We the Living
© 1936 Ayn Rand
“That,” said Kira, “depends on what direction I want to go.”
Ayn Rand fled the nascent Soviet Union at the tender age of twenty, and by way of introducing herself to the United States literary scene, she wrote a novel denouncing both God and the state. It is slightly autobiographical; at least, it’s the closest she ever came to writing the story of her life. Featuring young Kira Argounva, a would-be engineer whose ambitions are smothered by the nascent totalitarian state of the Soviets, it examines the impact that said states can have on the lives of the people under their command. Two other characters are quite prominent — an ardent young Communist officer (Andrei Taganov,) and an embittered enemy of the Soviets (Leo Kovalensky), desiring nothing but to escape. Through their lives we see not only the results oppression can have on the oppressed, but the soul-deforming effects that oppression has on its instigators.
The Argounva family has been rendered impoverished by the Bolkshevik triumph, losing their factory and shop under the new economic rules. Seeing her relations turned into near-vagrants through political malice, Kira already has good reason to hate the Soviets. Her family’s previous status also marks she and her cousins as pariahs, however: the ticket to success in the new state is to become a member of the Party, and even if they were willing to play the part they’re not allowed. They are, in Kira’s frustrated words later in the novel, forbidden to live — and forbidden to escape, as Kira learns when she and a free-spirited boyfriend named Leo are picked up by the secret police. Kira and Leo are both rebels, but while she simply endures what the Soviets throw her — refusing to give in or give up, even swallowing her pride and working for the government so she can escape– Leo slowly withers. I mostly liked Kira for her name (reminded me of another Kira with far more personality) A key member of the story is Andrei Taganov, someone who shares much of Kira’s outlook on life, but believes in the Soviet cause. He and Kira are lovers, and he offers crucial assistance to her — but perhaps the most interesting part of the novel is witnessing his inner turmoil as the growing Soviet state’s moral deformity is revealed, both its pervasive corruption and the tyranny that outstrips the worse crimes of the tsar.
Like 1984, We the Living does not have a tidy, happy ending. The image of a boot stamping on a human face forever is absent, however; instead, we encounter a mixture of tragedy and glory. This is achieved because certain characters had already gotten the only victory that mattered: they knew themselves, they believed in themselves. Even if they died, they died free and not as befuddled drones or anxious cattle. Although I wasn’t especially interested in the two main characters — Andrei’s moral struggle is more compelling than Leo’s slow abandonment of a worthwhile life, and Kira only gets really fascinating when she’s been robbed of every support, and is alone in the wilderness — the themes really are eternal, and I’m not surprised that the Italian fascists attempted to stop the book and its unauthorized movie adaptation from being spread under their watch, since fascism and communism differ not a jot or a tittle in their methods and depravity, only in what they advertise is worth killing for.
I have the Italian film on the way, hopefully with English subtitles.
- The Revolutionist, Robert Littell A novel about a Russian immigrant to the United States who reutrns to Russia to participate in the civil war and is crestfallen to survive long enough to see the revolution begin devouring its children.
- The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. While focused on the prison system, offers a look into the incredibly oppressive atmosphere of the Soviet union. Recommended reading for any one with a tendency to start sentences with “There should be a law…”
- “Why The Worst Get On Top“, F.A. Hayek. Essay printed in The Road to Serfdom. Available online via the Foundation for Economic Education.
- 1984, George Orwell.