We The Living
We the Living is Ayn Rand's first novel. It was also Rand's first expression against communism. Published firstly 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.
The story is set in 1917, in post-revolutionary Russia. Kira Argounova, the daughter of a bourgeois capitalist, 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 the expansive mansion, that once belonged to them, has been converted to accommodation 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 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 labourers 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.
With more additions to the family, subsistence promises to become phenomenally difficult. 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 fulfil 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 fulfil 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 prime objective has reduced to subsistence, rather than excellence.
With phenomenal effort, the family manages to find for itself living quarters. The family also manages to retrieve some small amount of the furniture they left behind years ago, thus managing to salvage some level of living dignity. 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 reduced states of living.
With such a meek start to her endeavours to rejuvenate the past glory of the family, Kira meets Leo Kovalensky, a man with rebellious ideas, on a dark night in a seedy neighbourhood. She finds him mysterious and deep, and he initially takes her to be a prostitute judging by his first impressions. They seem to be charmed by the magnetism of one another, and promise to meet again, after a brief conversation. They are shown to be united by their desperate lives, and their towering ambitions. After a couple of meetings, when they express 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. It is quite ironic, that their goals are so intertwined, and they find such harmonious support from each other, that they do not even know each others' names till they are caught by the authorities, in their attempt to escape. Rand seems to suggest that struggle, desperation and quest for liberation unites people better than simple and frivolous personal knowledge.
The novel, at this point cascades into a series of catastrophes. Hope slowly crumbles for both these characters. Leo is caught and kept in incarceration, while Kira escapes his fate, by her knowledge of Andrei Taganov, a member of the Communist Party and her co-student at the institute, with whom she has had a few open debates. The two share mutual admiration of each other, in spite of their differing political beliefs, and this saves Kira's skin. She also manages to free Leo with some effort. However, Kira’s and Leo’s relationship, passionate and loving in the beginning, begins to deteriorate under the hardships they face and because of their different reactions to these hardships. Kira, who is a realist, keeps her aspirations alive, but decides to go with the system, until she feels powerful enough to challenge it. She continues to attend classes, until she is expelled from the school - her exit instigated by jealous rivals who brand her an "anti-revolutionary".
Kira, (who has moved in with Leo in the meantime), is forced to work at various places, to retain her ration card. Leo, on the other hand, continues to be indifferent, and unwilling to compromise a bit, in his policy not to work for a state-run establishment. This attitude aggravates the state of their financial distress. Eventually, his frustration makes way and he opens a shop, which is but a facade for black market activities, colluding with a few moles in the Communist Party circle. He is confronted by Andrei, with whom he shares an equal animosity, and is ultimately caught by the power wielded by the latter and thrown into a high security prison. This act of open rebellion, begins the self destructive process of Leo's character.
Meanwhile, Andrei who is always depicted as a man of character, notwithstanding his blind faith in communism and unassailable loyalty to his party in spite of its failings, falls in love with Kira. He progresses rapidly up the ladder of ranks in his party, and Kira finds his influence and wealth, necessities to help herself survive, and in her untiring quest to win Leo back from prison. She begins to take advantage of Andre's love for her, and agrees to play the part of his mistress. When Leo does manage to get out of prison, she finds him a broken, frustrated man who has taken to drinking, and defeated in purpose. He is also diagnosed with tuberculosis, and is prescribed a few weeks's stay in a restricted spa near the Balkan Sea. Kira's passionate appeals to the authorities to sanction his stay at the spa, is mercilessly rejected because of their consideration of Kira's past, until Andrei intervenes, much to the consternation of his colleagues, who begin to suspect his weakness for Kira.
The narrative reaches a state of climactic pace, and in their desperation to balance their priorities, Kira and Andrei become more and more frustrated, and ultimately Kira breaks the news of her love for Leo to Andrei. This comes as a rude shock to unsuspecting Andrei, who has come to the verge of sacrificing his political life at her feet. This confession breaks his will at both ends - political and individual, and he begins to fall under his own weight.
The tragedy of the situation breaks all three people. Leo loses all moral sense in life, and begins to abuse Kira and takes to self-hate and wastes himself away. Andrei, is tender with Kira, though broken-hearted and devoid of his powerful persona. His faith in the communist system, has taken a severe beating, as he slowly wakes up to the dark dealings of the inner circle and those in power. He makes one final heroic attempt at salvaging his lost honour, and having secured poetic justice, commits suicide. Kira, still equipped with a steely resolve, decides to abandon Leo to his fate, and makes a final attempt to cross the border through perilous territory. When she is almost in sight of freedom and liberation from her hellish life, she is shot dead by a sniper keeping watch over the snow, who mistakes her for a beast.
We the Living is a complex and intriguing narrative that plays on the impressions of human will. The tale of three people - Kira, Andrei and Leo - seems to represent three different attitudes to oppression. Kira represents the ideal resolute who perseveres against all hurdles, while being realistic. Andrei, a man of impeccable character, is nevertheless ruined because of his affiliations to the wrong side of the political fence. Leo, an idealist, loses his energy very early in the struggle due to his uncompromising nature towards life. Ultimately, the author portrays a very dark scene where the role of the individual is diminished to such an extent where morality as a virtue ceases to exist and is replaced by a need for existence and individual assertion.
We the Living is often seen by critics as a piece where Ayn Rand is at her story-telling best. She renders a powerful and emotional tale, leaving the message (albeit suggesting a strong one) to the reader, unlike her other two novels Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, where she is seen advancing a political philosophy in thinly veiled direct voice. Also, this novel is seen more as rejection of a particular philosophy, while the other two advance an alternative.
Without Rand's permission, We The Living was made into a pair of films, Noi vivi and Addio, Kira in 1942 by Scalara Films, Rome, despite resistance from the Italian government under Benito Mussolini. Italy was at war with the US at the time. These films were re-edited into a new version which was approved by Rand and re-released as We the Living in 1986.
We the Living
- Ayn Rand; New American Library; (January 1996); ISBN 0451187849
Ayn Rand - We the Living (1994)
- Director: Goffredo Allessandrini; A Scalera Films Production
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