I first read Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward either in late 1970 or early 1971 as a young undergraduate. I was going through a bit of a ‘Russian phase’ and had recently acquainted myself with Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. The novel, along with The Gulag Archipelago and Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago are probably the three greatest Russian novels of the twentieth century.
In the early 1970’s Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s reputation as a leading Soviet dissent was well-established. He had been expelled from the Soviet Writers Union in 1969 but a year later was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. In 1974 he was expelled from the Soviet Union and only returned to his native Russia twenty years later, four years after his Soviet citizenship had been restored.
Ultimately Solzhenitsyn is best viewed as a moralist and a particularly stern one. His castigation of communist ideology is a matter of record, but so too was his dislike of pop culture which he believed had enfeebled and infantilised the spiritual and moral integrity of the West. Solzhenitsyn died in 2008, aged 89, just outside Moscow and was buried in that city. Although an Orthodox Christian and Russian patriot, he was critical of the role that many oligarchs played in the country’s new ‘democracy’. What he would have made of the current global situation ten years on with a fragmenting Europe, growing intercontinental trade wars and the rise of ‘fake news’ is open to considerable conjecture.
While The Gulag Archipelago displays Solzhenitsyn’s considerable breadth of knowledge of the gulag system (i.e. forced labour camps) which began in 1918 under the aegis of Lenin and persisted in the Soviet Union until 1956, Cancer Ward concentrates on the penultimate year of that regime in a single location, a dispiriting hospital in which the central character, Oleg Kostoglotov, a perpetual exile in Central Soviet Asia (Kazakhstan), confronts not only his own tumour, but also the one which prevailed unchecked within the body politic during the infamous Stalinist Purge. Whereas The Gulag Archipelago reveals Solzhenitzyn as an historian, Cancer Ward displays the author’s equal interest in psychology and philosophy as mediated through the prism of personal relationships within the hospital.
Cancer Ward is a demanding read, for obvious reasons, but is, nonetheless, a rewarding and memorable one. Looking back, it connects with some of the themes of Holocaust literature but looking forward it connects with the experiences of those who are the victims of today’s burgeoning tyrannical regimes.