Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Flying the Vegetarian Flag

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.

Voitinsky said Russian vegetarians were rare and would remain at the margins of society. "There are no mainstream vegetarians in Russia, only vegetarians from the West or the East," he said.

Maybe so, but there's no need for vegetable lovers to subsist on the same six vegetables year-round.

Where to Eat

Two restaurants and one cafe now serve exclusively vegetarian food. Avocado (12 Chistoprudny Bulvar, 506-0033/5533, M. Turgenevskaya or Chistiye Prudy), offers 18 fruit cocktails (100 to 200 rubles), salads and a menu of sushi and rolls so fish-free it would surprise the Japanese. Dzhagannat (11 Kuznetsky Most, 928-3580, M. Kuznetsky Most) has everything from Russian shchi to Japanese miso soup (25 rubles per 100 grams) as well as wheat gluten or seitan and soy-disguised-as-meat products such as sausages.

Cafe Ganga (3rd Floor, 37b Leningradsky Prospekt, 743-4984, M. Dinamo), part of the Ganga Vegetarian Center, presents salads, fresh fruit juices and baked pastries under the glow of Bollywoodesque lighting.

Vladimir Filonov / MT
Dzhagannat serves up miso soup and soy-based dishes in its Kuznetsky Most cafe, and sells vegetarian products in its shop.
But if these aren't appealing -- and Voitinsky is convinced there are no good vegetarian restaurants in Moscow -- then try any of the city's Georgian or Indian restaurants, where meat-free dishes are always in abundance.

For Thai cuisine, Om Cafe (15 Novy Arbat, Bldg 1, 202-1582, M. Arbatskaya) has a vegetarian section on its menu, including salads, soups, rice noodles and even a steak made from what they call "vegetarian meat."

The Shesh Besh chain of Azeri restaurants has a 240 ruble buffet with salads and, in particular, thin-sliced eggplant roasted to perfection.

And for a good selection of Russian vegetarian food, the Yolki Palki chain has a 250 ruble all-you-can-eat buffet with salted, pickled and marinated vegetables, a wide range of mostly meat-free salads and other veggie dishes.

Where to Shop

Although a large variety of vegetables, dairy products, cereals and breads can easily be found, other vegetarian staples are more of a challenge. Soy products are harder to find -- or were. Maruyeva, the VITA director, said being a vegetarian in Moscow is now very easy because soy milk and sausages, vegan cakes, tofu and even dry soy are available in the large supermarket chains year-round. More vegetarian goods go on sale during the Great Lent period, she said.

Voitinsky recommends the Indian Spices store (36/2 Ul. Sretenka, 207-1621, M. Sukharevskaya), which carries marinated ginger, lentil patties and -- for the lazy vegetarian -- a selection of TV dinners, including dal, baigan bartha and vegetarian plov (83 rubles to 90 rubles per 300-gram packet).

Other stores strong on vegetarian foods include Put K Sebe (16 Krasnoproletarskaya Ul., 746-53-47; 6 Novokuznetskaya Ul., 951-91-29; and VkhodVykhod (11 Ul. Ordzhonikidze, Bldg. 1/2,

Where to Find Other Vegetarians

The Eurasian Vegetarian Society is the largest organization for vegetarians in Russia, with a web site at full of information on restaurants, recipes, the history of Russian vegetarianism and animal rights. The society, however, does not organize gatherings, but simply creates a virtual space for vegetarian issues, said Kalanov, the EVO president.

VITA, whose employees are mostly vegan, is a non-profit animal rights group that, in addition to promoting vegetarianism, campaigns against animal abuse and testing.

But for those hard-core vegetarians who want to get back to nature, there are two communes practicing vegetarianism and growing their own food: One is located at Grishino (, 300 kilometers northeast of St. Petersburg; the other, called Kovcheg, or Ark, is in the Kaluga region (

A group called Anastasia -- after a series of books written by Vladimir Merge about a higher calling -- serves vegetarian meals at gatherings. Its site can be found at