, she said, seven years ago there were no vegetarian establishments in Moscow, but now there are two restaurants and one cafe.

While vegetarians in other countries often decide against meat for animal rights or health reasons, vegetarianism in Russia has more of a spiritual basis, Kalanov said. "In the West, it's not as connected to religious ideas," he said.

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