Veganism In Post-Socialist Estonia
Vegan Studies is a discipline that explores the cultural practices and personal identities of veganism, which to date has focused primarily on Western societies like the United States. However, this perspective does not necessarily represent vegan practices elsewhere in the world, which likely differ across social, cultural, and political settings.
Unlike most Western countries where veganism has followed a vegetarian movement, in Estonia it emerged through a combination of factors. These include achieving independence from the Soviet Union and the availability of Western products and information, combined with a concern for animals and an emphasis on local traditions, knowledge, and practices. Interest in veganism has been growing since the mid-2000s in Estonia, with significant increases in both the number of vegans and vegan food options.
Veganism may be considered a social movement in Estonia, insofar as it shares many of the typical characteristics (i.e., a common identity among groups of people with a focus on particular social issues and an aim to bring about social change). However, veganism has not been widely studied as such in Eastern Europe. This chapter explores veganism as an emerging social and cultural practice in the post-socialist context, via the example of Estonia, which regained its independence in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It also lays out three concepts for studying veganism as a social movement, in the context of the current politics and challenges of being vegan in Estonia, where access to a vegan identity is a recent development.
The first concept is to view veganism as more than just a personal identity, defined by lifestyle choices of avoiding animal products. Instead, a more nuanced approach would be a framework that considers the intersection of veganism with other structural social categories (e.g., gender, class, ethnicity), and how they interact to create social hierarchies and experiences that advantage some and disadvantage others. An example is how veganism is seen as incompatible with notions of masculinity, since meat-eating is an important element in the construction of masculinities in Estonia.
Another example is the social divisions that facilitate veganism for some while excluding it for others, such as age, membership of an ethnic-majority, and being educated and internet-savvy. The ethnic divide between Russian-speaking Estonians and ethnic Estonians is well-established in the vegan community. Russian speakers are often marginalized due to citizenship and language barriers, and as a result, they are largely absent from Estonian vegan circles.
The second concept focuses on the relationship between veganism, mainstream culture, and institutions. Most Estonian media coverage of veganism has been negative, highlighting dangers to human health and nutritional inadequacies. Institutional acceptance of veganism in Estonia is extremely limited. For example, The Estonian Pediatric Association released the statement “veganism forced on small children might be life threatening.” Norms around what constitutes ‘proper eating’ are highly influenced by academic experts in nutrition, where veganism is almost universally condemned in favor of animal-based foods. The national dietary guidelines declare veganism unsuitable for human health, which has far-reaching implications for public institutions (e.g., schools, hospitals) and medical professionals who advise patients on diet and health.
These norms position Estonia’s vegans as disruptive and risky to mainstream culture by challenging established scientific positions and practices. Nationalist ideas around food are also intertwined with the capitalist system of food production, through government-endorsed campaigns that promote local foods and the interests of Estonian businesses. This includes the dairy and meat industries, which receive significant government subsidies. Furthermore, food production, supply, and consumption patterns are used in the creation of the dietary guidelines.
The third concept further examines the relationship between vegan identities and practices to capitalism and consumption. While ethical considerations are central in the decision to go vegan for many Estonians, part of building a vegan identity revolves around consumption practices. As such, discussions in vegan online communities and public health events often focus on images of food, recipes, and information on vegan products in grocery stores. This creates a social image of veganism as being associated with consuming certain products. Vegan messaging uses mild language and emphasizes food choices rather than animal rights to avoid scaring people away. Openly critical attitudes toward capitalism are rare in the vegan community, potentially representing vegans as complicit in a variety of inequalities and forms of exploitation created by capitalism.
The author advocates for a more critical view of the activists and participants of the Estonian vegan movement, which is not only important for the spread of veganism, but also for social justice. Future researchers may benefit from expanding on the ideas presented in this chapter. For example, studies on Estonian veganism should consider how veganism is linked to existing social inequalities, and how, as a collective practice, it’s enmeshed within systems of power. There is also room to explore how Estonia’s mainstream media depicts vegans and the threat they pose to national norms. Finally, future research should consider how vegan groups portray their movement (e.g., as an ethical stance or an extension of consumerism), and how vegan practices are embedded within capitalist systems.