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chesterton and solzhenitsynAt first sight, it would seem that G.K. Chesterton and Alexander Solzhenitsyn have very little in common. The one has a reputation for jollity and rambunctiousness, the other for sobriety and solemn sternness. One penned swashbuckling fantasies about lovable eccentrics, the other wrote gritty works of realism set in prison camps or cancer wards. Although both have been described as prophets, Chesterton is a laughing prophet, capering with the anarchic joie de vivre of St. Francis; Solzhenitsyn, on the other hand, is a searingly serious seer, blasting the follies of the age with the excoriating scorn of a modern-day Jeremiah. In spite of such appearances to the contrary, and as I hope to show, these two giants of twentieth century literature are, in fact, kindred spirits who share the same political philosophy and the same religious orthodoxy.

I had the great pleasure and inestimable honour of meeting Solzhenitsyn at his home near Moscow in 1998. I was astonished when he had agreed to be interviewed by me, especially as he had repeatedly spurned the advances of many better known writers. When I had written to him requesting the interview, I mentioned that I had written a biography of Chesterton. I had not expected a reply, still less a reply granting my request, and was astonished when he invited me to Russia to interview him in person. Upon my arrival at Solzhenitsyn’s home, his wife showed me a whole shelf filled with the Ignatius Press Collected Works of Chesterton. I was pleasantly surprised and realized that the word “Chesterton” in my original letter had been the magic word that had gained me Solzhenitsyn’s trust and the rare and privileged access which was its consequence. This is one of the many reasons that I remain deeply indebted to GKC.

Having established Solzhenitsyn’s admiration for Chesterton it will be less of a surprise to discover that Solzhenitsyn shared Chesterton’s creed of distributism, even though Solzhenitsyn called it by other names. Take, for instance, the visionary agrarianism in Solzhenitsyn’s Letter to Soviet Leaders:

How fond our progressive publicists were, both before and after the revolution, of ridiculing those retrogrades…who called upon us to cherish and have pity on our past, even on the most god-forsaken hamlet with a couple of hovels…who called upon us to keep horses even after the advent of the motor car, not to abandon small factories for enormous plants and combines, not to discard organic manure in favour of chemical fertilizers, not to mass by the millions in cities, not to clamber on top of one another in multi-storey blocks.[1]

Condemning “the dreamers of the Enlightenment” for believing in an unsustainable “progress,” he called the “progressive” dream “an insane, ill-considered, furious dash into a blind alley.”[2] Against the huge conurbations, Solzhenitsyn contra-posed life in the “old towns—towns made for people, horses, dogs…towns which were humane, friendly, cosy places, where the air was always clean… An economy of non-giantism with small-scale though highly developed technology will not only allow for but will necessitate the building of new towns of the old type.”[3]

There are clearly remarkable parallels between the ideas set forth in Solzhenitsyn’s Letter to Soviet Leaders and the ideas espoused by Chesterton and Belloc fifty years earlier. In another essay written shortly before his expulsion from the Soviet Union in 1974, Solzhenitsyn summed up the distributist creed with succinct brilliance: “The peasant masses longed for land and if this in a certain sense means freedom and wealth, in another (and more important) sense it means obligation, in yet another (and its highest) sense it means a mystical tie with the world and a feeling of personal worth.”[4]

Years later, after the fall of communism that he had always prophesied, he wrote a book entitled Rebuilding Russia, in which he championed small government against the centralizing encroachments of Big Brother:

All the failings noted earlier would rarely apply to democracies of small areas—mid-sized towns, small settlements, groups or villages, or areas up to the size of a county. Only in areas of this size can voters have confidence in their choice of candidates since they will be familiar with them both in terms of their effectiveness in practical matters and in terms of their moral qualities. At this level phony reputations do not hold up, nor would a candidate be helped by empty rhetoric or party sponsorship….

Without properly constituted local self-government there can be no stable or prosperous life, and the very concept of civic freedom loses all meaning.[5]

During my meeting with Solzhenitsyn I commented on the way in which his ideas dovetailed with those of E.F. Schumacher, author of Small is Beautiful. He replied that he had come to the same conclusions as Schumacher at about the same time, though independently. It could be stated with equal accuracy that Solzhenitsyn’s ideas also dovetail with the distributism of Chesterton and Belloc. Great minds do indeed think alike!

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Notes:

[1] Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Letter to Soviet Leaders, London: Index on Censorship, 1974, p. 20.

[2] Ibid., p. 21.

[3] Ibid., pp. 37-38.

[4] Alexander Solzhenitsyn et al., From under the Rubble, Boston, Mass.: Little, Brown and Co., 1975, p. 21.

[5] Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Rebuilding Russia, London: Harvill/Harper Collins, 1991, pp. 71-72.

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5 replies to this post
  1. No doubt Solzhenitsyn would come to his conclusions extremely honestly and fervently, having painfully witnessed through the Gulags the logical conclusion of the loss of civil liberties that is the handmaiden of a centralized and unaccountable government promising utopia on earth to its citizens, while making it a living hell in reality.

  2. I much enjoyed this story. I have a hunch that more than just Chesterton got you the meeting. Great Writers tend not to like “More Well Known Writers” while “More Well Known Writers” often think their status automatically makes them Great Writers. I suspect Solzehnitzyn knew how to distinguish the two.

  3. How times have changed, we now have the mega-state and the world wide grasp of corporations, markets, investors, usually conglomerates or brokerages, upon which the Sun never sets. People it seems get smaller.

  4. A note on Solzhenitsyn; after being awarded the Nobel Prize and living in America he was eventually ignored by the American media, something about his politics I daresay, a tad to revealing of Soviet policies and aims.

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