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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Once Rejected Vegetarian Lifestyle Bites Back

MTA waitress showing off a dish of sabji curry with paneer at the Dzhagannat restaurant, a well-known Moscow venue for vegetarians.
For vegetarians disappointed by the limitations of Russian cuisine, it may come as a surprise that vegetarianism is not a completely new concept in Russia.

At the turn of the 20th century the vegetarian movement in Russia was strong and well-respected, with proponents such as Leo Tolstoy at its fore.

After the 1917 Revolution, however, vegetarianism practically died out in the Soviet Union, as the state closed down all vegetarian societies on the basis that the movement was too much tied to bourgeois and religious ideas.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, vegetarian culture has made its first small steps back into the Russian mainstream, however, and interest in vegetarianism has slowly been re-emerging in Moscow.

Though vegetarian restaurants and health food stores may not yet have the same presence in the Russian capital as they have in the West, there are a few vegetarian-minded folks in Moscow who are trying to spread the word and cater to the city's small vegetarian community.

Moscow's best-known venue for vegetarians is arguably Dzhagannat in the Dom Khudozhnika complex at 11 Kuznetsky Most. Opened just over a year ago, Dzhagannat markets itself as a Center of Healthy Food and Communication, offering Moscow's vegetarians a surprisingly well-stocked health-food store, as well as a comfortable restaurant next door.

Serving a wide variety of international vegetarian dishes, Dzhagannat claims to be Moscow's only authentic vegetarian restaurant. While there are many restaurants in Moscow that cater to vegetarians by adding vegetarian fare to their menus, Dzhagannat is unique in that it offers a strictly vegetarian menu, according to its manager, Igor Byutner.

Byutner believes that the growing popularity of vegetarian cuisine is connected with a desire for healthy living among Muscovites.

"Stability has come to Russia, or at least to Moscow," he said. "With that has also come an interest in a healthy lifestyle."

Dzhagannat goes out of its way to promote that wholesome lifestyle: Smoking is strictly forbidden and only nonalcoholic beverages are served -- another first in Moscow.

"When we opened the restaurant in August 2000, people said that without vodka the restaurant would never be successful," said Byutner. "They were wrong. We have become one of the most popular restaurants in the area."

Dzhagannat aims not just to attract vegetarians but a wide range of customers, said Byutner.

"It is not only vegetarians who frequent our restaurant, but also students, businessmen and pregnant women," he said. "People come in because they are aware of the growing popularity of vegetarianism, and are interested in trying new food and seeing what vegetarianism is all about."

Natalya Nazavara, director of the Vegetarian Cafe, located at 14/16 3rd Ulitsa Yamskogo Polya, a short walk from metro Belorusskaya, agreed with Byutner.

"Most of our customers are not vegetarians, just people who work in the neighborhood and who enjoy our food," she said. "We cook well, change the menu every day, and people come."

Interestingly, most of the dishes Nazavara serves are vegetarian variations on traditional Russian recipes.

"When we opened the cafe, vegetarianism was not at all popular. It was then very difficult to find soy products, for example, so we stuck mostly to vegetables used in Russian cooking," she said. "Now soy products and tofu are more available in Moscow. The only thing I have a hard time finding are good Indian spices."

Another indication of the growing interest in vegetarian culture is the recent appearance of the Russian magazine Vegetarianets, or The Vegetarian, after an 84-year hiatus in which no vegetarian publications appeared.

"Before the Revolution there were four vegetarian magazines published in Russia," said Nikolai Kalanov, director of The Vegetarian and president of the Eurasian Vegetarian Society. "They were all closed by the state after 1917 because it was assumed that the Soviet people didn't need these bourgeois ideas from the West, particularly from England."

Kalanov says the magazine was started because of the growing interest in vegetarianism and an increasing health consciousness in Russia.

"Now there is an interest, and people read our magazine because the idea [of vegetarianism] has become popular," he said.

With a circulation of 25,000, The Vegetarian has just published its second issue and is currently available in over 60 cities in Russia and the CIS. The magazine covers vegetarian issues and events in Russia and worldwide and provides a forum for vegetarians to exchange news, experiences and recipes.

Kalanov is optimistic about the future of the vegetarian movement in Russia.

"As social and economic conditions in Russia improve, more people will become vegetarians," he said confidently.

Copies of The Vegetarian can be picked up in Dzhagannat's health-food store for 20 rubles ($0.70).