Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1904
Oleg Filimonovich Kostoglotov
Oleg Filimonovich Kostoglotov (fee-lee-MOH-roh-vihch ko-sto-GLOH-tov), a land surveyor. A loner, unmarried and without relatives, fiercely independent, and rebellious by nature, the thirty-four-year-old Kostoglotov is a former army sergeant and inmate from a Stalinist labor camp, arrested for making politically disparaging remarks about Joseph Stalin. Exiled to the remote central Asian town of Ush-Terek, he has been sent to a hospital in another unnamed central Asian city for treatment of stomach cancer. Skeptical of all authority, Kostoglotov clashes with his political opponent, the Stalinist bureaucrat and fellow cancer patient, Rusanov, who defends thought control and police state methods. In medical matters, he confronts Dr. Lyudmila Dontsova and insists on his right to know the exact details of his illness. When he discovers that the hormone injections he is being given may save his life but will result in the loss of his sexual capacity, he persuades Zoya, a nurse with whom he is sexually involved, to discontinue the treatments. Later, on the insistence of Dr. Vera Gangart, with whom he develops a close personal friendship, he resumes the treatment. His cancer is temporarily cured, and he is released from the hospital. Torn between his attraction for Zoya and for Vera, he ultimately ends his relationship with both women, thanking Zoya for their sexual intimacy, which he will always remember, and explaining to Vera that their relationship would be incomplete without the hope of sexual fulfillment. Amid rumors of a forthcoming amnesty for political exiles, Kostoglotov returns to Ush-Terek to live a life of simplicity similar to that of his fellow political exiles, Nikolay and Yelena Kadmin.
Pavel Nikolayevich Rusanov
Pavel Nikolayevich Rusanov (PAH-vehl nee-koh-LAH-yeh-vihch rew-SAH-nov), a prominent Communist Party bureaucrat. An arrogant, forty-five-year-old careerist and status seeker, Rusanov expects special privileges in the hospital as a result of his party affiliation. He is an authoritarian official who has risen through the bureaucratic ranks by denouncing his coworkers and cooperating with the secret police. His stay in the cancer ward is marked by numerous confrontations and arguments with the democratic Kostoglotov, whom he despises. Apprehensive about the future because of the uncertainty of his medical recovery and the political changes occasioned by the liberalization in Soviet society following the death of Stalin, he nevertheless clings to Stalinist principles. Responsible for the denunciation of innocent citizens during the purge years of 1937-1938, he dreads the reintegration of victims of the purges into Soviet society. Although confronted with death and the ultimate question of the meaning of life, Rusanov learns nothing from his stay in the cancer ward and leaves the ward psychologically unchanged.
Dr. Vera Kornilyevna Gangart
Dr. Vera Kornilyevna Gangart (kohr-NIH-lyehv-nah gahn-GAHRT), a radiotherapist. A small, shapely woman in her early thirties, she is shy, naturally kind, idealistic, and seemingly more innocent than a twenty-year-old. Having fallen in love with a schoolboy in her youth, she has remained faithful to his memory after he was killed during World War II. Determined to continue her life, she became a doctor and pledged herself to healing the afflicted. Inspired by the dedication of her mentor, Dr. Dontsova, she has been working as a resident doctor for eight years. When she meets Kostoglotov, she is personally attracted by his strength of character but finds herself in conflict with his insistence on questioning medical authority. A woman of deep inward convictions, she believes explicitly in the established methods of medical treatment. Dedicated to saving lives, she urges Kostoglotov to continue his hormone treatments, even though they will result in the loss of his sexual capacity. Attracted by Kostoglotov’s strength of character, she contemplates developing a relationship with him, but he refuses to sacrifice her personal happiness to his sexual inadequacy.
Dr. Lyudmila Afanasyevna Dontsova
Dr. Lyudmila Afanasyevna Dontsova (lyuhd-MIH-lah ah-fah-NAH-syehv-nah DOHN-tsoh-vah), the head of the radiotherapy department. A hardworking, conscientious, and dedicated doctor, she is nearly fifty years old. Dontsova is referred to affectionately by her younger resident doctors as “Mama.” A professional woman, mother, and housewife burdened with both professional and domestic duties, she is frequently weary from overwork but tirelessly pursues her goal of alleviating pain and curing patients. She comes into conflict with the rebellious Kostoglotov when she insists on her right as a doctor to make decisions concerning a patient’s treatment without consulting the patient. Ultimately, she convinces Kostoglotov to acquiesce in undergoing hormone treatments, believing that any impairment in a patient’s physical condition, including loss of sexual capacity, is justified in order to save the patient’s life. Ironically, Dontsova herself is stricken with abdominal cancer. Stunned by this unexpected event, she seeks the medical advice of her mentor, Dr. Oreshchenkov, who together with Dr. Gangart realizes the seriousness of her condition and recommends that she go to Moscow for further tests.
Zoya (ZOH-yah), a nurse. An attractive twenty-three-year-old woman reared in a broken home, Zoya has become independent and self-reliant, working part-time in the hospital to support herself while studying at a medical institute. Cheerful and fun-loving, she enjoys life and has had numerous affairs but is seeking a serious, stable relationship and is consequently attracted by Kostoglotov’s perseverance and strength. Sharing his independent spirit, Zoya agrees to Kos-toglotov’s request for medical information about cancer and provides him with a medical book. When she becomes sexually involved with Kostoglotov, she also agrees to his request to discontinue his hormone injections, because they will result in his sexual impotency. As their sexual attraction for each other wanes, Zoya resumes the hormone injections out of fear of losing her job; Dr. Gangart discovers that Kostoglotov has not been receiving the hormone therapy.
Dyomka (DYOM-kah), a lathe operator, an idealistic sixteen-year-old student whose father was killed in World War II and whose stepfather deserted his sexually promiscuous mother. Dyomka harbors bitter feelings toward his mother for her promiscuity and for abandoning him. He is befriended by Kostoglotov, who encourages him, after his leg is amputated, to learn to use a crutch. Resilient and confident about the future, he resolves to return to work.
Sharaf Sibgatov (shah-RAF sihb-GAH-tov), a young Tartar slowly dying from cancer of the sacrum, a gentle, polite man who endures his suffering meekly and is grateful for the medical attention he receives. He arouses the pity of Dr. Dontsova, who redoubles her efforts to save him but ultimately is unsuccessful.
Alexey Fillipovich Shulubin
Alexey Fillipovich Shulubin (ah-lehk-SAY fih-LIH-poh-vihch SHEW-lew-bihn), a librarian. An old, idealistic Bolshevik, defeated and despondent, tired of living and guilt-ridden for his complicity in the Stalin purges, Shulubin has lost his self-respect but still believes in socialist ideals. He supports Kostoglotov in Kostoglotov’s numerous arguments with the unrepentant Rusanov.
Vadim Zatsyrko (vah-DIHM zah-TSYIHR-koh), a geologist. Handsome, talented, self-sacrificing, and dedicated to hard work, the twenty-six-year-old Vadim passionately desires to make an important geological discovery before he dies of terminal cancer. A Communist Party member, he is contemptuous of his intellectual inferiors and supports Rusanov in Rusanov’s ideological arguments with Kostoglotov.
Yefrem Podduyev (yeh-FREHM poh-DEW-yehv), a worker. A hardy, middle-aged man less than fifty years old, he is crude, vulgar, and promiscuous. Yefrem is conscience-stricken after reading Leo Tolstoy’s moral tales. Engaged by the precept that human beings should live by Christian love, he is denounced by Rusanov and Vadim for spreading alien religious ideology, but he is vigorously defended by Kostoglotov.
Dr. Dormidont Tikhonovich Oreshchenkov
Dr. Dormidont Tikhonovich Oreshchenkov (dohr-mih-DONT tih-KHO-noh-vihch oh-REH-chehn-kov) a general practitioner. A warm, compassionate, seventy-five-year-old family doctor, Oreshchenkov cherishes his private medical practice. He shows kindness and sympathy to his former student, Dr. Dontsova, when she learns that she has cancer. He encourages her to go to Moscow for further tests.
Avieta Pavlovna Rusanova
Avieta Pavlovna Rusanova (ahv-YEH-tah PAHV-lohv-nah rew-SAH-noh-vah), a journalist, Rusanov’s eldest daughter. Young, intelligent, talented, and energetic, Avieta seeks to follow her father’s example and make connections to advance her career. She supports Rusanov in his ideological disputes and defends his role in the purges.
Lev Leonidovich (leh-oh-NIH-doh-vihch), the head surgeon. Nearly forty years old, Lev is a conscientious, dedicated doctor, popular with his patients for his cheerfulness and optimism. He inspires Kostoglotov’s respect for his common sense, and Dyomka chooses him to amputate his leg.
Asya, an attractive seventeen-year-old schoolgirl, lively and energetic. Asya, who has been sexually active since the ninth grade, believes that one must live for romantic love. In despair when she learns that she must have a mastectomy, she turns to Dyomka for consolation.
Prokofy Semyonovich (proh-KOH-fee sehm-YOH-noh-vihch), a tractor driver. A strong, young Ukrainian suffering from a tumor of the heart, Prokofy is optimistic about his recovery and eager to return to work. He shows his release papers to Kostoglotov, who, out of compassion, refuses to translate the Latin phrase indicating that Prokofy’s tumor is inoperable and incurable.
Elizaveta Anatolyevna (yeh-lih-zah-VYEH-tah ah-nah-TOH-lyehv-nah), an orderly in the radiology department. Not yet fifty years old but prematurely aged, Elizaveta is a former political exile, intelligent and educated, who serves tirelessly and uncomplainingly as a scrubwoman. Agonizing over her memories of the purges, she is urged by Kostoglotov to tell her eight-year-old son the truth about the labor camps.
Rodichev (roh-DEE-chehv), an engineer. A former friend of Rusanov falsely accused by Rusanov of belonging to a counterrevolutionary organization, Rodichev has spent eighteen years in a labor camp. His release from the camp causes Rusanov great anxiety.
Kapitolina Matveyevna Rusanova
Kapitolina Matveyevna Rusanova (kah-pih-TOH-lih-nah mah-TVEH-yehv-nah), Rusanov’s wife. A fashionably dressed, energetic, intelligent woman, married to Rusanov for twenty-five years, Kapitolina is a faithful wife and true friend to her husband. Like her husband, she has grown accustomed to privilege and status.
Yura Rusanov (YEW-rah), a lawyer, Rusanov’s eldest son. Yura is a disappointment to his father because of his failure to assert his rank and cultivate the proper acquaintances. Unlike his father, Yura is humane, compassionate, and interested in justice.
Maxim Petrovich Chaly
Maxim Petrovich Chaly (mahk-SEEM peh-TROH-vihch CHA-lee), a black marketeer and speculator, a lively, jovial man. His offer to obtain good automobile tires for Rusanov’s new car through the black market is accepted by Rusanov when Rusanov is released from the hospital.
Nikolay Ivanovich Kadmin
Nikolay Ivanovich Kadmin (nih-koh-LAY ee-VAH-noh-vihch KAHD-mihn), a male obstetrician. He is a lively, sixty-year-old doctor and political exile who lives a simple, unassuming life in Ush-Terek and corresponds with Kostoglotov.
Yelena Alexandrovna Kadmina
Yelena Alexandrovna Kadmina (yeh-LEH-nah ah-lehk-SAN-drov-nah KAHD-mih-nah), Nikolay Kadmin’s wife. She is a warm, compassionate, fifty-year-old political exile in poor health who shares both her husband’s friendship with Kostoglotov and his joy in living a simple life.
Auntie Styofa (STYOH-fah), a grandmother, a humble, warm, compassionate Christian who consoles Dyomka and attempts to reconcile him to his fate.
Lavrenty Pavlovich Rusanov
Lavrenty Pavlovich Rusanov (lah-VREHN-tee PAHV-loh-vihch), Rusanov’s second son. An average student, talented in sports, he was named by his parents in honor of Lavrenty Beria (BAY-ree-ah), the head of Stalin’s secret police. Egged on by his father, he maliciously attempts to run down Kostoglotov with his father’s automobile when Kostoglotov is released from the hospital.
Maika Rusanova (MAY-kah), Rusanov’s youngest daughter. An average pupil unable to achieve good grades on her own, Maika was placed on the honor roll because her teacher knew Maika’s parents.