Cancer Ward by Alexander Solzhenitsyn is a masterfully written, insightful and poetic indictment of communism in Russia. Viewed through the lens of the lives of a cast of colorful patients and healthcare personnel at a cancer ward of an unnamed hospital in Tashkent in Soviet Uzbekistan, Solzhenitsyn paints a vivid picture of the cancerous, corrupt communist state in Russia during the mid-1950s. It is a heady time, after the death of Stalin in which communism, which has metastasized to infect every facet of Russian life, appears to be teetering on the hopeful edge of major reform (known as Khrushchev’s Thaw). The cast of characters are drawn from a cross-section of Russian society ranging from diehard communists who perpetrated many of the worst atrocities to those who chose to submissively comply meekly to the regime’s draconian rules; to survivors of the brutal labor camps (gulags) who were imprisoned unjustly for political motives; to the paternalistic doctors who deliver the toxic cancer therapy with an X-ray gun or a knife, in the vain hopes of violently destroying the cancerous tumors before the radiation takes it’s toll. Cancer has tragically touched all of their lives regardless of whether they have been victims, bystanders or instruments of the communist regime. Disease and death are the great equalizers, since they force each individual to confront the demons that haunt the various paths that they have gone down in life. Despite the heavy subject matter, Cancer Ward is still delightfully humorous and entertaining, as well as heartwarming. Solzhenitsyn taps into the essence of the good and bad of human nature to bring this tragic yet oddly optimistic tale to life. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in reading an exquisitely penned, timeless modern classic of literature.
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