We the Living

We the Living

infobox book
name = We the Living
title_orig =
translator =

image_caption = First edition cover
author = Ayn Rand
cover_artist =
country = United States
language = English
series =
genre = Philosophical, autobiographical novel
publisher = Macmillan
release_date = 1936
media_type = Print (hardback & paperback)
pages =
isbn = 0-451-18784-9
preceded_by =
followed_by =

"We the Living" is Ayn Rand's first novel. It was also Rand's first expression against communism (though she stated that, like her other novels, political references in it exist merely as a means to portray the nature of man). First published in 1936, it is a poignant story of life in post-revolutionary Russia. Ayn Rand observes in the foreword to this book that "We the Living" was the closest she would ever come to writing an autobiography. "We the Living" was first completed in 1934, but was rejected by several publishers, until 1936, when George Platt Brett of Macmillan Publishing agreed to publish her book. [ [http://www.aynrand.org/site/PageServer?pagename=about_ayn_rand_aynrand_biography The Ayn Rand Institute: A Brief Biography of Ayn Rand ] ] Brett said "he did not know if they would make money on it or not, but that it was a novel that should be published." [cite book
title= Essay on Any Rand "We the living" |first= Robert |last= Mayhew |page= 139 |publisher=Lexington Books |year= 2004 |isbn=0739106988


The story takes place from 1922 to 1925, in post-revolutionary Russia. Kira Argounova, the protagonist of the story, is the younger daughter of a bourgeois capitalist. An independent spirit with a will to match, she rejects any attempt to cast her into a mold, by her family or the nascent Socialist State. At the beginning of the story, Kira returns to Petrograd along with her family, after a prolonged exile from the assault of the revolutionaries. Kira's father had been the owner of a textile factory, which had been seized and nationalized. The family, having given up all hopes of regaining their past possessions after the emphatic victories of the Red Army in the last four years, is resigned to its fate, as it returns to the city in search of livelihood. It finds, to its dismay, that their expansive mansion has likewise been seized, and converted to living quarters for several families. Left with nowhere to go, the family moves into Kira's aunt's home.

The severity of life in the newly socialized Russia is biting and cruel, especially for the people belonging to the now-stigmatized middle class. Kira's uncle Vasili has also lost his family business to the state, and has been forced to sell off his possessions, one at a time, for money (which has lost much of its value owing to steep inflation rates). Money has ceased to be a major representative of "wealth and power". Private enterprises have been strictly controlled, and licenses to run them allotted only to those "enjoying the trust" of the proletariat. Food is rationed. Only laborers of nationalized businesses and students in state-run educational institutions have access to ration cards. The family of five survives on the ration cards allotted to the two younger members of the family, who are students.

After a brief stay at Vasili's home, Kira's family manages to find for itself living quarters. Kira's father also manages to get a license to open a textile shop, an establishment but a shadow of his old industry. Life is excruciatingly difficult in these times. Rand portrays the bleak scenarios by vivid descriptions of long queues, weary citizens and low standards of living. (Everyone regularly cooks on a kerosene camp stove, usually a Swedish Primus stove, and the typical main course is millet, or whatever can be blended together.)

With some effort, Kira manages to register with the State and obtain her Labor Book (which permits her to study and work). Kira also manages to enroll herself into the Technological Institute, where she aspires to fulfill her dream of becoming an engineer. She plans to storm the male bastion of engineers, and show her prowess by building strong structures and powerful machines. Kira's strength of resolve to fulfill her dream is asserted again and again, at various points in the storyline. Becoming a meritorious engineer would be Kira's answer to carve for herself a niche, in a society that has become characterless and anonymous, and whose primary purpose in life has been reduced to subsistence, rather than excellence. At the Institute, Kira meets Andrei Taganov, a co-student, an idealistic Communist, and an officer in the G.P.U, the secret police of the Soviet. The two share a mutual respect and admiration for each other in spite of their differing political beliefs. Andrei and Kira develop a friendship that endures until the end of the story.

In a chance encounter, Kira meets Leo Kovalensky on a dark night in a seedy neighborhood. Leo is an extremely attractive man with a free spirit, only to be matched by Kira's. It's love at first sight for Kira, and she unflinchingly throws herself at Leo. Leo, who initially takes her to be a prostitute, is also strongly attracted to her and promises to meet her again. Kira and Leo are shown to be united by their desperate lives, and their lofty beliefs that ran counter to what were being thrust on them by the State. After a couple of meetings, when they share their deep contempt for the state of their lives, the two plan to escape together from the land, on a clandestine mission operated by secret ships.

The novel, from this point on, cascades into a series of catastrophes for Kira and Leo. They are caught while attempting to flee the country, but escape imprisonment due to the generosity of a G.P.U. official, Stepan Timoshenko, who had fought under the command of Leo's father before the revolution. Kira leaves her parents' apartment and moves into Leo's. The relationship between Kira and Leo, intense and passionate in the beginning, begins to deteriorate under the weight of their hardships, and because of their different reactions to these hardships. Kira, who is a , keeps her ideas and aspirations alive, but decides to go with the system anyway, until she feels powerful enough to challenge it. Her candor about her ideas at the Institute ultimately results in her expulsion from the Institute, despite Andrei's efforts to avert it. On the verge of starvation, Kira finds work with the help of Andrei, enough to retain her ration card. Leo, however, burdened by his class background, and without any communist friend to help him, fails to find work, and sinks slowly into indifference and depression. He contracts tuberculosis and is prescribed treatment and recuperation in a sanotorium in Crimea in the South. Kira's efforts to finance his treatment fail, and her passionate appeals to the authorities to get State help for his stay at the sanatorium fall on deaf ears.

Andrei, an equally important person in Kira's life, is portrayed by Rand as a man of character, resolve, and an unassailable loyalty to his party and ideology. Despite his political beliefs, Kira finds him to be the one person she could trust, and with whom she could discuss her most intimate thoughts and views. Not even Leo could fulfill that role for her. If Leo were her object of passion, Andrei is her soul mate. Andrei's affection and respect for Kira knows no bounds, and is slowly transformed into love. Worried what this might do to their "beautiful and rare" friendship, he starts avoiding Kira. Kira misses him, and needs his help. Eventually when she confronts him in his house, Andrei explains his avoidance of her and confesses his love for her. Kira is dismayed at first, but recovers to find in it a way to finance Leo's treatment. Reluctant, but in desperation, she feigns love for Andrei, and agrees to become his mistress in return for the promise of complete secrecy about their relationship. Kira is never comfortable with what she was doing with her body, but is even more frightened by "what she was doing to another man's soul".

The narrative reaches a state of climactic pace when Leo returns from Crimea, cured of tuberculosis and healthy, but a changed man. Ignoring Kira's protests, he opens a food store with the help of his morally bankrupt and rich friends, and a corrupt member of the Communist Party. The store is but a facade for illegal speculation and trade. Andrei is tipped off about this venture by Stepan Timoshenko, who commits suicide after depositing a key piece of evidence with him. Ignoring Kira's pleas, and unaware of her love for Leo, Andrei starts investigating Leo's store. After a search at his house, he arrests Leo for crimes against the State, which could carry a death sentence. In the process, he finds out about Kira's relationship with Leo. The ensuing confrontation between Andrei and Kira is perhaps the most poignant passage in the story. In the end, both realize what they had done to each other and how their passion and pretension had led them to the destruction of what each had held in "the highest reverence". Andrei decides to redress the situation, at least for Kira, and moves to restore Leo to her, risking his own standing in the Party.

After Leo's release from the prison at Andrei's behest, the story ends in a tragedy for all the three. Andrei loses his position in the Party, and shortly thereafter, commits suicide. Kira, perhaps the only genuine mourner at his State funeral, wonders if she had killed him. Leo, having lost any moral sense that he may have left, leaves Kira to begin a new life as a gigolo, fulfilling the earlier portrayal of him as such by a perceptive Irina, Kira's cousin. After Leo's departure, Kira makes a final attempt to cross the border. When she is almost in sight of freedom and liberation from her hellish life, she is shot by a border guard and soon dies. Till the end, Kira remains loyal to her love for Leo, for in her own words, "When a person dies, one does not stop loving him, does one?"

A Communist Hero in an Anti-Communist novel

The sympathetic portrayal of the staunchly Communist Andrei Taganov is one of the book's most intriguing features. There is no remotely similar character in George Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty Four" and other books depicting life under a totalitarian regime, nor in any of Rand's own later books.

Indeed, Taganov's biography in Chapter 8 is replete with passages which - if quoted out of the context of a book which is vehemently anti-Communist - could have come from the pen of an enthusiastic supporter of the October Revolution, such as:

In the year 1918, Andrei Taganov, in the uniform of the Red Army, marched with rows of other uniforms, from shops and factories, through the streets of Petrograd, to the tune of the Internationale, to the depot, to the front of the civil war. He marched solemnly, with silent triumph, as a man walks to his wedding. Andrei's hand carried a bayonet as it had fashioned steel; it pulled a trigger as it had pushed a lever.

Two factors - not mutually exclusive - can account for above portrayal of Taganov:
* Central to Rand's thinking is the concept that all human enterprise is powered by the work of gifted, creative people, and is then taken over by parasitic "second-hand men" or "looters". This applies also to an enterprise of which Rand thoroughly disapproved, such as a Communist revolution. Taganov obviously represents the creative people who made this particular enterprise possible. The opportunist Pavel Seyrov then becomes a successful Soviet bureaucrat at the expanse of Taganov's creative efforts, much as in later books Peter Keating would become a successful architect at Howard Roark's expense, and Jim Taggart - a successful railway magnate at the expense of Dagny Taggart. Indeed. the parallel biographies of the idealistic Taganov and the opportunist Seyrov clearly prefigure those of Roark and Keating in "The Fountainhead".

* While she loathed the Communist regime, Rand shed few tears for the Tsar and the fallen "ancien regime". The Tsarist regime had been thoroughly religious, as manifested especially in the Rasputin affair, and for Rand religion was no better than socialism. Moreover, the Tsarist regime was openly anti-semitic, fomenting pogroms and sponsoring the notorious Black Hundreds, and the White armies continued to perpetrate pogroms until defeated by the Reds. Therefore, where it is the Monarchist Whites who face the Reds, Rand has no special sympathy for this kind of anti-Communists. For example, in her depiction of the 1920 Siege of Melitopol, the White Army has a five to one numerical supriority over the Reds, but its soldiers have "A vague, grumbling resentment against their officers, a sullen, secret sympathy for the red flag in the trenches a few hundred feet away.". Taganov, as an agitator, makes a stirring speech to the enemy soldiers - at a considerable danger to his life - and succeeds in inducing them to mutiny, shoot their officers and go over to the Reds, an outcome which the reader is clearly made to welcome.

All the above, however, takes place in flashbacks to the days of the civil war; in the books' present, the Monarchists have long been vanquished, Communist rule is unchallenged and is presented most negatively - especially when compared to the far-off Capitalist America, Rand's ideal in this as in other books.

Film adaptation

Without Rand's permission, "We the Living" was made into a two-part film, "Noi Vivi" and "Addio, Kira" in 1942, despite resistance from the Italian government under Benito Mussolini. The film was eventually pulled from theatres as the German and Italian governments, which abhorred communism, found out the story also carried an anti-fascist message. The films were directed by Goffredo Alessandrini for Scalera Films, and starred Alida Valli as Kira, Fosco Giachetti as Andrei, and Rossano Brazzi as Leo. The films were re-edited into a new version which was approved by Rand and re-released as "We the Living" in 1986.

Release details

*1996, USA, New American Library ISBN 0-451-18784-9, Pub date ? January 1996, paperback

Further reading

*cite book |last=Mayhew |first=Robert |year=2004 |title=Essays on Ayn Rand's We the Living |publisher=Rowman & Littlefield |id=ISBN 0-7391-0698-8


External links

* [http://aynrandnovels.com/ Website dedicated to Ayn Rand's novels]
* [http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0035130/ IMDB page for "Noi vivi" (1942)]

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