Cancer Ward by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1967)

“If I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous revolution that swallowed up some 60 million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: “Men have forgotten God; that is why this has happened.”

As the old cliché reminds us “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”  Humans tend to take their blessings for granted.  We don’t wake up every morning thinking “How wonderful to have two strong legs” until accident or disease robs that blessing.  We likewise feel blissfully entitled to personal freedom until a government removes it.

As Terry Glaspey explains in 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know :

The instruction often given to young writers is “write what you know.” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn did just that throughout his writing career, taking the events of a life filled with a struggle against political oppression and turning them into a series of books, both fiction and nonfiction, that dealt with universal human issues. Cancer Ward is one of his finest achievements, a semiautobiographical novel about a group of cancer patients in a Soviet hospital fighting for their lives and health against the backdrop of the political unrest that occurred after the death of Stalin.

The treatment center in Solzhenitsyn’s novel is a sort of representative microcosm of post-Stalin culture in the USSR, and he uses the lives and stories of the patients in the cancer ward to explore various political theories, the reality of human mortality in the face of disease, and how hope might be found in a seemingly hopeless environment. The various patients have different responses to their plight, and the clash of these ways of responding is reminiscent of the ways that people responded to the “cancer” of Stalinist oppression. As the main character, Oleg Kostoglotov (likely based on Solzhenitsyn himself), says at one point in the novel, “A man dies from a tumor, so how can a country survive with growths like labor camps and exiles?”

Has disease ever brought you clarity?

John 1: 1-5

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

D I G  D E E P E R

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Aleksandr Isayevich[a] Solzhenitsyn (/ˌsoʊlʒəˈniːtsɪn, ˌsɔːl-/;[2] Russian: Алекса́ндр Иса́евич Солжени́цын, pronounced [ɐlʲɪˈksandr ɪˈsaɪvʲɪtɕ səlʐɨˈnʲitsɨn]; 11 December 1918 – 3 August 2008)[3] (often Romanized to Alexandr or Alexander)[4][5] was a Russian novelist, historian, and short story writer. He was an outspoken critic of the Soviet Union and communism and helped to raise global awareness of its Gulag forced labor camp system. He was allowed to publish only one work in the Soviet Union, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962), in the periodical Novy Mir. After this he had to publish in the West, most notably Cancer Ward (1968), August 1914 (1971), and The Gulag Archipelago (1973). Solzhenitsyn was awarded the 1970 Nobel Prize in Literature “for the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature”.[6] Solzhenitsyn was afraid to go to Stockholm to receive his award for fear that he would not be allowed to reenter. He was eventually expelled from the Soviet Union in 1974, but returned to Russia in 1994 after the state’s dissolution.

Sources & Resources

Ericson, Edward E., Jr. Solzhenitsyn: The Moral Vision. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980.

Nielsen, Niels C., Jr. Solzhenitsyn’s Religion. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1975.

Scammell, Michael. Solzhenitsyn: A Biography. New York: W. W. Norton, 1984.

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr. Cancer Ward. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1991.

———. The Solzhenitsyn Reader: New and Essential Writings, 1947–2005. Edited by Edward Ericson Jr. and Daniel J. Mahoney. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2006.

Terry Glaspey, 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015).


Terry Glaspey

Terry Glaspey

I’m really looking forward to discussing my book, “75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know,” with the members of Literary Life Book Club. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts and perspectives on some of the art, music, and literature you’ll discover in the book. I’m interested in how it speaks to you in your life and the ways it inspires, challenges, or maybe even annoys you! I’ll try to share some “deleted scenes” stuff I had to leave out and will tell a few stories about what I experienced while doing the writing and research. Hope that many of you can join us as we look at he stories behind some truly wonderful art.

Let’s explore together!


Join the discussion with Terry on Facebook HERE

Terry Glaspey is a writer, an editor, a creative mentor, and someone who finds various forms of art—painting, films, novels, poetry, and music—to be some of the places where he most deeply connects with God.

He has a master’s degree in history from the University of Oregon (Go Ducks!), as well as undergraduate degrees emphasizing counseling and pastoral studies.

He has written over a dozen books, including 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know:  Fascinating Stories Behind Great Art, Music, Literature, and Film, Not a Tame Lion: The Spiritual Legacy of C.S. Lewis, The Prayers of Jane Austen, 25 Keys to Life-Changing Prayer, Bible Basics for Everyone, and others.

Terry enjoys writing and speaking about a variety of topics including creativity and spirituality, the artistic heritage of the Christian faith, the writing of C.S. Lewis, and creative approaches to apologetics.

He serves on the board of directors of the Society to Explore and Record Church History and is listed in Who’s Who in America Terry has been the recipient of a number of awards, including a distinguished alumni award and the Advanced Speakers and Writers Editor of the Year award.

Terry has two daughters and lives in Eugene, Oregon.

Dig Deeper at


Some of the greatest painters, musicians, architects, writers, filmmakers, and poets have taken their inspiration from their faith and impacted millions of people with their stunning creations. Now readers can discover the stories behind seventy-five of these masterpieces and the artists who created them. From the art of the Roman catacombs to Rembrandt to Makoto Fujimura; from Gregorian Chant to Bach to U2; from John Bunyan and John Donne to Flannery O’Connor and Frederick Buechner; this book unveils the rich and varied artistic heritage left by believers who were masters at their craft.

Terry Glaspey, 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015).

Order it HERE today.

Published by

Rick Wilcox

Editor in Chief | Literary Life