Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn secretly wrote One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich during the Cold War, an era during which the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the United States, the world's superpowers, fought each other psychologically by stockpiling more and more destructive weapons in preparation for a real and possibly world-ending war. One of the few confidants Solzhenitsyn allowed to read his novel said, "There are now three atomic bombs in the world. The White House has one, the Kremlin the second— and you the third" (quoted in David Burg and George Feifer's Solzhenitsyn).
When the Twenty-second Congress met in 1961, Nikita Khrushchev defamed Stalin's tyrannical excesses, explaining that they were due to "the cult of personality," and promised they would never again be allowed. Afterwards Stalin's body was removed from Red Square and cremated. The political fire needed to detonate Solzhenitsyn's bomb had been set.
Solzhenitsyn brought his work to the liberal magazine Novy Mir. Its famous editor, Aleksandr Tvardovsky, showed it to Khrushchev, who approved its publication. Every copy of the magazine was sold, and each buyer had a long list of friends anxious to read it as well. A second and last printing followed and was immediately sold out. Western publishers acquired the manuscript, and, since the Soviets did not observe international copyright laws, were free to publish translations without the author's approval. The quality of these translations varied from good to mediocre. Still, the literary merits of the novel with its unities of time and place—one day in a forced-labor camp—and its common-man protagonist accepting his situation without self-pity were clear. However, because of its content, any literary evaluation would be eclipsed by its political importance in disclosing the dark past of Stalinism. Solzhenitsyn's subsequent works continued this exposure.