Doukhobor vegetarianism

Doukhobor women pulling plough. Source: Wikipedia

Doukhobor women pulling plough. Source: Wikipedia

As a vegetarian and history buff, I am fascinated by the history of vegetarianism and why certain groups and individuals chose a vegetarian lifestyle. Vegetarianism has very ancient roots, especially in India where observant Jains, Buddhists, and Hindus all generally practice vegetarianism, with the Jains being the most strict about it.

Various other religions and mystical sects outside of India practice vegetarianism, but they are generally much smaller in number and not as well known. Seventh Day Adventism is a protestant Christian denomination that advocates a vegetarian diet, though not all of them follow it. Many Christians from various sects are vegetarian, but for individual spiritual, ethical or health reasons, not because their church advocates it. I’ve also met many Jewish vegetarians over the years.

Among the more obscure Christian sects that practice vegetarianism are the Doukhobors(Духоборы). They split off from the Russian Orthodox Church several centuries ago due to their pacifism, anti-authoritarianism, non-belief in churches, priests or most religious rituals, and were persecuted by the Russian authorities as a result, when they weren’t too busy persecuting Jews I suppose. Their beliefs make them similar to Mennonites in many ways, and they were also vaguely similar to early hippies, but without the drugs, among many other differences.

A large portion of them eventually emigrated, with the help of Leo Tolstoy(who had a lot in common with the Doukhobors) and Quaker sympathizers, to the welcoming prairie regions of Canada, where they practiced communal farming and by the late 19th century, became vegetarians. They also forbid alcohol and smoking. Sounds like I would almost fit right in! Although they were mostly left alone, they did occasionally have problems with the Canadian authorities.

So why are Doukhobors vegetarians? According to Jim Popoff, a Doukhobor representative:

In striving to attain their expressed basic goal of “Toil and Peaceful Life,” the Doukhobors touched upon the very essence of the Doukhobor life-concept, which is a state of universal love for all of God’s creation. Thus, they found they could no longer participate in any form of violence, especially the taking of a human life, for any reason. This led, of course, to their decisive renunciation of militarism and the Burning of Arms in 1895 – historic events being honoured during this year’s centennial

.
It also led to their realization that if they could not take the life of a fellow human being, neither could they kill any other of God’s living creatures. Since animals had to be killed before they could be eaten, the Doukhobors resolved to stop using the flesh of animals for food. This step was taken even before the dramatic events of 1895, by which time they had already become strict vegetarians. Thus, their vegetarianism had an ethical origin, but Doukhobors soon realized that there were also distinct health benefits to a vegetarian diet, especially when it consisted of simple, unrefined, and naturally grown foods. Peter Lordly Verigin frequently counselled his followers about various healthful dietary practices. Doukhobors who grew up in the wholesome lifestyle conditions of those times became living proof of these benefits in the forthcoming decades, with their sustained vitality and remarkable longevity.

In other words, it was the next logical step in their spiritual/cultural evolution as a religious community. It also helped that one of their leaders was very health-conscious.

While the descendants of the Doukhobors have largely moved on from the self-sufficient, communal lifestyle their ancestors came to Canada to practice, at least a few still practice vegetarianism and some are still farmers. As they have assimilated into Canadian society, the Russian language has slowly disappeared, but a few are doing what they can to keep it and other Russian customs alive.

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14 responses to “Doukhobor vegetarianism

  1. I am vegetarian too 🙂

    • That’s great to hear. How do you say “I am vegetarian” in your language?

      It’s funny how many supremely talented individuals are vegetarian!

      • Yes, I found that are many. One of them said “A man who said that he loves animals he dont eat his friends”. In romanian language you will say “Eu sunt vegetariana” for a female and for a male you will say “Eu sunt vegetarian”

      • Multumesc. I’ll remember that. In a way, it’s like all vegetarians around the world speak the same language.

        It’s great to know how to say these things in foreign languages, but don’t worry, I won’t ask how to say “I am vegetarian” in ancient Dacian, that language is extinct anyway…

      • Well the oldest witting was descovered in Romania http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T%C4%83rt%C4%83ria_tablets . Oldest than summerian ones but in ancient dacian languange I have no idea 🙂

      • That is neat! Multumesc for sharing that. I think that was even before the Dacians. I believe the Dacians were Indo-European, and they weren’t even in Romania yet. I could be wrong though, it was so long ago.

  2. Very interesting read. Thank you for sharing!

  3. It’s always good to see, meet, and read about fellow vegetarians | past, present, and future. Nice post.

  4. Nice post. Alas, I have strayed from the vegetarian ways, and must be cast out! But I was a vegetarian for 5 years and can definitely see the idea of spiritual peace and peace through non-violence (to all beings) as connected. I am still debating a long-term diet, and right now, the only meat I eat comes from places where I’ve seen to the welfare of the animals myself.

    I’m interested that the Doukhobors did not see livestock as essential to their agricultural practices, as having livestock builds organic matter in soil, turns inedible materials like grasses into edible ones, and generally moves beneficial nutrients around an ecosystem. In your research, did you come across something talking about that? For as many vegetarian cultures, there are the same number of intact cultures that incorporate livestock (nomadic cultures, etc).

    • You raise some good points, and don’t worry, I don’t judge people for eating meat, especially when they are permaculturalists.

      I didn’t come across a lot of detail about Doukhobor agricultural practices in my readings, beyond how they were good at growing a variety of fruit in suitable climates. I was tempted to search for and add more detail, but if I did that, it would make the post too long and I may scare off some readers, especially when the issue is mostly peripheral to what the blog is about (although it is ever evolving).Many of these persecuted religious groups(Mennonites, Amish) in Europe and in the Americas were and still are amazing farmers, who pioneered some innovative techniques, in part because their persecution forced them to live off of land that was only marginally arable. This is obviously worthy of more study and posts, but I would need to read more into it before I can do justice to the subject.

      You’re very right about the benefits of livestock on soil and the ecosystem of a farm. I’ve even read of vegan farmers keeping rescued animals for these reasons, and dairy farmers can still use their cows for similar purposes, which is what I suppose the Doukhobors did. But I must admit I know very little about farming, and some second hand sources about the old Doukhobor lifestyle may not be entirely accurate.

      I admire the work you do. I’ve read extensively about Permaculture but barely practice it, beyond composting anyway. At some point I will likely do some posts about Permaculture, and would appreciate any feedback from a real expert on it.

  5. Excellent Article! I really like the fact that you focused on the history of veg lifestyle. Many people I speak with today always think that it’s a ‘new age’ trend.

    • I’m glad you liked it. I notice the same thing among many people. In fact, a lot of things seen as “New Age” when it comes to health, especially when it comes to things labeled as “alternative medicine” are very old. Pretty much none of it works, which is why mainstream medicine has discarded just about all of it, like blood-letting, the 4 humors, accupuncture, homeopathy, among countless others.

      At least dietary changes, like becoming vegetarian, do help prevent some diseases though, but this isn’t “alternative medicine”.

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