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Literature / Cancer Ward

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Semi-autobiographical novel by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, originally published via samizdat in 1966.

Set in the cancer ward of a hospital in 1950s Soviet Uzbekistan, the story is both an exploration of the trials of the eponymous illness, as well as an allegorical critique of the Soviet state.


This work contains examples of:

  • Anyone Can Die: Since half the cast consists of patients suffering from various forms of cancer, it goes without saying.
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  • Author Avatar: Oleg Kostoglotov, a former Gulag prisoner living in exile prior to his hospitalisation, who provides most of the explicit critiques of the Soviet dictatorship, and frequently clashes with Rusanov, who acts as the representative of the surveillance state.
  • Determined Doctor: All three of the ward doctors qualify, but especially Lyudmila Afanasyevna. Pestering Gulag functionaries to hand over medical records may well edge her into Determinator status, given the potential ramifications.
  • Disappeared Dad: Taking place a mere ten years after the end of the horrors of World War II, many of the younger characters, such as Dyomka and Vadim, grew up without fathers. Yefrem is himself a disappeared dad to the product of at least one of his numerous affairs.
  • End of an Era: The novel is set just after Joseph Stalin's death, and the victims and beneficiaries of Stalinism among the cast are alternately hopeful and fearful of what a new regime may bring.
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  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Petty, spiteful, tyrannical KGB official though he is, Pavel Rusanov has a genuinely loving relationship with his wife of twenty years, Kata, and considers his daughter Aviette his "true achievement".
  • Exact Words: The day Stalin's death was announced to the prisoners at roll call in Oleg's camp, the guards became incensed by their poorly-hidden glee, and ordered them to take their hats off in a show of respect. The prisoners responded by throwing their hats in the air in celebration.
  • Face of a Thug: The scarred and intimidating Kostoglotov.
  • The Gulag: Multiple characters are former inmates of labour camps, and two (Yefrem and Ahmadjan) are former guards.
  • Multinational Team: Uzbekistan became a dumping ground for various "undesirable" ethnic groups during Stalin's reign, which the cast reflects. As well as numerous Russians and Uzbeks, the characters include (Russianised) Germans, a Tatar, a Kazakh, and at least one Korean, among others.
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  • The Topic of Cancer: Averted, as per usual for a work dealing primarily with the illness. Typified by Kostoglotov's dismissive response to Rusanov bemoaning the patients' fate:
    "What's worse than cancer? Leprosy."
  • Will They or Won't They?: Oleg and Vera. They don't.
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