YEREVAN, Armenia — Vegetarians are few and far between in this post-Soviet nation in the South Caucasus, with its traditional, meat-based diet.
So what is one to make of a 90-year-old Armenian raw vegan?
Vaghe Danielyan, who switched to this radical diet of raw fruits and vegetables nearly half a century ago, is quite used to beating the odds — having risen from malnourished prisoner of war to near-cult figure among vegetarians across the former Soviet space.
Russian web forums are packed with questions about this man, with some users wondering whether he is still alive, and others whether he ever existed at all.
Strolling down the streets of Armenia's capital, Yerevan, Danielyan cuts a wiry figure — he has a Napoleonic gait, with one arm swinging exultantly with every stride and he grins widely. He looks at most 65, with the only sign of advanced years being the noticeable discoloration of skin.
With oozing positivity and flawless Oxford English, Danielyan seems more like a man yet to enter middle age than a World War II veteran who spent 15 years in internment camps in Germany and the Soviet Union.
Life as a POW
Danielyan was born in Turkey on Jan. 14, 1920. At the age of four, his family moved to Yerevan, where he was educated as an electrician and an English translator. At the onset of WWII, Danielyan joined the Soviet forces, but was soon seized by the Nazis and sent to an internment camp in Germany. At the end of the war, Soviet propaganda persuaded him to return home.
Shortly after arriving to Yerevan, Soviet security agencies began asking Danielyan about his fellow POWs in Europe. Although he said that he "knew nothing,” Danielyan was sent to a gulag in Norilsk and later to an internment camp outside Moscow, where he spent a decade of his life.
Believing his soldiers should commit suicide before being taken prisoner, Stalin said, “There are no Soviet POWs, only traitors.” After Stalin’s death, Danielyan was exonerated. He returned home in 1956 a broken man.
“My father looked at me and said, 'Son, you're in a bad way,'” Danielyan said. Severe cold and poor nutrition had devastated his health.
“It's hard to say what we were fed in the gulag,” he recalled. “They gave us such slop, we couldn't tell what it was made of.”
The Soviet camps had two types of food, he said: “Better-food for whoever met the work plan and just-good-enough food to keep the rest from dying.”
However, the Soviet camps gave Danielyan two unexpected gifts — aristocratic English and an iron will. Danielyan roomed with Russian-Englishman Adolf Chernukhin several years outside Moscow, who agreed to speak with him only in the Queen's English. (Chernukhin later authored a Russian-English dictionary.) His advanced English would prove valuable in studying raw veganism, as little literature was available in Russian.
The daily hardships of camp life also instilled the will necessary to follow the strictest of vegetarian diets to regain health following his release.
Going raw vegan
Returning home from work at the Institute of Foreign Languages in 1963, Danielyan’s wife, Nina, handed him the English-language book, “Raw Foodism,” by Arshavir Ter-Avanesyan, which described the raw vegan diet.
“I read and reread that book,” Danielyan exclaimed. “It told you how to live long without illnesses. And I decided to change my life. When I told my father, a doctor, he said, 'This book should lie on everyone's bedside table, right next to the Bible.' Ever since then, I've lived my life anew.”
Both Danielyan's parents became vegetarians that year.
Since his conversion 47 years ago, Danielyan has eaten only raw vegetables, fruits and grains, while lecturing on raw veganism in Russia and penning columns in the Armenian press. He also does yoga and runs daily.
Like many raw vegans, Danielyan believes his diet is a panacea to many of today's illnesses. He claims that cooked foods contain toxins that cause chronic disease. “I haven't seen a doctor in over 45 years,” Danielyan said.
Some doctors concur, stating that raw veganism does wonders after five or more years. However, little research has been done on the subject and scientists are divided on the diet's actual benefits.
Danielyan recounts his transformation as weight loss followed by “internal cleansing.” Ceasing to ingest toxins from cooked foods, he said, the body begins to excrete stored poisons through the skin and the intestines.
“First, I lost my extra weight,” he said. “Then my body started cleansing itself. I had all these pimples and rashes. But I was glad, because I knew my body was nursing itself back to health.”
Danielyan's diet also gave him newfound energy. “I woke up and felt like I could fly,” he said. “I felt like I had to run.” Even today, Danielyan still runs two miles per day, half of his previous average.
Danielyan’s home is quiet, save the sounds of Nina's feet shuffling across the parquet floor and neighborhood children squealing in play. Oblong windows keep the rooms bright and peer out onto a yard where he grows grapes and exercises in the mornings. Water bottles dangle from the windows on strings, gathering heat from the sun for morning ablutions.
Danielyan mixes beets, tomatoes and cucumbers, and adds a twist of lemon before sitting down at the table to eat. Although the dish is an acquired taste, it is nonetheless filling and easy on the stomach.
“My breakfast is fruit,” he said. “I eat any fruit that's in season. If the fruit is sweet, I eat a pound. If it isn't, I eat a bit more. I try to eat fruit for lunch, too. Later I eat salads until 6 p.m., using lemon and grains as flavoring. I chew slowly. If I get hungry at night, I eat dried fruit.”
Armenia's oldest runner
Before the Olympic Day Run the following day, June 26, Danielyan said he felt strong after eating just two tomatoes in the morning. During the race, he stopped only on several occasions. As the other runners fought over water at the finish, their T-shirts soaked in sweat, Danielyan ran by without a bead of sweat and no desire to drink. “All the water I need I get from fruits and vegetables,” he said.
Not long after, Danielyan was called to the podium to receive an award as the oldest participant in the race.
“I would like to call your attention to our oldest runner; he, in fact, has the youngest spirit,” said Armenian Olympic Committee First Deputy Chairman Raznik Stepanyan. “I would very much like our entire nation to live as greatly as Vaghe Danielyan.”
Whether raw food, a resilient spirit or genetics account for Danielyan’s longevity and liveliness is a tough question. However, one thing is certain. The secret to health is not merely nutrition or sports. Positive thinking is equally as important, Danielyan says.
“A person should be kind and wish good unto others,” he said. “Everything starts with the internal organs and ends with the mind.”
Even at 90, Danielyan sees many more journeys ahead.
“I still dream of sailing the world,” he said with a smile, “and to continue helping as many people as I can to build a healthy life for themselves.”