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Ward Thirteen

Ward Thirteen. Ward for cancer patients in a hospital in the Soviet Union’s provincial city of Tashkent. The inauspicious nature of the ward’s number “thirteen” is noted immediately by the first of the novel’s major characters, Pavel Nikolaievich Rusanov, although as a Communist Party member and atheist, he has never allowed himself to be superstitious.

The ward is a long, drab room with eight beds, each occupied by a cancer patient. The iron beds are narrow and creaky with thin mattresses that provide little comfort. Their occupants are a representative cross section of the ethnicities of the Soviet Union, including an Uzbek and a Kazakh, in addition to ethnic Russians. These men have also occupied a wide variety of positions in life, from prison guard to researcher. Rusanov regards having to share accommodations with such lowly persons an insult to his dignity and strives continually to get a private room, which he regards as his due as a party member.

In contrast, the novel’s other major character, former prisoner Oleg Kostoglotov, regards the ward’s meager accommodations as something to be fought for. Because he has come from his place of exile in a remote village, he has been able to call ahead to reserve a place for himself at the hospital. When he does arrive and is told no bed is available for him, he stretches out to sleep in the waiting room and refuses to leave until he is admitted.

Solzhenitsyn uses this setting and his characters’ responses to it to show their inner selves. At the same time, the cancer ward becomes a metaphor of the entire Soviet Union, riddled with the moral cancer of Stalinism and the lies it produced.


*Tashkent. Provincial city in which the hospital is located. At the time the novel takes place, Tashkent is the capital of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic, one of the fifteen constituent republics that made up the Soviet Union. (After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Tashkent became the capital of independent Uzbekistan). Here Rusanov is the personnel director of a large industrial enterprise, a position that gives him considerable power and places him in close contact with officials of the Soviet secret police.

Like many cities of the Soviet Union during the period in which the novel is set, Tashkent has a modern Soviet shell built around a much older city core. The modern Soviet city is drab and industrial—a product of centralized planning with no apparent history or character. By contrast, the Old City of Tashkent, whose history goes back to the Turkic tribes who settled along the Great Silk Road, is an Asiatic city with small shops and houses facing enclosed courtyards. When Kostoglotov, newly discharged from the hospital, walks through the Old City, he notes how different these inward-facing Asiatic homes are from the homes of his native Russia, homes with windows facing the street so their inhabitants can look at their neighbors. Yet he finds this a place he can love, a place rich in humanity.


Zoo. Old-fashioned zoo in Tashkent, holding a variety of animals that are kept in small cages or enclosures and arranged according to the taxonomical groups to which they belong. Here Kostoglotov finds evidence that his country’s moral cancer is in remission—an unknown man who throws tobacco into a rhesus monkey’s eyes is not described with typical Stalinist clichés such as “agent of American imperialism,” but rather simply as “evil.”


Ush-Terek (oosh-teh-REHK). Settlement in Kazakhstan, Kostoglotov’s place of exile. It is never seen in the narration but is frequently in Kostoglotov’s...

(This entire section contains 624 words.)

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thoughts. It is based upon Kok-Terek, the settlement to which Solzhenitsyn was exiled.


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Allaback, Steven. Alexander Solzhenitsyn. New York: Taplinger, 1978. The chapter on Cancer Ward focuses on various characters’ journeys toward self-discovery and on the degree to which they represent Soviet society. Offers brief comparisons with other works by the author.

Burg, David, and George Feifer. Solzhenitsyn. Briarcliff Manor, N.Y.: Stein & Day, 1972. There are references to Cancer Ward throughout this biographical volume. Well indexed. Includes a bibliography and a brief chronology of the author’s life.

Dunlop, John B., Richard S. Haugh, and Michael Nicholson, eds. Solzhenitsyn in Exile: Critical Essays and Documentary Materials, 1985.

Feuer, Kathryn, ed. Solzhenitsyn: A Collection of Critical Essays, 1976.

Kodjak, Andrej. Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Boston: Twayne, 1978. Several chapters describe the author’s major works. The chapter on Cancer Ward highlights the use of dialogue to present various philosophies.

Rothberg, Abraham. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The Major Novels. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1971. Discusses the book’s use of cancer as a metaphor for the problems of Soviet society and institutions. Describes major characters and the plot lines involving them, as well as an overview of themes.

Scammell, Michael. Solzhenitsyn: A Biography. New York: W. W. Norton, 1984. An impressive text of more than a thousand pages. Includes notes and an extensive index. The chapter entitled “Cancer Ward” compares Solzhenitsyn’s own hospitalization for cancer with that of Kostoglotov.


Critical Essays