Vegan Activism in Ukraine

By Simon Plazolles-Hayes

It was a dark, cold November evening as I sat in my train carriage, waiting for my passport to be returned. The silence was interrupted by the crescendoing tone of an air raid alert on my phone, an ominous blare of warning typically unheard by me, except in movies. It was strangely followed by the voice of acclaimed actor Mark Hamill warning me to seek shelter. I rose and quickly silenced the notification, opening the app and seeing the entire country map illuminated red, with every district advising people to find protection. It was a fitting and coincidentally timed introduction to the country as my train lurched forward, bringing myself and my fellow passengers to a country encapsulated by an umbrella of war. 

This was my welcome message as I entered Ukraine. 

Vegans Respond to the Russian Invasion

On February 24th, 2022, Russia illegally and cruelly invaded their Western neighbor, keen on conquering and expanding their influence and territory. Like most people, I was sickened and saddened by the news, wondering what I could do in the face of such wanton aggression. It wasn’t until I had the opportunity to meet Oksana and Marta of Lviv Vegan Kitchen and Tamara of Every Animal at the Animal and Vegan Advocacy Summit in Los Angeles that I knew I needed to go and help. 

Like every other Ukrainian, these women woke up on that February morning to find their very existence under threat, unsure of what would come from each passing day. Yet, in their darkest hour, they knew they could make a difference for others and still advance a message of veganism. 

Veganism in Wartime 

At the onset of the war, Oksana and Marta launched Lviv Vegan Kitchen, providing free meals to refugees fleeing war or anyone in need of a hot meal. Their meals are healthy, delicious, and, most importantly, non-violent, even in the face of missile attacks or the prospect of balaclava-hooded Russian soldiers hellbent on conquering.

The invasion brought down conscription orders for citizens to enlist in the military and defend their country. Many of these men and women were vegan previously but now found themselves outfitted with Kevlar plate body armor and the smooth, stamped metal of an AK-47. Despite their new fatigues and their instruction to use lethal force and support national defense, they remained committed vegans. How could they adhere to their deeply held beliefs under such constraint?

That’s where Every Animal rose to the occasion. Before the war, Tamara’s group  used education and outreach to introduce others to the message of veganism. The war stopped this approach, but it didn’t stop their determination to support its core ethos. They shifted focus but maintained devotion, gathering compassionate vegan food and supplies to pack into parcels to send to their front-line soldiers. Because of this work, vegan soldiers have been able to keep their beliefs against animal exploitation while staying strong and defending Ukrainian sovereignty against a violent foe. Every Animal  even went a step further, developing fully vegan MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) that allow high-calorie meals to be preserved for years should the war disrupt the delivery of the parcels. The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense has expressed an interest in seeing these meals become part of their official military rations.

An American Vegan in Ukraine

My journey was weeks in the planning, and while I ignored the U.S. State Department’s warnings designating Ukraine under its strictest “DO NOT TRAVEL” status, I did heed their advice to write a last will should I not be able to return home alive. I first went to Kyiv to meet with Tamara and her team to help document their efforts to share with the world. 

I met them outside their new office and went up to help them assemble the care packages for soldiers at the frontline. The food was extensive, from protein-rich entrees to savory snacks and sweet treats, all designed to keep a soldier going. The volunteers pack the boxes before writing messages of support to greet their recipients. When we finished the task, we discussed what Every Animal means for them in their newfound lives and the impact the daily struggle of air raids and friends away fighting has made on their lives. 

The day ended, and I said goodbye to the team of volunteers, their typical lives upturned by their new responsibilities. I was unsure when we would meet again, but hopeful it would be when peace had come back to the country. I slipped into a nearby vegan restaurant and sat down with my food. 

I started to cry.

Violence is Violence

I couldn’t help it. How could I not? This war is terrible and nonsensical, brought on by a violent bully who believes a twisted worldview that strength only comes from violence and that others are worth less if you allow yourself to swallow a lie.

I never wish to downplay people’s plight or make false and unwarranted equivalencies. But as an animal rights advocate, I couldn’t help but see parallels. Humans exploit and farm animals and inflict violence upon them. They justify this violence because humans can, or they feel they have a right to invade nature and destroy in the name of tradition. The meat industry wants us to swallow the lie that animals are less than us. But they aren’t, and asserting it doesn’t make it right. All beings, regardless of the country they call home or their physical attributes, should be allowed to live freely. No one should wake up to the sound of an air raid alert, just like no one should wake up to the smell of the abattoir. Being compassionate means not being cruel, no matter others’ differences from you.

Supporting Vegan Activism in Kyiv

I left Kyiv and took a ten-hour train to Lviv to meet with Oksana and Marta from Lviv Vegan Kitchen. They recently upgraded their space, gaining access to a larger area to accommodate more refugees and kitchen equipment. This meant they could serve fresh bread and prepare food for vegan soldiers needing access to meals that suited their ethical beliefs. People streamed in, enjoying homemade borscht, baked potato wedges with mushrooms, and served with bread and a drink. I watched as the kitchen worked, a team of dedicated volunteers and activists helping the community and showing the world just how much vegans can accomplish. 

A few days later, I left the country and my new friends under the shadow of the full-scale invasion. Although my time in Ukraine was short, it left a significant impression on me. 

Amidst the terrors and troubles, I saw the faces of hope. I saw the strength of the average Ukrainian on the street and the commitment and determination of Lviv Vegan Kitchen and Every Animal to support a vegan mission under the harshest and most difficult of circumstances. As vegans, we may encounter the excuse that going vegan is too difficult. Yet, thousands of miles away, against the whizzing of bullets and the thunder of artillery fire, a soldier is opening an Every Animal parcel and eating food that spared lives, not caused the deaths of more. They are invigorated by the compassionate and protein-packed energy bars made with love by Lviv Vegan Kitchen. The toughness of animal rights activists and their role in society is unfathomable.

Vegan Heroes

We as individuals may not be able to stop the violence. A trip to Ukraine won’t stop the war and deliver a united and free Ukraine, nor will going vegan shut every animal farm for good and send every slaughterhouse worker into a new profession. But we as individuals are still powerful; we have thousands of opportunities to make daily decisions that can make the world a better place for us all. Let’s make those decisions to choose kindness and peace, not to contribute to suffering. As individuals, we may feel small and powerless, but as a group, we can change the world and stand up to the violence of bullies.

To Every Animal and Lviv Vegan Kitchen: Thank you for everything you do for animals. Thank you for your commitment to humans and animals during this crisis. You are my heroes, inspiration, and true leaders for a vegan world. 

Stay safe and stay strong.

Simon Plazolles-Hayes

Simon Plazolles-Hayes is a former farmer turned animal rights advocate, and the Social Media Coordinator for GenV.

Ready to go vegan?

Go Vegan

Already vegan?

Get Active