We the Living by Ayn Rand is not another book about the communist rule in the USSR. It is not another propaganda or criticism. It is merely a novel about the Man against the State, about the continuous human struggle for individual happiness and satisfaction against the artificially installed responsibility towards society, about dictatorship whether it is in Soviet Russia or in Nazi Germany.
Ayn Rand (Alisa Rosenbaum) is one of the most influential American writers and philosophers. Born in Soviet Russia, she emigrated in 1925 to the USA. We the Living is published in 1936, followed by The Fountainhead and her masterpiece Atlas Shrugged. Rand is famous for her philosophy objectivism, which encompasses the following postulates: 1) reality exists regardless of consciousness; 2) individuals connect with reality through sense perception; 3) the proper moral purpose of one’s life is the achievement of one’s happiness or rational self-interest; 4) laissez faire capitalism is the only social system, which values individual rights and is consistent with this philosophy; 5) art is the transformation of one’s metaphysical ideas into a physical form, which can be comprehended and responded to.
Rand’s philosophy is largely influenced by her background: she spent her first 20 years in the USSR. In We the Living she depicts the Soviet reality after the 1917 Revolution, where human individuality is suppressed in favor of the greater social good. People are supposed to be equal (for those of you having never lived in a communist regime that means equally poor and deprived) yet some are more equal than others (if you know what I mean). Kira Argunova, the protagonist, is born in bourgeois family, which is a subject of constant suppression by the ruling communist regime. She is expelled from university, where she studies engineering, she has to pretend to believe in and love communism in order to receive the food coupons, and she is forced to live in poverty. Kira falls in love with a revolutionist, but she loses the war against society – at the end Leo’s mind is corrupted; he becomes a faithless hopeless alcoholic. Andrey, her communist friend, is disillusioned by the discrepancy between communist theory and practice in the USSR. At the end Kira decides to flee her home country only to realize she can never escape the regime.
Rand is the main character, Kira Argunova. However, they do not look alike, they have studied different subjects, and their families are different. In that sense, Kira’s story is not Rand’s story, but her beliefs, ideas, and values are Rand’s. That is why Ayn Rand claims We the Living to be her intellectual autobiography.
I enjoyed reading the novel as I enjoy everything Ayn Rand has ever written. She influentially portrays the horrors, deprivations, and sufferings of the Russians under the communist regime. Her story is a faithful representation of that time period as she was a witness, although a very young one. Having lived in a country once under the communist regime, I enjoyed discussing the situation depicted in the novel with what might have been in Bulgaria before I was born. According to my parents, it wasn’t that extreme here, but still it was the same social system, which mistakenly assumes the only purpose in one’s life is one’s responsibility towards society. As Rand points out, the moral purpose of every individual’s life is the achievement of his/her own happiness and well being.
The only thing I regret is the sequence in which I read Rand’s novels. I started with The Fountainhead, followed by Atlas Shrugged and finished with her first novel We the Living. One can easily tell this is her first work devoted to the philosophy of objectivism, as Rand only starts focusing on individual happiness as the greatest virtue. However, her idea is better developed in The Fountainhead and reaches its apogee in Atlas Shrugged. Thus, I was still under the latter’s amazing influence to be really that astonished by We the Living. I was already acquainted with her philosophy, and seeing it still undeveloped and unpolished in We the Living was not enough.
Still, the novel is very much worth reading. After all, Rand’s style is highly intellectual, profound, and influential. If you have never read anything by her, I suggest you start by We the Living and finish with Atlas Shrugged. You won’t be disappointed and if you are anything like me, her novels will change your perceptions and values. In contemporary society, people must be familiar with her works because they are as valid today (maybe even more) as they were more than half a century ago.