At 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 G.K. 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 that was its consequence. This is one of the many reasons that I remain deeply indebted to Chesterton.
Having established Solzhenitsyn’s admiration for Chesterton, I believe you will not be surprised to discover that Solzhenitsyn shared Chesterton’s creed of Distibutism, 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 favor of chemical fertilizers, not to mass by the millions in cities, not to clamber on top of one another in multistory 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.” 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.”
There are clearly remarkable parallels between the ideas set forth in Solzhenitsyn’s Letter to Soviet Leaders and the ideas espoused by Chesterton and Hilaire 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.”2
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.3
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.