While there are far fewer vegans and vegetarians in Russia than there are in the US, and while being a vegan in Moscow is still a bit of an oddity, vegetarianism and veganism in Russia is on the rise. Resultantly, the number of eating establishments that cater to vegans and vegetarians are also on the rise. Anna Westby is a second-time SRAS student, and is currently completing the senior year of her bachelor’s degree from Texas A&M University. She enjoyed her first experience in Russia so much that she opted to fulfill her last credit requirements there on a second stay. The first time Anna came to Moscow she was not a vegan. Here she provides us with some insight into how her second visit as a vegan has proceeded thus far.
So, Anna tell me, when and why did you first become a vegan?
I became vegan a month before leaving for Moscow. (Crazy, I know.) My parents aren’t totally convinced it’s the best thing since we’re from Texas – land of bar-b-que competitions and an expansive livestock industry. The thing of it is, I’m a bird enthusiast and I love animals. For the last year I’ve struggled with my moral and ethical beliefs behind eating meat, as it doesn’t make sense to say that I’m friends with one chicken but will absentmindedly eat her cousin because she came from a factory farm. From my point of view, it’s not logical. Also, going back to factory farming, it’s an absolutely horrific industry, wherein there is a lot of unnecessary suffering, which, in a more perfect world, could be easily prevented. This is what drives my desire to be a vegan versus a vegetarian, because dairy farms and egg farms fall under the category of factory farming. Health-wise, I feel a lot more energized when I haven’t consumed meat or diary. When I slip-up and eat something that I could not identify the ingredients of, I can feel the difference and it’s not good.
Were you worried at all about being able to maintain that lifestyle as a vegan in Moscow?
I wasn’t entirely worried. For me, Moscow has just as much to offer on the food-front as any other major city. I knew it would be particularly easy due to the fact that my host had a refrigerator and therefore I could buy fresh produce to keep longer than a day. My only concern was avoiding the foods I’d come to love the last time I was studying here, i.e. gummy candy from the basement “Produkti” (Продукты) shop in the MSU Main Building, Olivier salad (салат оливье) from the cafeteria, the four-cheese pizza from Кафе Факультета (also in the basement of the Main Building, in Sector V (Сектор В) near the 24-hour cafeteria), etc.
How has it been so far – i.e., what has been the most challenging? Has anything been surprisingly easy? In your opinion, what is the general attitude in Moscow towards accommodation of such lifestyles?
The most challenging was spending most of my first week in Moscow essentially starving – I was still jet-lagged and had virtually no desire to investigate my food options just yet. My second challenge was overcoming my desire for sour cream (сметана), as last time I was here I became very accustomed to eating it with almost everything.
The easiest part is being able to buy copious amounts of mushrooms and potatoes at the grocery store and no one bats an eye at it. The only thing they might inquire about is that I forgot to pick up some sour cream or caviar (икра).
As I’ve come to find out, Muscovites can be either surprisingly supportive or they just can’t grasp the concept of not eating meat, let alone avoiding ovo-lacto animal products. Upon first meeting my host mother, Galina, she understood that I didn’t drink milk but then immediately followed with trying to give me her last Activia yogurt so that it wouldn’t expire. I think the fact that our generation tends to follow vegan, vegetarian, paleo, low-carb and various other diets testifies to the fact that we are more nutritionally aware than older generations are. For Galina, milk is milk and Activia is kosher.
The longer I am here, however, the more I find myself following a vegetarian lifestyle rather than vegan in Moscow. There’s some mental anguish that comes with this, but I am also in the survival mindset; I’m not going to throw away my lunch tray because I found butter or cheese inside of something. I know a lot of vegans will not sympathize with this mindset. For me as I am right now – a student with limited funding, limited free time, living in a foreign country for a year – it’s difficult to stay completely vegan, and I feel like a cop-out in saying so. But it is what it is. So, in the end, you have to realize that whether in the most ideal manner or not, you need to survive. Not eating or not eating enough is not an option.
Do you have a funny story related to this topic, which, perhaps, was not so comical at the time?
At one point during the first few days of meeting Galina, her and I were drinking coffee in the kitchen while I listened to her talk about life and her ability to wear a bikini at such an old age. (She really can though.) She had been handing me a variety of preserves from her dacha to try a-top some slightly stale crackers. It was absolutely delicious. Then she pulled out some spreads for herself, and quickly puts some on a cracker for me to try. Mid-bite, she tells me she loves meat with her coffee and that I am currently eating chicken foie-gras. For the next 30 milliseconds, but what felt like hours, I felt panic leeching from my insides. I wasn’t just eating animal remains… I was eating tortured animal remains. My heart lurched and I kept eating as my ethics ran screaming from the scene of the crime. That was the last time I ever took anything from Galina that wasn’t prefaced with saying that it came from her dacha.
Do you have any advice for future SRAS participants who are vegan in Moscow (or vegetarian) – maybe a suggestion of a certain MSU dining hall or Moscow restaurant to eat in, what kinds of foods to avoid on site, especially if one cannot yet read the Russian language on an ingredient label?
Yeah, a bit of advice. If you can’t read the menu and/or can’t articulate to the waiter/waitress what your dietary needs are, either choose something made from whole foods or plan to eat beforehand. Most plant-based diet vegans will know this anyway, as eating out is very difficult while following this particular lifestyle. Junk-food vegans, however, may be willing to take certain risks when ordering off the menu. It just depends on the individual and his or her dedication to the diet. My favorite discovery as a vegan in Moscow was being able to shop online for vegan products at a place called Happy Vegan. The way it works is you choose and pay for all of your products and groceries online (yay for people who struggle with the language!) and then you go pick up your items from their store, located just off the old Arbat. You may also opt to meet a courier on a metro platform for a few hundred additional rubles. Keep in mind that you also have to swipe your metro pass to reach the platform, so it also costs you the equivalent of one metro ride. My favorite (somewhat risky) food is ordering the veggie pizza without cheese (без сыра) from the Faculty Cafe (Кафе Факультета). There is free Wi-Fi there and I get my American food fix. If you are living in the dorms of the main building you can also call and have the pizza delivered to your dorm room. There is also a vegan restaurant called Сок (Sok), which means “juice”, directly across the road from the State Tretyakov Gallery (Государственная Третьяковская Галерея) in the center of Moscow. I have yet to try it, but it has excellent reviews on HappyCow.com, a reviews website for vegan/vegetarian restaurants and shops.
If you are looking for other sources of vegetarian-friendly restaurants and stores in Eurasia, make sure to check out SRAS’s city guides. Most of these make mention of vegetarian options in each of SRAS’s study locations.
Some other eating establishments amenable to those who are vegan in Moscow that cater to vegan/vegetarian diets (all listed on the SRAS guide to Moscow):
For further reference, go to HappyCow.net and type in “Moscow” in the “Search by City, State/Region/Country” box for an even more extensive list.