I use the phrase “political correctness” with a great deal of trepidation. Most American academics my age and older remember the Culture Wars of the 1980s with as much fondness as most Russians recall the Yeltsin Era of the 1990s. Bystanders and standard-bearers on both sides of the barricades have very good reason to be war-weary. The huge fights over the “canon,” multiculturalism, and “Western Civilization” have settled into minor skirmishes, and the notion that any particular set of books, great or otherwise, will determine the course of civilization seems charmingly quaint in the age of 140-character tweets.
In academia, the afterlife of the Culture Wars plays itself out in separate, but unequal walled-off graveyards. The engagé earnestness of parts of the annual MLA convention program is still good for a laugh, while the National Association of Scholars(a literary equivalent to the high-school anti-prom) still fulminates against cultural studies like some grandpa ranting about kids who refuse to get off his lawn. In higher education, the Culture Wars survive largely as the equivalent to an Eighties tribute band.
Only recently, thanks to Donald Trump, has political correctness (PC) been revived as a bogeyman, this time as the primary obstacle to “making America great again.” Unlike the Culture Warriors of yore, Trump (unsurprisingly) does not offer a clear definition of PC; instead, he is performing a remarkable rhetoric service by reducing the opposition to PC to the same level of caricature that the Culture Warriors imposed on progressives in the Eighties. In any case, even when we take into account all of the overheated allegations of a Putin/Trump bromance, Trump’s demonization of political correctness has little do with Russia.
In fact, it’s hard to imagine what link could be possible between PC and Russia, even if we recall the American Right’s characterization of political correctness as liberal totalitarianism. Given all the terrible traumas that Russia has endured in the past twenty-five years (from the Soviet collapse through banking crises, wars with separatists and neighbors, the impoverishment of the majority of the population, and domestic terrorism), one could be excused for not expecting “political correctness” to be a viable scourge upon the motherland. And even when one recognizes the utility of invoking such a peril (much like Fox News’ hysteria over the so-called “War on Christmas,”which, like an angry mistletoe, has become reliable fixture of every holiday season), it would be a mistake to dismiss the rhetoric of the perils of PC as mere cynicism or political expediency.
Rather, I would argue that the discourse of political correctness in Russia has, in the two decades of its evolution, moved from the realm of smug satire to clear and present danger as a compelling framework for renegotiating Russia’s relationship with Western liberalism. When combined with increasing anti-Western sentiment after the 1999 NATO bombings and the forced self-reliance of Russia’s culture industry after that same year’s financial collapse made imports too costly, political correctness and tolerantnost’, ("tolerance”) the liberal term that came to be associated with it, enabled the portrayal of a self-sabotaging multicultural Europe and America as a nightmare of liberalism run amok.
This nightmare in turn found a comfortable narrative home within the genre of the literary dystopia (particularly of the post-Huxley variety), giving rise to a new subgenre of Russian science fiction called “liberpunk.” While liberpunk itself is a marginal literary phenomenon, it has had a role in elaborating the political vocabulary that has come to prominence in the wake of the annexation of Crimea: the straightforward rejection of tolerance itself as an alien, anti-Russian value that can cause only harm.