We The Living was published by Ayn Rand in 1936. Rand was a Russian-born writer who escaped Russia a few years after the Russian Revolution when the Soviets took over the country. Rand had stated that We The Living was the closest thing she had written to an autobiography, saying it was semi-autobiographical. This book is dense. Just shy of 500 pages, We The Living is full of metaphors, themes, and beautiful prose coupled with the basic building blocks of her personal philosophy of Objectivism.
I bought this book back in my first years of high school and had attempted to read it multiple times. I struggled to get passed the first few pages, not because they were bad, but because they were heavy with detail and I struggled to keep all the imagery straight. It returned to my bookshelf unread. This process repeated itself multiple times until last week when I decided that come hell or high water I was going to read fifty pages of it to see if I wanted to continue. I read the entire 500-page book in five days.
Once I plugged into the story, I couldn’t put the book down. The characters were complex, the time in history in which the novel takes place is fascinating, and the truthful depiction of life in Soviet Russia make the novel both compelling and, unfortunately, horrific. Rand’s account of Soviet Russia following the revolution show how, in the words of one character in the story, Russian’s went from living under one boot of the Czar to another boot of the Communist Party. Individualism was to be erradicated and collectivism, the State, and the Party were to replace it. The completely free egoist was represented in the character of Leo Kovalensky while the dedicated member of the collective party was represented by Andrei Taganov. Both had their glowing virtues as well as their fatal flaws. The protaganist, Kira Argounov, was a bit caught in the middle, being shown experiencing both the good and bad of both sides, though the authoritarian boot of the collective Soviet Government was undeniably soul-crushing.
Kira wants to live her own life. She doesn’t want to live for someone else’s sake. She makes her own decisions, has her own thoughts, and is extremely independent, mostly. Her family is treated horribly following the revolution because her father had owned a local factory and they were considered “bourgeousie.” Finding herself living under totalitarian rule, Kira’s soul and self are suffocated as society demonizes her and people like her. Leo represents the free-spirited Mustang who is not to be controlled by anyone but himself who, near the end, finds himself, in a way, defeated by the very thing he swore to never let defeat him. Andrei represents the idealistic communist. Having fought in the Russian Revolution for the Red Army, Andrei believed in bringing his brothers and sisters out of poverty where they could live happily with and for the good of one another. However, Andrei sees the communist ideals he fought for be corrupted, as they always are, by “party-men and women” who are in a perpetual power-grab. They willingly alter narratives, force political enemies into starvation, and even members of the original Red Army find themselves being exiled and imprisoned for not towing the party line.
This story was impeccably written. The prose is dense and there is an intense amount of detail which I managed to get lost in quite frequently. I had to reread some passages to fully understand them and I’m sure I’ll have to reread the entire novel to understand it. The complex characters and the obstacles they face while they find themselves as different class members in a totalitarian society based entirely on class struggle is intriguing, compelling, and downright maddening. Every character in the story has a set for being there and every event has a reason for taking place. At first, I thought a lot of the detail could’ve been spared, and maybe some of it still could, but in the end I found how important those little details were to the overall impact of the story and the struggle.
There were times when I wanted to grab Kira by the shoulders and shake her into making a different decision, to see the faults in front of her, but her decisions were made for a reason. I think Ayn Rand did a fantastic job of showing the growth and change within each character as the plot thickened and each felt, in their own way, the Red boot closing down on them from above.
We The Living provides an extraordinary lens through which the reader gets to experience life under a socialist, communist rule. Characters are seen dedicating their entire livelihoods to the collective, sacrificing their individual identities, for a system that demands that the average citizen barely have enough food to eat, study every single night and attend nightly clubs, and shutdown their own means of thinking so the communist state can do their thinking for them. As history played this out, it led the sheep to slaughter as the Soviet citizens were deathly afraid to criticize the state in any way, any dissent was immediately snuffed out (by prison or bullet), and families would turn on each other, continuously perpetuating fear and compliance.
Kira represents the person struggling to live their own life while society forcefully wants them to act a certain way. In the society Kira finds herself in, she is forced to essentially denounce herself, suppress her own will to live, and sacrifice herself to a government that has forced her and her family into poverty by law. Kira’s family returns to their house in Petrograd after the revolution to find multiple families occupying rooms in their house and the new landlord makes her family pay ten times the rent as everyone else because her father had owned a factory, a factory that had been nationalized by the state. The extra taxes placed on her family made their lives exceptionally difficult, eating the same millet each day and struggling to survive in a society that demonized them.
Kira struggles with keeping her love for Leo afloat as they’ve committed themselves to each other and to not let the Soviet state break them. Kira also finds love in Andrei because he represents the good that can come from sacrificing yourself for something greater.
The plot and characters are extremely complex and I couldn’t get enough of reading about them. The dialogue, I thought, was the star of the novel in the way it advanced the plot, molded and developed the characters, and how well it was written. Each line had a purpose and served it well.
We The Living has certainly made its way into my top five books for all the reasons mentioned above. I’m also a fan of reading literature from people who escaped totalitarian states because they give me, an American man, a perspective on life in unfree countries and why life in a communist state seems to somehow always end up under a heavy boot where the individual is crushed and the elites in the government seem to be the only ones eating enough.
Pick up your copy of We The Living and let me know what you think because I loved it.