A landmark novel by Nobel Prize winning author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who is considered among Russia's elite writers, despite the fact his works went largely unpublished in his home country throughout most of his career. The original Russian title of Cancer Ward is Rakovy Korpus.
Cancer Ward, as the title suggests, takes place in a cancer ward, which is located in the USSR. It is based on Solzenitsyn's own experiences in such a ward after being released from a forced labor camp, and the main character, Oleg Kostoglotov, is reflective of this (Like Kostoglotov, Solzhenitsyn was not informed of his actual diagnosis, although in the author's case it turned out to be a rare form called seminoma.) Other characters include Pavel Rusanov, a high-ranking official with the Communist Party, who believes himself to be far above associating with his wardmates, Yefrem Podduyev, an informer who is stricken by cancer of the tongue, and a variety of Kazakhs, Tatars, Uzbeks, and even a German. Despite an ecclectic mix of ethnic groups, ages, and social classes, they are all linked by the pernicious disease which is attempting to end their lives.
Cancer is an obvious metaphor for the totalitarian state, and through using the cancer ward as a microcosm of Soviet society, Solzhenitsyn is able to raise a multitude of important issues. The physicians, although generally well-meaning, are prone to hiding important facts from their patients, such as the probability of contracting radiation sickness from their treatments. There is also a heartbreaking instance in which they send an ecstatic young man home from the ward, leading him to believe he has recovered, when he is in fact being sent home to die because his cancer simply won't respond to treatment. This is strongly indicative of Solzenitsyn's belief that the people running the Soviet government choose to hide things from the public which they really ought to know (see Chernobyl for vindication).
The protagonist, who is based on the author himself, is often pitted against Pavel Nikolayevich Rusanov, the Communist official with a massive neck tumor. Rusanov, despite supposedly being a civil servant, detests commoners, most notably his wardmate Kostoglotov. Their ideological clashes give rise to darkly humorous, and deeply resonating quotes, such as when Rusanov scolds Kostoglotov, saying frantically: "We mustn't talk about death! We mustn't even remind anyone of it." Kostoglotov then turns to him and incredulously replies, "If we can't talk about death here, where on earth can we?"
Naturally, Cancer Ward was banned in the Soviet Union. Still, despite such pointed references to the flaws in Soviet society, the book carries an overall message of hope, as his characters always remain optimistic. Only as a result of being stricken by a fatal disease do his characters become fully aware of the miracle of life.
"I'll tell you what I really think. It may be that when the Soviet empire has gone the way of the Third Reich, Cancer Ward will come to stand even higher than First Circle among his novels. The latter is perhaps just a bit too enclosed, so to speak, within our political system, whereas the former, by dealing with something universal in human experience--cancer, pain, the certainty of dying-- will never lose any of its relevance."
--a member of the Union of Soviet Writers
who decided to ban Cancer Ward
in 1967), after downing a couple of vodka