American Idiot vs. Russian Cynic

In what I can only assume is an accident of history, the Culture Wars in the US unfolded at roughly the same time as Perestroika did in the USSR.  The two phenomena share little in common, save perhaps a renewed attention to ideas and ideology in the public arena. But one of the things that glasnost’ and the subsequent fall of the USSR did facilitate was the growing number of informal Russian "reports from the front", that is, polemical, amusing, quasi-ethnographic accounts of life in the West in general and the US in particular.  

From sociologists such as Ada Baskina to writers and intellectuals such as Tatyana Tolstaya,  such popular journalistic ethnographies ranging from short opinion pieces to book-length studies occupy a niche that should be familiar to anyone who has ever read the New Yorker.  The arch intellectual observer of foreign mores is a familiar figure in the world of non-fiction, and the observer's conclusions have at least as much entertainment value as they do truth value.  If readers of Adam Gopnik's Paris to the Moon come away from the book concluding that all French obstetricians wear black jeans and black silk shirts while delivering babies, they are missing the point.  

At the height of her popularity in the West, Tolstaya played this role in both directions: peppering her essays in The New York Review of Books with anecdotes about Russia’s high culture and low civilization, Tolstaya was scathingly funny when writing in Russian about America.  I want to look briefly at one particular essay by Tolstaya, because it is a fairly comprehensive summary of anti-PC stereotypes that appeared at a crucial moment (1998).  I should add that I am only looking at a few examples of anti-PC opinion pieces here for the sake of brevity, and that, as this work progresses, it will be supplemented by an analysis of the deployment of the terms “politkorrektnost” and “politcheskaia korrektnost’” in the Universal Database of Russian newspapers.  For now, though, I ask your indulgence of my claim that my examples are in some small way representative. 

Tatyana nikitichna Tolstaya: don't mess with TNT

Tatyana nikitichna Tolstaya: don't mess with TNT

Tatyana Tolstaya’s article “Политическая корректность” (“Political Correctness”) did not introduce “PC” to Russian readers; quite the contrary, one of the reasons one could presume it would get an audience was that the topic was already on people’s minds.  Writing from the privileged position of a Russian intellectual who had spent many years in the States, Tolstaya immediately translates PC concerns into a Russian linguistic and cultural context, as witnessed by her first sentence:

“Президент принял делегацию чучмеков”— новозможный заголовок в газете.”

(“’The president received a delegation of [racial slur]’ is an impossible headline”)

That is, she eases her reader into the idea by pointing out how even the Russian media have their limits when it comes to the linguistic etiquette of dealing with race and ethnicity.  By her third paragraph, however, she sets the stage for a familiar critique of political correctness: the naive assumption that changing people’s words will change people’s behavior: “ибо слово это и есть дело. И слово проще исправить.  Выражаться и мыслить надо политически корректно. “  (“for the word is the deed.  And it’s easier to correct the word.  One must speak and think politically correctly”)  

Much of Tolstaya’s essay repeats the familiar tropes of PC-bashing.  For the most part, she picks the lowest-hanging fruit, that is, the perceived terminological excesses of political correctness.  By her fourth paragraph, she pretends to take herself to task for using the “sexist” term “brotherhood,” a term preconditioned by her own status as a "Жалкая, слепая жертва фаллоцентризма, неспособная сбросить с себя путы мужского свинского шовинизма (male pig chauvinism)” (“pathetic, blind victim of phallocentrism, unable to free herself from the shackles of (sic) male pig chauvinism)”;   instead, she should have used the term «сестринство» (never mind the fact that no such word exists in Russian). 

She quickly moves on to proposing that the word “seminar” be replaced by “ovarium,” and to claiming that feminists want to replace “history” with “herstory” and “hero” with “shero.”  Naturally, she trots out “vertically challenged” and “follicular challenged,” and even works sheroically to develop Russian equivalents (after suggesting «вертикально озадаченный» for the first, she quietly gives up on any translation of the second). Imagining an anachronistic imposition of PC in nineteenth century Russia, she suggests that Lev Tolstoi might have had to change his name to "Лев Полновесный."  In an American context, this would already have been old news: to mix animal metaphors, what started out as shooting fish in a barrel had long since degenerated into beating a dead horse. But the Russian context is different: again and again, the idea behind “political correctness” is conflated with its own caricature as the concept is being introduced, making it virtually impossible to look at the phenomenon with anything but amusement, disgust, or horror.  

To her credit, Tolstaya does make an exception for PC attitudes towards the disabled, interrupting her ongoing parody with what appears to be heartfelt appreciation of the American inclusion of people with disabilities into everyday life:

Нет, политическая корректность не так глупа, как кажется. И когда видишь заботу об инвалидах (которых, правда, нельзя так называть), все эти расширенные дверные проемы, специальную подножку в автобусах для подъема инвалидного кресла, […] – зауважаешь, ей-богу, и корректность, и ее применение, и трижды подумаешь, прежде чем ляпнуть:

Ну, я похромал,


Горбатого могила исправит

[No, political correctness is not as stupid as it seems. And when you see the care for invalids (a word you’re not supposed to call them), all those widened doorways, special wheelchair lifts in buses, […] I swear to God, you start to respect correctness and its uses, and think twice before blurting out:

“That was lame”


“Only the grave can cure the hunchback.”]

In other words, we’re back to caricature. By the end, she makes the dangers of PC clear.  Yes, the ideals are, for the most part, admirable, but, when taken together, they smack of something all too familiar to anyone who grew up in the Soviet system:

все это не вызывает возражений, разве что вызывает в памяти подозрительно знакомые, еще не отшелестевшие в залетейские пространства конструкты: человек будущего, строитель коммунизма, дружба народов, свинарка и пастух, внучата Октября. Но ведь для того, чтобы успешно построить светлое будущее, кто-то должен бдить.

[all of this raises no objections, save for the suspiciously familiar memories of certain verbal constructs that have yet to pass into oblivion: man of the future, builder of communism, friendship of peoples, the woman swineheard and the shepherd, the grandchildren of October. After all, in order to build the radiant future, someone must be vigilant.]

PC, like Leninism, is an attempt to bring about a better world through force:  Либеральная жандармерия, политический РАПП лучше знает, на три метра под землей видит.  (The liberal gendarmes, the political RAPP knows better, and sees all])   All joking aside (or nearly all of it, because Tolstaya isn’t Tolstaya without being snide), this is a clearly totalitarian threat.  Hence her closing line:  С Новым 1948-м или 1984-м годом, дорогие товарищи. (Happy New Year 1948 or 1984, dear comrades)

My point is that, even in the hands of as discerning an observer as Tatyana Tolstaya, political correctness is presented to a Russian audience not as a debate, not as a process, and not even as anything more than vaguely defensible.  Rather, the image of political correctness disseminated through the Russian media is virtually identical to its American right-wing critique.  I emphasize this not to defend political correctness as such; as I hope I’ve already made clear, I consider the entire concept to be largely played out.  But in a postsocialist Russia that has spend only a few years unsuccessfully grasping with the very idea of liberalism through an implementation that can be most charitably described as flawed, political correctness comes to represent the apotheosis of liberalism, the quintessence of everything wrong and alien about a poorly-assimilated ideology.  In both its manner of presentation and the timing of its entry into Russian public discourse, political correctness need not be used as a basis from which to extrapolate a dystopia.  In this context, political correctness is already dystopian from the outset.


Next: Gender, and How to Stop It