Cancer Ward
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4.22 / 5

"Cancer Ward" Summary

By Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

fiction | 544 pages | Published in 1991

Cancer Ward examines the relationship of a group of people in the cancer ward of a provincial Soviet hospital in 1955, two years after Stalin's death. We see them under normal circumstances, and also reexamined at the eleventh hour of illness. Together they represent a remarkable cross-section of contemporary Russian characters and attitudes. The experiences of the central character, Oleg Kostoglotov, closely reflect the author's own: Solzhenitsyn himself became a patient in a cancer ward in the mid-1950s, on his release from a labor camp, and later recovered. Translated by Nicholas Bethell and David Burg.


Estimated read time: 6 min read

One Sentence Summary

A compelling thriller centered around the mysterious disappearance of a young girl.


In the world of literature, many authors have embarked on the challenging task of capturing the essence of human experiences with great depth and insight. One such author is Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a Nobel laureate and renowned Russian writer, who presents an unflinching exploration of life and mortality in his novel "Cancer Ward." Published in 1968, this powerful work of fiction delves into the lives of patients and medical staff in a Soviet-era cancer ward, examining their physical, emotional, and spiritual struggles.

Brief Synopsis

Set in a provincial Soviet hospital in the early 1950s, "Cancer Ward" paints a vivid picture of the harsh realities faced by patients and their caretakers. The main protagonist, Oleg Kostoglotov, is a former political prisoner who finds himself admitted to the cancer ward for treatment of his illness. As the story unfolds, Solzhenitsyn skillfully weaves together the narratives of various characters, each wrestling with their own unique battles against cancer.

Plot Overview and Setting

"Cancer Ward" explores the grim realities of life in a Soviet-era hospital, specifically focusing on the cancer ward. The setting is essential to the story as it serves as a microcosm of society at that time, where individuals from different backgrounds and social classes are brought together by their shared struggle with a life-threatening disease. The hierarchy and power dynamics within the ward reflect the larger political and social context of the Soviet Union during the Stalinist era.

Main Characters

The novel introduces a diverse range of characters, each grappling with their own physical and emotional challenges. Here are some of the main characters in "Cancer Ward":

Oleg KostoglotovThe protagonist and former political prisoner, he is admitted to the cancer ward after his release from the gulags. Oleg is a resilient and introspective individual, grappling with mortality and searching for meaning in his life.
RusanovThe chief doctor of the cancer ward, Rusanov is portrayed as a loyal communist who believes in the official teachings of the Soviet regime. However, as the story progresses, his faith in the Party's ideology begins to waver.
Vera KorneevaA young and devout nurse, Vera embodies hope and compassion in the ward. She plays a significant role in the lives of the patients, providing comfort and care.
Pavel RusanovRusanov's nephew, Pavel is a budding mathematician. Although initially hopeful for his uncle's approval, his relationship with Rusanov becomes strained as he questions the political system and the ethics of the cancer treatments.

Main Events

Throughout "Cancer Ward," Solzhenitsyn constructs a narrative that showcases the experiences of the characters and their interactions within the cancer ward. Here are some of the main events:

  1. Oleg Kostoglotov's arrival: The story begins with Oleg's admission to the cancer ward and his encounters with other patients and medical staff.
  2. The hierarchy within the ward: The power dynamics and social stratification among the patients become evident, with the wealthier and politically connected individuals receiving preferential treatment.
  3. Oleg's friendships: As Oleg navigates life in the ward, he forms deep connections with fellow patients like Pavel and Lev, engaging in philosophical discussions and seeking solace in their shared experiences.
  4. Rusanov's crisis of faith: The once loyal communist doctor, Rusanov, begins to question the official teachings and practices of the party, leading to internal conflict and a crisis of his identity.
  5. The release of political prisoners: Oleg's interactions with former political prisoners who are now free from the gulags shed light on the traumatic experiences and injustices they endured.
  6. The complexities of love and desire: Several romantic relationships form within the ward, highlighting the universal need for connection and intimacy in the face of mortality.
  7. The theme of mortality: The omnipresent threat of death looms over the ward, as patients grapple with existential questions and confront their fears.

Themes and Insights

"Cancer Ward" delves into several thought-provoking themes that offer valuable insights into the human condition. Here are some of the prominent themes explored in the novel:

  1. Power and oppression: The novel highlights the power dynamics within the cancer ward and the wider society, depicting the injustices faced by those who lack privilege or political affiliation.
  2. Faith and disillusionment: Through the character of Rusanov, Solzhenitsyn explores the struggle between blind faith in ideology and the disillusionment that arises when confronted with harsh realities.
  3. Identity and self-discovery: Oleg's journey toward self-discovery and the exploration of his identity as a former prisoner forms a central theme in the novel.
  4. Love and human connection: "Cancer Ward" examines the need for love and human connection as a means of finding solace and purpose in the face of mortality.
  5. The impact of illness: The novel portrays the physical and emotional toll that illness takes on the characters, emphasizing the importance of resilience and the pursuit of hope.

Reader's Takeaway

Solzhenitsyn's "Cancer Ward" is a poignant exploration of the human spirit in the face of mortality and adversity. It offers readers a deep understanding of the complexities of life, the fragility of existence, and the enduring power of compassion and human connection in times of crisis. Through its richly developed characters and their intertwined narratives, the novel prompts readers to reflect on their own mortality, the choices they make, and the intrinsic value of empathy and understanding.


In "Cancer Ward," Alexander Solzhenitsyn masterfully crafts a somber yet powerful narrative that delves into the depths of human suffering and resilience. Through his vivid portrayal of life in a Soviet-era cancer ward, Solzhenitsyn examines the universal themes of identity, power, faith, and the pursuit of love and meaning. "Cancer Ward" stands as a testament to the enduring power of literature to illuminate the human condition and serves as a touchstone for readers to contemplate the profound questions surrounding life, illness, and mortality.

Cancer Ward FAQ

  1. What is the plot of Cancer Ward?

    Cancer Ward is a novel by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn that follows the lives of several patients in a Soviet cancer hospital. It explores their experiences, hopes, fears, and how cancer affects their lives.

  2. Who is the author of Cancer Ward?

    The author of Cancer Ward is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a Russian novelist, historian, and Nobel Prize laureate.

  3. What themes are explored in Cancer Ward?

    Cancer Ward delves into themes such as mortality, the human struggle for meaning in life, the impact of illness on individuals and society, and the complex nature of human relationships.

  4. Who are the main characters in Cancer Ward?

    The main characters in Cancer Ward include Oleg Kostoglotov, a patient in the cancer ward; Dr. Oreshchenkov, the chief physician; Pavel Rusanov, an administrator; and Zoya, a nurse.

  5. Is Cancer Ward based on a true story?

    No, Cancer Ward is a fictional novel. However, the author drew inspiration from his own experiences as a cancer patient and his observations of the Soviet healthcare system.

  6. What is the historical context of Cancer Ward?

    Cancer Ward is set in the Soviet Union during the 1950s, a time marked by the authoritarian rule of Joseph Stalin and the heavy censorship of literature. The novel reflects the political and social climate of that era.

  7. Is Cancer Ward a depressing book?

    Cancer Ward explores challenging themes and emotions, but it also offers glimpses of hope, resilience, and human connection. While it can be thought-provoking and poignant, it is not solely a depressing book.

  8. What is the writing style of Cancer Ward?

    Cancer Ward is written in a realistic and introspective style. Solzhenitsyn's prose delves into the thoughts, fears, and hopes of the characters, painting a vivid picture of their emotional and psychological states.

  9. What is the significance of the title 'Cancer Ward'?

    The title 'Cancer Ward' refers to the physical location in the hospital where the patients with cancer are treated. It symbolizes the shared struggles, fears, and experiences of the characters in the novel.

  10. Is Cancer Ward a difficult book to read?

    Cancer Ward can be challenging due to its introspective nature and exploration of profound themes. However, it is widely regarded as a masterpiece of 20th-century literature, and many readers find it deeply engaging and thought-provoking.