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In search of the vegetarian Bolshevik

This article is republished from an eBook series that has been made freely available.

By Jon Hochschartner

Numerous sources suggest vegetarianism was banned in the Soviet Union. But one must assume this wasn’t immediately the case, as a prominent member of the Bolshevik Old Guard, meaning one active prior to the 1917 revolution, was a vegetarian. Whether his dietary choices were due to solidarity with non-human animals or some other reason is unfortunately not clear.

In early 1914, Vladimir Lenin wrote a letter in which he queried the recipient regarding Alexander Fyodorovich Ilyin-Zhenevsky, apparently a party member who abstained from consuming meat. “What has become of that young Bolshevik, the Witmerist, the highly-strung vegetarian, whom I saw at your place last year?” Lenin asked, with obvious condescension that could perhaps be interpreted as jocular.

According to Brian Pierce, who translated Ilyin’s work ‘The Bosheviks in Power: Reminiscences of the Year 1918,’ Ilyin “defended his views on this subject [of vegetarianism] against Lenin’s criticisms: Lenin joked that Ilyin might provoke a fresh split in the Party, forming a faction of Bolshevik vegetarians.” Lenin was obviously kidding here, as Pierce notes, but it wouldn’t seem to be much of a stretch to read Lenin’s comments as suggesting there were other vegetarians in the Bolshevik ranks who have simply been lost to history.

Ilyin “served Soviet Russia,” according to Pierce, “in six main capacities — as journalist, soldier, military administrator, historian, diplomat and chess-player.” He died in 1941, but it’s unclear whether he perished under Joseph Stalin’s purges or as a result of the Second World War. “Volume 5 of the ‘Soviet Historical Encyclopedia,’ published in 1964, states that he was ‘subjected to illegal repression during the period of the cult of personality’ — which may or may not mean that he was actually executed. Volume 10 of the ‘Large Soviet Encyclopedia,’ published in 1972, says that he ‘died during the siege of Leningrad,’ and Botvinnik, in the book already quoted, specifies that ‘he perished from a German bomb at Novaya Ladoga,'” according to Pierce.

As mentioned earlier, many sources suggest vegetarianism was eventually banned in Russia. To what degree this information is a product of Red Scare hysteria, I’m unsure. After all, such a law would presumably be impossible to enforce outside of shuttering explicitly vegetarian restaurants and organizations. The website of the International Vegetarian Union suggests this was the case: “The Soviet State authorities considered vegetarianism as a pseudoscientific theory that reflected the bourgeois ideology and therefore harmed to Soviet people. In 1929 the last vegetarian society in Moscow was closed…The leaders of the vegetarian societies were persecuted, many of them arrested and sentenced.”

I’m curious to know when the crackdown on vegetarianism started. While I’m far from an uncritical admirer of Lenin, I suspect it began with the rise of Stalin, as this would fit a pattern of increased conservatism in Russia following Lenin’s death. Homosexuality, effectively legalized under Lenin, was outlawed in the 1930s under Stalin. Similarly, abortions were legalized under Lenin, but again outlawed in the 1930s by Stalin.

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