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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Living a Meat-Free Life in the Land of Sausages

On a spring morning, a fluffy rabbit caught Larissa Biryukova's eye. She decided to buy the bunny as a gift to her father on his birthday. Several months later, Biryukova's father returned the rabbit -- on her plate at the dinner table.

This surprise flip-flop of gifts caused Biryukova, 45, to stop eating meat three years ago.

"It was a big shock for me when my father gave the beautiful rabbit back to me as a piece of meat," Biryukova said. "At that moment, I decided to be a vegetarian, and from that day on I never again ate meat."

Biryukova is a member of the Vegetarian Society in Russia, one of several organizations working to promote a diet of fruit and soybeans in the land of pelmeni and sausages.

"Now is a good environment for vegetarianism compared to previous years," said Irina Medkova, 53, vice president of the nationwide Vegetarian Society in Russia, which was founded in 1989. "There were many vegetarians before the revolution," she said, adding that among them was the entire Tolstoy family. "Then there were none for 70 years."

Medkova and her society, which has 200 members in Moscow, publishes vegetarian books and cookbooks, appears on radio and television and leads public demonstrations, such as one outside McDonald's last summer at which the demonstrators brandished placards warning of the health and ethical dangers of eating meat.

Medkova also researches vegetarianism in her position as the director of the Medical Center for Practical Work and Research clinic. "We were the first organization to create special diets to prevent diseases," she said. "We have the first patent in Russia for a vegetarian diet."

In addition to its work promoting vegetarianism, the clinic develops vegetarian diets and menus and does research on the health of vegetarians. Medkova's strict diet for the clinic's patients includes generous portions of crisp salads, fresh fruits and soy yogurt.

"Vegetarian food is cheaper than meat," Medkova said. "Two vegetarian cutlets cost only 2,000 rubles at Intersoya." The Russian company Intersoya, which has a store on Khoroshevskoye Shosse, stocks a wide variety of soy steaks, soy cheeses and soy milk, she said.

Some vegetarians say that with the high cost of meat, vegetarianism has become an economical, as well as healthy, way to live.

"Some people say it's too expensive to be a vegetarian," said Nadya Ivanova, 35, a nurse who has been a vegetarian all her life. "I have guests every day, and my salary is enough to buy food for all of us."

Medkova plans to present a series of talks to Duma deputies in March, together with doctor and vegetarian advocate Vitaly Nikiforov and Larissa Poznyak, 50, director of the Moscow-based Interregional Society of Vegetarian Culture.

The Interregional Society of Vegetarian Culture, which boasts more than 5,000 members throughout Russia, also seeks to support vegetarians and promote the lifestyle to all levels of society. The Moscow chapter provides daily vegetarian lunches to needy students at Moscow State University.

"The Health Ministry to this day doesn't recognize vegetarianism as beneficial to the health," Poznyak said. "Our talks to the Duma could put a stop to the mind-set the Health Ministry has that vegetarianism is bad for your health and for your children. Our reports show that kids are healthier with a balanced vegetarian diet."

Biryukova, who works with Medkova at the medical clinic, said the interest in vegetarianism is growing among both middle-class and wealthy Russians. She said the clinic was flooded with phone calls after they placed one advertisement in a subway station last year, while the center's clientele has jumped from about 75 patients a year two years ago to more than 150 a year today.

But advocates of vegetarianism say they must still struggle against long-standing Russian cultural attitudes about the benefits of eating meat.

Vegetarian Theresa Bodi, 26, an American teaching English, said her Russian friends believe her nonmeat diet has caused her to shed 40 pounds since moving to Moscow two years ago.

"My Russian friends think I'm nuts," Bodi said. "Some people think I'm losing weight because I'm not eating meat. That's ridiculous, because I've always been a vegetarian and overweight. I think I've just gotten more exercise in Moscow."

Biryukova, who ultimately refused to eat the birthday rabbit, said her family was fearful for her health after she gave up eating meat. "My father thinks that soon I'll have many health problems," she said.

"But my puppy is a vegetarian," she added with a smile. "He doesn't like meat, and he eats apples and oranges. That's a good start."