Chance encounters generate perfect plot points. One does not have to look far to find these accidental points of contact in great works of literature: Pip’s childhood meeting with Magwitch, in a graveyard from Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations; Chekhov’s fondness for placing characters at dinner parties emphatically emblemized in his short story “The Bet;” and the fantastical encounter between Woland, a Satan-in-disguise and major characters in Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, to name a few.
Trailing after such literary giants, contemporary Russian writer Vladimir Sorokin splashed onto America’s literary scene with his short story “The Red Pyramid,” which appeared in the September 2021 issue of The New Yorker. In the story, Yura, who is both late and lost on his way to a birthday party, gets off at a train station to catch another train. There, out of nowhere, Yura encounters a little man who seems to know more than is humanly possible. Testing the limits of his knowledge, Yura asks, “Tell me who Vladimir Ilyich Lenin was.” The stranger responds, “[T]he man who called forth the pyramid of the red roar.” The pyramid, the man continues, is the “source of the endless red roar.” Visible to a select few, it “emits a different kind of sound wave” in order to “infect the world to destroy mankind’s intrinsic structure.”
Sorokin, a contemporary Russian writer, who in this story takes on the subject of communism and its legacy in contemporary Russia, may also be warning all who indulge in revolutionary ideations.
It is no coincidence that Sorokin spotlights Lenin and his seminal role in hastening the Bolshevik Revolution. A wily figure, Lenin studied the Marxist doctrine carefully, yet veered from Marx’s recipe for revolution. In short, according to Marx’s theory of historical materialism, there are stages that a civilization must surpass in order to achieve “stateless communism.” Simply put, they are feudalism, capitalism, socialism, and finally communism. An essential transition from capitalism to socialism is the development of “class consciousness,” that is, the idea that workers become conscious of sharing common grievances against capitalists and organically develop an awareness of themselves as forming a social class opposed to the bourgeoisie. Only then will they overthrow the capitalists.
But Imperial Russia was a singular case: there never was a feudal system. Moreover, Russia never moved on to capitalism. Lenin understood this well and using Russia’s unique case, vociferously maintained that in order to hasten the revolution, urged skipping over the capitalist stage. It would take far too long to wait for its arrival and the workers were in need of liberation from the monarchs. The only problem was that there was no working class in Russia and as such, no layer of society developed “class consciousness.” So, Lenin synthesized this class by forming a most vital component to the revolution: professional revolutionaries. Indeed, in his 1902 manifesto What is to be Done?, Lenin maintained that a revolutionary vanguard party would lead the political campaign. Its role was to awaken the masses—in Russia’s case, being peasants in villages—to the call of the “red roar.”
“Bolshevism was [thus] founded on a lie,” writes historian Anthony Read in his book The World on Fire:
“Setting a precedent that was to be followed for the next ninety years. Lenin had no time for democracy, no confidence in the masses and no scruples about the use of violence. He wanted a small, tightly organized and strictly disciplined party of hard-liner professional revolutionaries, who would do exactly as they were told.”
And comply they did. In the multi-pronged attack of the monarchy, Lenin dispensed armies of professional revolutionaries whose job it was to 1) re-educate the masses by bringing literacy to the peasants, and 2) institutionalize a quasi-police state via the Cheka, formed in order to identify and eradicate counter-revolutionaries.
Fixated on the corpse-like man, Yura asks, “So Lenin built the pyramid?” The man replies, “No. He simply called it into being.” Indeed, in the months leading up to the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, Lenin famously decried, “power lay under the foot, one simply had to pick it up.” Such was the disarray and derelict wasteland of the late Russian imperial period. Lenin seized upon this decay and called the revolution “into being.”
Lessons abound from Lenin’s brilliant hastening of the revolution, one of which is paramount in the synthetization of “class consciousness,” a calculated propaganda campaign aimed to fundamentally transform the Russian masses. And transform Russia it did. Lenin understood one fundamental truth about revolutions: they occur—that is systems of oppression can only be overthrown—when they are done on behalf of the oppressed. In Russia, the disenfranchised were the serfs, who only forty years earlier were emancipated, and were now illiterate peasants; all they needed was to be told to rise against the powers that be.
Lenin’s unleashing of the red roar, no doubt a reference to the “red terror,” a campaign of political repression and executions carried out by the Bolsheviks, fundamentally transformed Russia—after promising the citizens of a budding Soviet state that they will lay the groundwork for future generations who will thrive under a radiant communism. Ninety years and millions of dead lives later, the red roar now is being unleashed in the West, and most notably, in the United States of America.
Nearly a century later and six thousand miles from Russia, leaders of social movements, most notably Black Lives Matter (BLM), are taking a page out of Lenin’s revolutionary machinations and following a similar script. Ours is a muted revolution, but the ingredients are uncannily similar: fomenting social unrest and cultivating the oppressed class via “racial consciousness.” The social unrest began in 2016 with the birth of BLM, but took off in the summer of 2019, compounded by a worldwide pandemic. Calling herself and her fellow organizers “trained Marxists,” BLM co-founder Patrisse Cullors is thus a serious revolutionary.
A central principle of Marxist-Leninist revolution is to cultivate “consciousness” among a segment of population—to convince them that they are oppressed and in need of liberation. In Russia, the revolution was enacted on behalf of the working class; in the United States, it is done on behalf of a racial class. Preying on America’s wounds from slavery and the Jim Crow laws, today’s professional revolutionaries are actively working toward synthesizing “racial consciousness.” The synthetization is done through a calculated political campaign that speaks of “overthrowing systems of oppression,” “defunding the police,” and “doing away with the nuclear family unit.”
The political campaign that ushers in a revolution is sustained by an equally vital propaganda crusade. It begins with emitting signals to the population, signals that necessitate social consciousness—the awakening of the oppressed. One may call it mass hypnosis, but it is one via carefully selected phrases. “Workers of the world unite!” was not merely a political slogan, but a successful vessel for revolutionary actions. Utilizing the BLM hashtag, promoting the raised fist, and putting up posters and signs such as “in this house black lives matter, love is love, no human is illegal, science is real, love is love, kindness is everything” are meant to awaken the consciousness to conform to a new world order.
Those who have lived in totalitarian states understand very well the consequences of political signage. In his 1978 political essay, “Power of the Powerless,” Czech political dissident Vaclav Havel, dissects the nature of political language as a tool to both awaken mass consciousness and suppress dissent. Havel uses the example of a greengrocer who displays in his shop the sign “Workers of the world, unite!” as a signal to the state that he has submitted. The greengrocer does not truly believe in this slogan, but realizing that his survival is dependent on publicly promoting it, complies and in this way, highlights the dangers of statewide submission. Think back to the summer of 2020. Store owners conformed and quickly displayed the BLM sign. Whether the owner of the store truly believed in this was irrelevant; what was certain is that Americans fully complied and in promoting BLM were signaling totalitarian tendencies.
The signals are generated by seemingly innocuous signifiers, as in the case of a pediatrician’s office in Seattle that displayed in its reception area the welcoming poster, “[T]his is a safe space. Racism, bigotry, sexism and discrimination will not be tolerated;” or an ice cream shop in Calabasas that handed out pins with raised fists to all customers; or the cornucopia of BLM hashtags, raised fists, and/or preferred gender pronouns proudly displayed in classes held over Zoom.
These words are signals of what is acceptable and tolerable, meant to awaken “racial consciousness” among the masses. Deviating from this will result in dire consequences. Indeed, journalists have amassed alarming stories from individual Americans who have lost their jobs and have been entirely canceled as a result of veering the slightest from this new world order. A police officer in Virginia was fired because he donated to Kyle Rittenhouse’s defense fund; a professor at the UCLA Anderson School of Management was suspended for the crime of “refusing to mark the work of black and white students by different criteria.” In the summer of 2020, an art professor was reported for “hateful conduct” for the crime of going to watch a rally for police officers. These individual stories point to a greater threat: the role of the informants. According to a Challey Institute for Global Innovation survey, nearly 70 percent of students favor reporting professors if the professor says something that students find offensive. The Soviets perfected on the role of the informant. At the height of Stalin’s terror in 1937, neighbors, friends, and even family members denounced one another to the state. The state became the family unit, thus the danger of eradicating the nuclear family.
We have crossed the Rubicon, from merely promoting a social movement, to enacting a revolution. Lenin’s revolution unleashed the flocks of the Cheka to arrest, detain, torture, and execute anyone who stood in the way of the revolution. We are not too far: deplatforming, cancel culture, destroying the lives of individuals for the sake of an idea.
Sorokin’s “The Red Pyramid” must thus be read as a warning not only of the dangers of communism, but more importantly, the tell-tale signs of proclivities toward revolution and totalitarianism. Indeed, dazed by his encounter with the stranger at the train station, Sorokin sketches the remainder of Yura’s miserable life: the conformity to the state and the submission of the individual to the fate of the state. Yura does not marry the girl he loves, does not get to write freely as a journalist, escapes by the skin of his teeth the claws of the censors, and only in his death does the truth reveal itself to him:
“And suddenly [he] saw the red pyramid… it towered up on Red Square, its base taking up the entire area of the square. The pyramid vibrated as it emitted the red roar. The roar came forth in waves, flooding everything around it like a tsunami, flowing off beyond the horizon toward all four corners of the earth. The human race was drowning in this red roar.”
We cannot wait for the red roar to “destroy mankind’s intrinsic nature,” to awaken to its signals only when we perish. We must listen now because the noise is deafening: in educational programs that compel students to rank their status in society by the color of their skin, in mandatory antiracist training sessions that cultivate the idea that “children learn better from teachers of the same race,” in urging school staff to undergo “antiracist therapy for white educators,” in shop windows that display signage of conformity to “racial consciousness,” in seemingly innocuous posters that promote “safe spaces” while simultaneously enacting totalitarian tendencies to eradicate those who do not comply.
The tragedy in Sorokin’s “Red Pyramid” is that thirty years after the fall of the Soviet Union and nearly seventy years after Stalin’s reign of terror, Russian citizens are still reeling from the trauma of communism. Yura’s failed life, according to Sorokin, is not as a result of being arrested or forced to perish in a labor camp. No, his life is broken by the system, whose baneful roar is unleashed and felt for generations and generations thereafter.