The phrase “politically correct,” or “PC,” didn’t begin in the 1960s in the USA. It was first publicly used by a British Ministry of Information official during the First World War. It later appeared in Mao Zedung’s “Little Red Book” in the early 1960s and was adopted, originally tongue-in-cheek, by the radical left in the USA. In Marxist–Leninist and Trotskyist vocabulary, “correct” was the common term denoting the “appropriate party line” and the ideologically “correct line.” [Source]
What brings me to discuss this today is my current reading of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward:
Solzhenitsyn’s novels are autobiographical, presenting a vivid account of a man maintaining his freedom against the vicious repressions of an authoritarian regime. Clearly a novelist in the 19th-century tradition, he is often considered Russia’s greatest 20th-century novelist.
His difficulties with the authorities began on Feb. 8, 1945, when he was arrested for having written critical remarks about Joseph Stalin in a letter to a friend that was intercepted by the censors. Sentenced without a trial to 8 years of hard labor, he remained until 1953 in a number of labor camps, one of which was a research institute where he worked as a mathematician. In 1952 he contracted cancer of the skin, and was treated in a hospital in Tashkent (the setting for Cancer Ward). Pronounced cured, he completed his sentence a year later and, although still in exile, was able to teach mathematics and to begin writing. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1970 “for the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature.” [Source]
There are many reviews of Cancer Ward on the Internet, so it would be superfluous to offer my own review here, except to talk about one of the characters who exemplified the totalitarian state that was the USSR:
Bureaucracy and the nature of power in Stalin’s state is represented by Pavel Nikolayevich Rusanov, a “personnel officer.” The corrupt power of Stalin’s regime is shown through his dual desires to be a “worker” but also achieve a “special pension.” At the end, Rusanov’s wife drops rubbish from her car window, symbolising the carelessness with which the regime treated the country. [Source]
I pause here to give some background for the ensuing comments on political correctness. It is important to know the period in which the action of Cancer Ward takes place. Here are the leaders of the USSR, in date order:
Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, 26 Oct 1917 – 21 Jan 1924
Iosif Vissarionovich Stalin, 3 Apr 1922 – 5 Mar 1953
Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev, 7 Sep 1953 – 14 Oct 1964
Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev, 14 Oct 1964 – 10 Nov 1982
Yuriy Vladimirovich Andropov, 12 Nov 1982 – 9 Feb 1984
Konstantin Ustinovich Chernenko, 13 Feb 1984 – 10 Mar 1985
Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, 11 Mar 1985 – 24 Aug 1991
Please note the hiatus of top leadership between March and September, 1953. After Stalin died there was a political struggle among several pretenders to Stalin’s throne. Stalin held the top post in several functions and, after his death, there was a dispersion of these duties to several people so no one could claim to be Stalin’s sole heir, until Khrushchev finally gained the support necessary.
Khrushchev began a gradual change in the legacy of Stalin and, suddenly, in a 1956 speech “On the Personality Cult and its Consequences” to the closed session of the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party, he denounced Stalin’s dictatorial rule and cult of personality. He also attacked the crimes committed by Stalin’s closest associates.
This speech destroyed the legitimacy of Khrushchev’s remaining Stalinist rivals, solidifying his domestic power. He began to ease many restrictions, and freed millions of political prisoners from the “Gulag”–penal labor camps spread across the Soviet Union. (Read Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago).
This “thaw” in the political, cultural and economic life of the Soviet Union included some openness and contact with other nations and new social and economic policies, helping living standards to rise and promoting a higher level of economic growth. Censorship was also relaxed. Some subtle criticism of Soviet society was tolerated, and artists were allowed to produce some works that didn’t have government-approved political content–but there were still limits an artist or writer could not go beyond without reprisal.
The novel Cancer Ward is set in a hospital in Soviet Uzbekistan in 1955, before and during the period when the changes to Stalin’s policies and apparatus were culminating. One of the patients in the cancer ward was Pavel Nikolayevich Rusanov, as mentioned above. While in the hospital he learns from a newspaper, and from his visiting wife and daughter, that the Soviet regime is changing: prisoners are being released from the Gulag, having been officially “rehabilitated.”
One of these prisoners, Rusanov fears, is a man, a former friend and compatriot, whom he falsely denounced to achieve some advantage in the factory where they both worked. Here are some excerpts to show the disorientation and fear the new rules of political correctness engendered in him:
Now times had changed, things were bewildering, unhealthy, the finest civic actions of earlier days were now shameful. Would he now have to fear for his own skin?
[Rusanov mentally reviewing the past] The nature of Rusanov’s work had been…that of personnel records administrator. It was a job that went by different names…but the substance of it was always the same. Only ignoramuses and uninformed outsiders were unaware what subtle, meticulous work it was, what talent it required. It was a form of poetry not yet mastered by the poets themselves. As every man goes through life he fills in a number of forms for the record, each containing a number of questions. A man’s answer to a question on one form becomes a little thread, permanently connecting him to the local centre of personnel records administration. There are thus hundreds of little threads radiating from from every man, millions of threads in all…They are not visible, they are not material, but every man is constantly aware of their existence. The point is that a so-called completely clean record was almost unattainable, an ideal, like absolute truth. Something negative or suspicious can always be noted down against any man alive. Everyone is guilty of something or has something to conceal. All one has to do is look hard enough to find out what it is.
[Later, Rusanov talking with his daughter, Alla, a well-placed writer who has recently visited Moscow and who is visiting him in the hospital] ‘Listen,’ her father said quietly, do you remember. I asked you to find something out? That strange expression–you come across it sometimes in speeches or articles–“the cult of personality”–are those words an allusion to…?’ [He means Stalin]
‘I’m afraid they are, Father…I’m afraid they are. At the Writers’ Congress, for example, the phrase was used several times. And the trouble is, nobody explains what it means, though everyone puts on a face as if they understand.’
‘But it’s pure blasphemy! How dare they, eh?’
[Alla] ‘…Generally speaking, you have to be flexible, you have to be responsive to the demand of the times. This may annoy you Father, but whether we like it or not we have to attune ourselves to each new period as it comes! I saw a lot in Moscow. I spent quite a lot of time in literary circles–do you imagine it’s easy for writers to readjust their attitudes over the last two years? Ve-ry complicated! But what an experienced crowd they are! What tact! You can learn a lot from them!’
Well, this is enough, I hope, to elicit your interest in the book, and to provide some food for thought about the potential power of government to shape our lives.
Will Rusanov be cured of his neck tumor? Will his old “friend,” released from the Gulag, visit him? Will Oleg (the main character) find love and happiness with one of the two hospital workers he is romancing? Will Oleg be returned to the Gulag after he is cured (if he is cured)?
Don’t ask me… read the book!