(1968), a novel by Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, follows a group of patients in a cancer ward, focusing on the implications of Stalin’s earlier “Great Purge” and how a police state is itself cancerous. Solzhenitsyn spent time in a Russian labor camp and uses some of his experiences to enrich the novel. Although banned in Russia following its publication, Cancer Ward
received widespread critical acclaim. Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970.
The main protagonist Oleg Kostoglotov has recently been released from a slave labor camp and lives in exile, but he now suffers from stomach cancer. He stays with other cancer patients in a small hospital in Soviet Central Asia. Although his cancer is aggressive, he responds well to radiation treatment and hopes to make it out of the hospital someday.
The treatment he undergoes is very rudimentary and, at times, unsafe. The staff at the hospital in this cancer ward put up with old-fashioned equipment and understaffing, and so they’re not all very sympathetic to the patients. Many have been appointed to this ward deliberately because of their political leanings—this can be read as a comment on Soviet society, where the country’s caretakers are incompetent and disinterested.
Much of Cancer Ward
is dedicated to patients such as Oleg, looking inwards and revaluating their place in the world. The ultimate test for them all is how badly they want to survive—at least, this is how they see it from a philosophical and spiritual point of view. This reflects how others like Solzhenitsyn feel at the time about their government—they can’t rely on their leaders; they must find a way to survive on their own.
Oleg, like some of the other men, flirts with the female medical staff. He’s interested in one young woman called Zoya. She’s a medical student and nurse struggling to get her work done with so few staff. Oleg is very attracted to her physically, and the feelings are reciprocated. When Oleg finds out that the treatment he’s receiving may affect his sexual abilities, he asks Zoya to ensure the treatment stops. She agrees even though she knows the treatment is the best chance for him to live.
A more senior medic, Vera, discovers Zoya has stopped Oleg’s treatment and finds out why. She learns Vera and Oleg are sexually intimate. However, she’s not interested in passing judgment—only that Oleg restarts his treatment. She eventually persuades him to listen to her advice and at least try the treatment for a little while. Oleg’s struck by her kindness and her determination to help him live. He learns Vera lost her love a while ago, and she’s dedicated now to keeping others alive.
Oleg and Vera form a more intimate relationship than the one he has with Zoya because it’s built on more than physical attraction. Oleg feels genuinely connected to Vera and will be sad to lose her if he ever gets out of the hospital. However, eventually his treatment works, and his cancer is gone—at least for a time. There’s no need for him to stay at the hospital now, but he knows all he’s doing is going back into exile.
Both Vera and Zoya offer to let him stay with them while he finds shelter—it’s not easy for an exile to find a safe place to stay. However, he decides to end his sexual relationship with Zoya, although he’ll remember her fondly. He hopes to see Vera again one day to continue where they left off. This gives Cancer Ward
a sense of hope.
Pavel Nikolayevich Rusanov is another important character in Oleg’s life. A personnel officer, he is really an informer who’s cruel to the other patients. Cancer, however, affects him just as much as it affects the others. Pavel doesn’t grow morally through the novel; he’s always driven by greed and selfishness. He’s always clashing with Oleg, who represents everything he stands against. The doctors eventually discharge Pavel, letting him believe he’s cured when he’s terminally ill. This is Solzhenitsyn’s way of showing no amount of rehabilitation can cure all corruption and “cancers” in a society.
When Oleg leaves the hospital and goes into exile, he must question what it’s all been about. He questions why he fought so hard to stay alive, and why the medics spent so much time treating him, and whether it has all been worth it. He’s convinced Russia will never heal because of the cancerous wounds that have spread through the country—just like he might get sick again. However, there are rumors of a political amnesty for exiles, which he hopes will come to pass. He retreats into a simple, private life at the end of the novel, waiting for the moment he can return from exile.