From what little I have read of, and from, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, he appears a highly acclaimed yet highly divisive character. He reminds me somewhat of Slavoj Zizek in the way that he cannot be pigeon-holed into one political school, and attacks aspects of both the left and the right within politics itself.
Solzhenitsyn’s masterpiece Cancer Ward is a wonderfully poetic critique of the Communist Soviet Union. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and the further I progressed into the book, the deeper my appreciation grew for it.
One of the joys of reading great books are the different meanings and interpretations an individual can take from the text. What the book says to one person, may not reach the ears of another. Truly great books do not just tell a story through the words, and on the written lines, but they tell a story between the lines. The interpretation of words and phrases, the literary techniques in certain passages, the decision for the author to use a certain manner of speaking. There is a story within the story.
Amongst the patients stories on the cancer ward, and beyond the love intrigue and emotional attachment, beyond even the noticeable criticisms of communist life, I believe there is another message. This message, for me, was the possibility of a third way. The possibility that there exists, or there should exist, something other than the duopoly of the two leading political doctrines: communism and capitalism.
The fact that Francis Fukuyama declared that history was over when the Soviet Union fell, was, I believe, a little premature and naive. Two worlds clashed and one may have outlived the other, but to say that it was the “end of history”, was to say that there are no further options. Capitalism and communism may have been the major ideologies in the post World War Two world, but they are not the only solutions to the worlds problems. I believe Solzhenitsyn knew this.
With the ability and talent of an author like Solzhenitsyn nothing is placed in a book by chance. Everything is included for a reason, and is there to serve a purpose. Cancer Ward, in its entirety has a message to tell, but there are two chapters which I am to focus on here. They appear side by side towards the end of the book, and almost perfectly juxtapose one another.
I believe that the ninth chapter, The Old Doctor, represents the advantages of capitalism and is an attack on the communist method. This chapter sees one of the more senior nurses leave the confines of the cancer ward to go and seek the advice of a doctor who lives in the nearby town. The very next chapter, Idols of the Market-Place, is the exact opposite of this, and is represented by a conversation between two patients in the grounds of the cancer ward. Their discussion is an attack on capitalism, and the evils that come with greed.
Both these chapters focus on a conversation between two characters, one of which is a leading character. Both choose to focus the conversation on a political element, with one of the two characters voicing their disapproval on an ideology. Both noticeably pay attention to the seating the characters have, and the food they possess. It is no coincidence that these chapters are chosen to go side by side. In the space of 34 pages, Solzhenitsyn denounces both dominant ideologies of the time, whilst hinting at the possibility of an alternative.
In the ninth chapter Ludmila Afanasyevna travels to see Dr Oreschnkov at his home practice. The introductions between the two are warm and the doctor insists on Ludmila taking a seat. She protests little and very soon “she had sunk deep into a soft armchair”. In contrast to this, in the next chapter, our two participants, Oleg and Shulubin, are talking in the grounds of the cancer ward, perching on a “wretched-looking, backless, narrow-plank bench”. This immediately shows the comfort that can be afforded to each.
Even the manner in which they meet and sit is juxtaposed. Ludmila and the doctor are warm, they are friends who embrace, whilst Oleg and Shulubin are more acquaintances. Whilst the doctor insists Ludmila takes a seat: “take this seat”, Shulubin tentatively asks Oleg to accompany him on the bench: “will you sit down?”
The comfort continues in the home of the doctor. As well as the sunken armchair, they also sit at a large, square oak table, “big enough for an elephant to dance on”. Whilst there “they talk as friends talk” and eat cakes. In contrast to this, Oleg and Shulubin perch on their bench, exposed to the elements, eating nothing.
In his home surgery, the doctor talks positively about private enterprise. Advocating that healthcare should not be provided for free of charge and open to everybody. He criticises the way doctors must work under the communist regime, the conveyor belt of patients approach is viewed as ineffective, damaging and “wasteful”. He suggests that one “family doctor would be of more help and convenience to patients. Stating that doctors having a personal relationship with their patients, “doesn’t fit into the system of a free, national, universal health service”.
So in this chapter, which I see as a promotion of capitalist beliefs, the Soviet free healthcare service is attacked. What should be the pride of any country, Solzhenitsyn chooses to target for criticism. Although this may seem like only a minor attack on the larger ideology of communism itself, when seeing this chapter in the context of the book as a whole, you see that is but one of many small cuts made to wound the communist animal.
Whilst communist healthcare is targeted in chapter nine, the following chapter flips the position. Again, in complete contrast, the chapter chooses to focus its attack on capitalism. So that in these two parallel chapters, you have an obvious attack on communism, followed by an obvious attack on capitalism. And once again this attack should be seen in the context of the book as a whole. It is not a sole outburst, but a running theme within the text. In a later chapter Oleg visits a department store which causes him to feel great embarrassment and depression. It is labelled a “cursed temple into which, obedient to the idols of the market-place, [Oleg] had run so recently and with such coarse greed”.
So as the doctor advocates and defends private enterprise and capitalism in his home, sat in the warmth, at the large table with cakes, Shulubin, in pain from the sitting on the bench, singles it out for critique. He states that “however you think about it, history has rejected capitalism once and for all”. Capitalism for Shulubin, and thus I believe Solzhenitsyn himself, makes “people no better than beasts”. People have greedy appetites and cannot be restrained. It is at this point that Shulubin makes one of my favourite quotes in the book: “Capitalism was doomed ethically before it was doomed economically, a long time ago”.
With both capitalism and communism coming under such an attack, you have to wonder what Solzhenitsyn would advocate in their place. Though he does not explicitly give answers, there are suggestions, and interpretations can be made. As the two leading ideologies do not appeal to Solzhenitsyn, a third way would have to be found. A method that does not contain the bureaucracy and authority of communism, and neither does it contain the greed and unethical nature of capitalism.
There are three names which appear in Shulubin’s conversation with Oleg. Three names which are only a passing remark and are not discussed in detail, but these three names may provide the clues with which we need to predict, or imagine, Solzhenitsyn’s third way. The first of these names is Vladimir Solovyov, a Russian philosopher; Nikolay Mikhaylovskiy is also mentioned, Mikhaylovskiy being an advocate of a form of populist Socialism; and the third name is Peter Kropotkin, the prominent Russian Anarchist.
As already stated, Solzhenitsyn would not include things if they did not serve a purpose. Following two chapters which revolve around the criticisms of both communism and capitalism these three names are mentioned, and surely this is no coincidence.
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