Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a Russian author (1918-2008), is a favorite of conservative lovers of liberty because of his personal story, which became the thread of his fiction fabric, and brave stand for truth. Solzhenitsyn served in the Soviet army in World War II, only to be arrested in 1945 because his letters to a friend caught the eye of a censor. They deemed his letters to be anti-Stalin (and indeed he was unhappy with the dictator, but wrote in code about him in letters). Lacking sufficient evidence to charge him, they sentenced him anyway to eight years in a prison camp. Following that, he was exiled.
Cancer Ward is considered partly autobiographical, as Solzhenitsyn was treated for cancer while in exile. The novel is set in a cancer wing of a Soviet hospital in Uzbekistan. The ward itself represents the communist life of Russia, post-Stalin (set in 1955, in the years after Stalin's death), and the characters themselves represent different sorts of players in Soviet life--Communist Party loyalists, exiled prisoners, ordinary citizens--and their moral responsibilities for the ugly sins of the Stalin era. The tumors can be seen as the disease under which Russia suffered, permanently damaging the body of Russian society.
My understanding of the Cold War is, obviously, from a Western perspective, and my concept of day-to-day life for those behind the Iron Curtain is a vague, colorless, and formless idea of oppression. This novel brought into sharp focus just how oppressive life is in a totalitarian state and what that means to individuals struggling to make lives for themselves that have some significance.
As our own nation contemplates the proper role of government in our society, Solzhenitsyn's writings are more relevant than ever. I'm guessing that most of us born after 1970 are barely aware of what life was like under the totalitarian states of the twentieth century. Cancer Ward helps illustrate, among other things, that working for the greater good of a collective (or a society) inevitably tramples the individual.