Cancer Ward

Novel by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Cancer Ward [1] is a semi-autobiographical novel by Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. It was first published in 1967, and banned in the Soviet Union in 1968.[source?]

Cancer Ward
AuthorAleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Original titleРа́ковый ко́рпус
TranslatorNicholas Bethell, 4th Baron Bethell, David Burg
CountryFirst published in 1966 in Russia in samizdat, then in Italy and elsewhere in Europe, also in Russian, as Rakovy Korpus ("Cancer Ward")
GenreSemi-autobiographical novel, political fiction
PublisherBodley Head (UK) & Dial Press (US)
Publication date
1967, 1968 in the U.S.
Published in English
The Bodley Head, UK (1968)
Dial Press, US (1968)
Media typePrint (hardback & paperback)
891.73/44 19
LC ClassPG3488.O4 R313

The novel tells the story of a small group of cancer patients in Uzbekistan in 1955. This was the post-Stalinist Soviet Union. It explores the moral responsibility of those who stood by whilst their fellow citizens were arrested, sent to labor camps, exiled or executed.

Stalin's Great Purge, when millions were unjustly killed, was a campaign of political repression in the Soviet Union. It was orchestrated by Joseph Stalin from 1936 to 1939.[2] It involved a large-scale purge of the Communist Party and government officials and the Red Army leadership, and repression of the peasants. There was widespread police surveillance, suspicion of "saboteurs", imprisonment, and arbitrary executions.[3] In Russian historiography the period of the most intense purge, 1937–1938, is called Yezhovshchina (Russian: ежовщина; literally, the Yezhov regime), after Nikolai Yezhov, the head of the Soviet secret police, the NKVD.

One of the patients had denounced a man eighteen years before to get the whole apartment they were living in together. He fears that the man, now free, might seek revenge. Others come to realize that their passivity, their failure to resist, makes them as guilty as any other. "You haven't had to do much lying, do you understand?" Shulubin tells the main character, Oleg Kostoglotov, who was in a labor camp. "At least you haven't had to stoop so low – you should appreciate that! You people were arrested, but we were herded into meetings to 'expose' you. They executed people like you, but they made us stand up and applaud the verdicts ... And not just applaud, they made us demand the firing squad, demand it!" [4]

Toward the end of the novel, Kostoglotov – who, like Solzhenitsyn, was forced into exile under "Article 58", which dealt with counter-revolutionaries – realizes that the damage done to him, and to Russia, was too great. There will be no healing, no normal life now that Stalin has gone. On the day of his release from the cancer ward, toward the end of the novel, he visits a zoo, seeing in the animals people he knew: "[E]ven supposing Oleg took their side and had the power, he would still not want to break into the cages and liberate them ... [D]eprived of their home surroundings, they had lost the idea of rational freedom. It would only make things harder for them, suddenly to set them free".[5]


  1. Russian: Раковый Корпус, Rakovy Korpus
  2. Gellately, Robert (2007). Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler: The Age of Social Catastrophe. Alfred a Knopf Incorporated. ISBN 1-4000-4005-1.
  3. Figes, Orlando (2007). The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia. ISBN 978-0-7139-9702-6.
  4. Cancer Ward, pp. 436-7.
  5. Cancer Ward, p. 508.