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.