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The Cancer Ward by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: A Masterpiece of Modern Literature and Moral Courage

The Cancer Ward by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: A Review

If you are looking for a powerful and profound novel that explores the human condition under a totalitarian regime, you might want to read The Cancer Ward by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. This semi-autobiographical novel, written in 1966 and published in 1968, tells the story of a group of patients in a cancer ward in Soviet Uzbekistan in 1955, shortly after Stalin's death. It is based on Solzhenitsyn's own experience of being diagnosed with cancer and treated at a clinic in Tashkent, where he met many people who had suffered from Stalin's purges and repression. In this article, we will review the novel's plot, themes, style, and reception, and explain why it is considered one of the masterpieces of modern literature.

The Cancer Ward By Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Pdf 17

The Plot

The novel follows the lives and thoughts of several patients in Ward 13, a cancer ward in a hospital in Tashkent. The main character is Oleg Kostoglotov, a former political prisoner who was exiled to Central Asia for making a joke about Stalin. He is diagnosed with terminal cancer and undergoes radiation therapy at the clinic. He befriends other patients, such as Pavel Rusanov, a former prosecutor who helped send many innocent people to prison or death; Lev Rubin, a Jewish intellectual who was accused of being a Zionist spy; Vadim Podduyev, a loudmouthed liar who pretends to be a war hero; Yefrem Podduyev, his brother who is a real war hero but suffers from guilt; Asya Klyachina, a young woman who faces a mastectomy; Dyomka Belyayev, a teenager who loses his leg to cancer; Vera Gangart, a compassionate doctor who falls in love with Oleg; Ludmila Dontsova, the head doctor who develops cancer herself; Zoya Shulubina, a beautiful nurse who has an affair with Oleg; and Auntie Styopa (Stepanida), an old peasant woman who has a strong faith in God.

The novel depicts the daily struggles and conversations of these characters as they cope with their disease, their pasts, their hopes, and their fears. It also shows how they react to the political changes that are happening in the Soviet Union after Stalin's death, such as the release of some prisoners, the purge of some officials, and the rumors of Khrushchev's secret speech denouncing Stalin's crimes. Some of them are hopeful for a better future, some are cynical or indifferent, some are nostalgic or regretful, and some are defiant or rebellious.

The Themes

The novel explores many themes that are relevant to both Soviet history and universal human experience. One of the main themes is cancer as a metaphor for both Stalinism and life itself. Solzhenitsyn uses cancer as a symbol of the malignant growth of tyranny that corrupted and destroyed millions of lives in the Soviet Union. He also uses it as a symbol of the inevitable decay and death that all living beings face sooner or later. He shows how cancer affects not only the body but also the mind and the soul of the patients, and how they try to find meaning and dignity in their suffering.

Another theme is the moral responsibility of those who participated in or witnessed Stalin's terror. The novel raises the question of how to judge and forgive those who were involved in the atrocities, whether as perpetrators, victims, or bystanders. It also examines the role of conscience, guilt, repentance, and redemption in the process of healing and reconciliation. Some characters, such as Oleg and Rubin, are critical of the system and seek justice and truth. Some characters, such as Rusanov and Dontsova, are loyal to the system and justify or deny their actions. Some characters, such as Podduyev and Asya, are indifferent or ignorant of the system and focus on their own interests.

A third theme is the quest for freedom and happiness in a repressive society. The novel shows how the patients struggle to preserve their individuality and dignity in the face of oppression and conformity. It also shows how they seek various forms of escape and fulfillment, such as love, friendship, art, religion, nature, or death. Some characters, such as Oleg and Vera, find love and hope in each other. Some characters, such as Rubin and Dyomka, find solace and inspiration in literature and music. Some characters, such as Auntie Styopa and Yefrem, find comfort and peace in faith and prayer. Some characters, such as Rusanov and Asya, find despair and suicide as their only options.

The Style

The novel is written in a realistic and polyphonic style that combines multiple perspectives and voices. Solzhenitsyn uses a third-person omniscient narrator who can enter the minds and hearts of all the characters and reveal their thoughts and feelings. He also uses dialogue, monologue, flashback, stream of consciousness, allegory, symbolism, irony, humor, and satire to create a rich and complex portrait of the characters and their situations. He also uses various literary devices to enhance the effect of his message, such as contrast, parallelism, repetition, foreshadowing, imagery, metaphor, simile, personification, allusion, quotation, and intertextuality.

The novel is structured into four parts that correspond to the four seasons: spring (MarchApril), summer (MayJune), autumn (SeptemberOctober), and winter (NovemberDecember). Each part consists of several chapters that focus on different characters or events. The novel also has an epilogue that takes place two years later (1957) and shows what happened to some of the characters after they left the hospital. The novel has a circular structure that begins and ends with Oleg's arrival and departure from the clinic.

The Reception

The novel was banned in the Soviet Union for its criticism of Stalinism and its exposure of the reality of life under communism. Solzhenitsyn had to smuggle it out of the country and publish it abroad in Russian and other languages. The novel was widely acclaimed by critics and readers in the West for its artistic merit and moral courage. It was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1968 but lost to Yasunari Kawabata . Solzhenitsyn won the prize in 1970 for his entire body of work.

The novel had a significant impact on both Soviet and world literature and culture. It inspired many other writers to write about their experiences of oppression and resistance in totalitarian regimes. It also influenced many social movements that fought for human rights and democracy in various countries. It also raised awareness and compassion for cancer patients and survivors around the world.


The Cancer Ward by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is a masterpiece of modern literature that deserves to be read by anyone who is interested in history, politics, philosophy, psychology, or spirituality. It is a novel that challenges us to think about the meaning of life, death, suffering, justice, freedom, love, and faith in a world that is often cruel and unjust. It is a novel that celebrates the human spirit that can overcome adversity and find hope and beauty even in the darkest times.


  • Q: When was The Cancer Ward written?

  • A: The novel was written between 1963 and 1966 by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn while he was living in Ryazan after his release from exile.

  • Q: Is The Cancer Ward based on a true story?

  • A: The novel is based on Solzhenitsyn's own experience of being diagnosed with cancer and treated at a clinic in Tashkent in 1954. He also met many people who had suffered from Stalin's purges and repression and used them as models for his characters.

  • Q: Why was The Cancer Ward banned in the Soviet Union?

  • A: The novel was banned in the Soviet Union for its criticism of Stalinism and its exposure of the reality of life under communism. It also challenged the official ideology and propaganda of the Soviet regime and expressed views that were considered subversive and dangerous.

  • Q: How did The Cancer Ward get published abroad?

  • A: The novel was smuggled out of the Soviet Union by Solzhenitsyn's friends and supporters who made copies of the manuscript and sent them to foreign publishers. The novel was first published in Russian by YMCA-Press in Paris in 1968. It was then translated into many other languages and published in various countries.

  • Q: What is the significance of the title The Cancer Ward?

  • A: The title The Cancer Ward has multiple meanings and implications. It refers to the literal setting of the novel, which is a cancer ward in a hospital in Tashkent. It also refers to the metaphorical meaning of cancer as a symbol of Stalinism and its destructive effects on society and individuals. It also refers to the existential meaning of cancer as a symbol of life itself and its fragility and uncertainty.



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