Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward was a ground-breaking novel. A Soviet literary journal agreed to publish it in 1967 and then submitted the question of publication to the Board of the Union of Soviet Writers. The debate of that organization is included in the Farrar, Straus and Giroux edition of the novel, and it is indispensable to understanding that Solzhenitsyn was lifting the veil that had obscured the discussion of many subjects in the Soviet Union since the time of Joseph Stalin’s rule. In the Board of the Union of Soviet Writers meeting, Solzhenitsyn was attacked for denigrating his society and for providing ammunition for the Soviet Union’s foreign critics.
Solzhenitsyn defended himself by suggesting that he had forthrightly described what it was like to live in a cancer ward. He did not say so, but much of the novel was based on his personal experience. Cancer Ward is not a political parable; that is, it does not use the subject of cancer as a way of exploring politics. Instead, it suggests that the way people feel about their disease and the political positions they adopt are inseparable. Rusanov, for example, understands neither the nature of his disease nor the nature of Communism. He cannot fathom his own evil or the evil of those around him.
It had been the practice in the Soviet Union not only to suppress the crimes of Stalin’s rule but also to make sure that literature conveyed only the positive aspects of life. Thus Solzhenitsyn’s novel was viewed as subversive not only because of its political discussions but because it dared to raise the subject of cancer and of people’s fears about it. Yet Cancer Ward is an impressively objective novel; it never forsakes characters for political arguments; rather, political considerations arise naturally out of human relationships in the novel.
Understanding the political and literary context of Cancer Ward undoubtedly adds another level of interest to Solzhenitsyn’s work, but his novel should be read above all as an enduring human document. In Cancer Ward he explores the deepest questions about the value and meaning of life itself. In 1955 and 1956, the time of the novel, the Soviet Union was beginning to reconsider Stalin’s legacy. In the novel, Kostoglotov learns that his political exile may end because of an impending period of liberalization. Ten years later, when Cancer Ward was considered for publication, a new era of intolerance was beginning. That Cancer Ward was even considered for publication in the Soviet Union suggests how powerful Solzhenitsyn’s words are in challenging people who do not wish to acknowledge human suffering and who cannot admit that a society afraid of judging itself is already dead.