Ayn Rand's We the Living : Review and Summary
"We the Living is not a story about Soviet Russia in 1925. It is a story about Dictatorship, any dictatorship, anywhere, at any time, whether it be Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany, or – which this novel might do its share in helping to prevent – a socialist America."
As a newfound rabid Randian, I picked up this treasure courtesy of a similarly Objectivist-minded cousin, and was instantly delighted. The novel, one of Ayn Rand's first writings (after the play Night of January 16th} and is unique in that it displays the talents of a younger Rand pointing out the vagaries of socialism without staying on a soapbox for twenty pages at a time. Largely based off of her childhood and young adulthood in Soviet Russia, Rand claims that the books female protaganist, Kira Argounova, is "the closest to an autobiography that my readers will find... the events of her life are not mine, but her ideals and philosophies are."
While We the Living now enjoys its rightful literary standing as a modern classic, it was initially panned by United States publishers for its anti-fascist and anti-Communist themes (in the late 1920's and early 1930's, many had faith in socialist ideologies). Published in 1936, the type was destroyed after a weak public response; however it achieved great success in England and Italy. It was re-released in America twenty years later, to widespread critical acclaim and great success.
Critics of Ayn Rand, contemporary and otherwise, maintain that Rand puts philosophy before storytelling; that perhaps she should have written her political and moral convictions in a non-fiction treatise instead of the novel form, as philosophical predecessors had done. This novel successfully defies this criticism in that it is, quite simply, a well-crafted good read; the bleak yet romantic existence in post-revolutionary Petrograd is made into reality with the exhibitionist prose and often cynical characterization. When Rand describes waiting in the bitter cold for food rations, the sickening propaganda that adorns the city's buildings, and the plight of Leo and Kira as they struggle to live in the heart of Petrograd, the suffering of the masses is made tangible and the groundwork of Objectivist philosophy is laid without any lengthy asides that annoy Rand's critics.
Note: I don't want to spoil the entire novel for anyone that wants to read it. I'll spell out the conflict of the novel, but I am not going to give everything away.
The novel opens with the Argounova family scrambling for breathing space in a packed train. They are returning from the Crimea to Petrograd as the last of the White army is being destroyed- once at the top of the economic stratosphere, the family textile factory has been nationalized in the name of the Party. They hear the sounds of voices singing of "The Little Apple", a song of protest about the new party policies.
Still, the family clings to their principles, even though it means living in poverty as members of a bourgeoisie neighborhood. Rand describes the spirit of young Kira wonderfully as she steps off of the train into the heart of Petrograd:
"She had a calm mouth and slightly widened eyes with the defiant, enraptured, solemnly and fearfully expectant look of a warrior who is entering a strange city and is not quite sure whether he is entering it as a conqueror or as a captive."
While the entire family is deeply affected by this abrupt change in socioeconomic status- mother Galina struggles to continue a lavish lifestyle in a cramped bourgeoisie apartment, father Alexander Dimetrievitch vainly hopes for the return of the Russian monarchy, sister Lydia preens over petty romances and anything "foreign"- Kira is indifferent to it all, caring only about fulfilling her career objectives as a future engineer/architect. Kira wishes to work "with glass and steel", so she enrolls in the Petrograd Technological Institute, despite her family's complaints that it isn't fit for a female. Kira quickly stands out as an antagonist to Comrade Sonia, the obsequious Communist socialite of the Academy. Says Kira to Sonia, "Did it ever occur to you that I may be here for the unusual, unnatural reason of wanting to learn work I like only because I like it? "
Meanwhile, Kira's beauty has caught the attention of Victor Dunaev, a youth whose family was close friends of the Argonouvs before the Revolution. He takes the unwilling Kira to a garden near her former mansion and confesses his love, only to be scorned when she claims that she "doesn't like the word". To his protests, she runs into the streets of Petrograd without his aid, only to find herself in its red-light district and in Leo Kovalensky's arms (side note: Leo was the name of Ayn Rand's first love in Russia.) Kira puts on the act of being a prostitute, and Leo complies, confessing that this is the first time he hsa ever done such a thing. Of course, neither believes the other, and Kira tells him the truth, although she still doesnot reveal very much about herself. Leo promises Kira that he will return in a month, apologizing that he may die or not be able to return in that time. Kira walks home exhilarated.
Kira returns to school, being the only Argounov that can collect on student food rations. She soon meets Andrei Tagonov, a fellow student, and unknowingly confesses her anti-Communist leanings to a devoted member and Red soldier of the Party. Andrei reveals that he was one of the leading young soldiers in the takeover of Petrograd. However, he is so taken with her that they form a romantic relationship, although they are careful never to tread near politics in their daily conversations. Through his connections, he takes her to the ballet, American films, and operas, much to sister Lydia's envy.
However, Kira is still obsessed with Leo- "she found her fingers drumming softly on the window pane, and each couple of knocks was a name of two syllables, and her fingers repeated endlessly, persistently...". Much to her surprise he meets her at school short of the promised month, risking both his life and hers just to see her again. They sneak away to a snowy secluded grove and kiss passionately, swearing a mutual love and promising to meet each other in a week's time. The next day at the Institute, Kira is questioned by snivelly Communist Party member Payel Syerov about the mysterious stranger she was spotted with. Kira denies everything and is saved by Andrei, who bids Payel to stop questioning her and takes Kira aside to warn her about the dangers of associating with "rebels". The parallel biographies of Payel and Andrei are then given; Andrei is portrayed as the man with integrity, fighting until the end in the Crimea, while Payel whiles away inside during the Revolution because of sickness and frailty.
Leo and Kira meet again a week later, as promised. Leo informs Kira that he has gained passage to Europe via a Soviet ship, and Kira immediately says that she wishes to come along. They board the ship and sneak into a tiny cabin. Leo and Kira consummate their relationship; after mutual (beautifully described) sexual ecstacy, they fall asleep into each other's arms.
The mood doesn't last long. They awake to find a Soviet general grinning at their naked figures, and the two are dragged into the Soviet cabin, informed that the ship is returning to Petrograd to dump both of them off. Leo defends Kira's honour by claiming that he kidnapped her and that she was on the ship unwillingly; the Soviets reluctantly buy the story and it is only Leo that gets jailed for four days. Kira claims to her family that she was sleeping over at her friend Irina's, and they are presumably satisfied with the meagre explanation.
After Leo is released, Kira finds him... and they consummate their relationship again, and again, and again . Soon, Kira's excuses wear thin, and the family comes face to face with Leo- "It is a disgrace, you and this jail rat!" Galina cries with indignity. Kira defies them all in the name of her new love and they steal away to Leo's apartments in the heart of the city, swearing that they will stay true to their anti-socialist lifestyle even if it means living in stark poverty.
Over time, the Argounovs come to accept their daughter's relationship with Leo, although Galina hints loudly that things might be better if they are married. Kira and Leo live in increasing squalor as their rooms are taken and work denied to them for being members of the bourgeoisie , although both persist in their efforts, and Kira still attends school. Yet her relationship with Andrei Tagonov has not come to an end... and soon, Andrei and Leo meet each other at a party where Andrei is in his element and Leo is not. They seemingly contrast on the outside, but both have mutual qualities and integrity that Kira is drawn to- an integrity that characterizes Objectivism. Kira goes on to continue her romantic friendship with Andrei despite Leo's quiet reservations.
There is much more to discover in this deftly crafted novel, but I recommend that you READ THE REST OF THE BOOK! I cannot do justice to its denouement, and it's really something one should explore on his or her own.