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We the Living (75th-Anniversary Edition) Mass Market Paperback – June 7, 2011
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About the Author
- ASIN : 045123359X
- Publisher : Signet; 75th Anniversary ed. edition (June 7, 2011)
- Language : English
- Mass Market Paperback : 528 pages
- ISBN-10 : 9780451233592
- Item Weight : 8.6 ounces
- Dimensions : 4.19 x 0.87 x 6.81 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #29,632 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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[SPOILER ALERT] Kira, the 18-year-old daughter of a furnishings merchant who had included the Tsar among his customers, returns to Petrograd with her parents, and older sister, seeking help from her aunt's family, about 1922 after the Revolution has died down. Unlike her parents and uncle who cling to the hope that the Bolshevik control cannot last, Kira is indifferent to politics and ignores the restraints of both the old regime and the new party ideology. She is young, attractive without much effort, and unafraid. Unlike many women who feel for others and seemingly want to please everyone, Kira has a strong sense of boundaries and seeks to please only herself. Admitted to the university with the intent to study engineering, she rubs elbows with her cousin Viktor, a womanizer whom she rebuffs, who pragmatically embraces the Communist Party in order to secure advancement and the perquisites membership entails. She attracts the local party commissar, in part, by her lack of fear of him. She is attracted to him as they exchange conversations here and there, though his commitment to the party and its ideal, and her indifference and bourgeois background is a barrier. Then she meets a mysterious stranger whom she agrees to meet clandestinely , and subsequently leave the country with. As she makes love to him for the first time on the boat, they are arrested by Communist police. He turns out to be Leo, the son of an admiral who opposed the revolution. She is let off as being a naive girl, and he gets a light sentence. When he returns, they move in together. In a purge of the university, Kira is expelled, and must find a job, Andrei, the commissar uses his influence to help her. When Leo needs treatment at a sanitarium to head off tuberculosis, she eventually becomes Andrei's mistress, accepting financial help to make this possible. When Leo returns, she continues living with Leo, though seeing Andrei from time to time. Having lived off of charity breaks down Leo's self-respect and, unable to secure a job due to his record and background, he participates with a corrupt party official to front a shop that sells produce stolen from the state bureaucracy. Andrei pursues the corruption, makes enemies among the party higher ups, and when the he discovers that it is Kira's lover who is scapegoated so that the corrupt party official can escape, he decides to take his own life. Leo gets off because Andrei pulls some strings, and determines to leave Kira to go on vacation with a wealthy woman with connections. Kira attempts to escape to Latvia, but ends up shot by a boarder guard and dying in the snow.
Kira's character exhibits the confident self-possession that we often find so compelling, especially in sexual attraction. This is a double-edged sword as she fearlessly treads where danger awaits. Other characters, notably her sister, are portrayed as simpering, confused, and helpless. Still others, Viktor and Kira's mother, forfeit their integrity by adapting to the new social realities, the former by calculation, the latter more by attrition. Andrei the true believer is eventually disillusioned, and Leo goes his own selfish way, yet despising himself for it. It is a tragic story in which there are no winners. Perhaps that is the point- the society based on impossible ideals robs everyone of freedom. Presumably the West, with its heritage of individual freedom, will allow the individual's pursuit of happiness.
The indictment of Communist society recalls Orwell's classic, "Animal Farm." Those who sincerely believe in the ideals end up being exploited by the cynical manipulators of power. The Marxist interpretation of religion is applied to his own ideology- an opiate to persuade the exploited to put up with what they otherwise would not tolerate, Rand seems to be saying that it is better to embrace the selfish greed of capitalism than the hypocritical pretense of communism.
Yet, the traditional Christian must recognize that the tragedy lies less with the Communist state that Rand (rightly) abhors, but with that despair of transcendence, of meaning beyond oneself, that she embraces along with the Communists and every secularist. Her view of selfishness embraces some good and admirable things- integrity, responsibility for self, respect for other selves. But even her heroine falls prey to the irrational, forfeits integrity by trading sex for money, as well as by old-fashioned two-timing. She wants with Leo a dependable relationship and even suggests marriage at one point. But those who insist that they are free are not free to make commitments that transcend the present moment.
In We the Living, her first book, the philosophy is much clearer and more understandable than in most of her other books. The real crux of it was that she hated life in Soviet Russia, and in this book, she clearly details what it was like there in the 1920’s.
The point is made in the introduction that:
The basic cause of totalitarianism is two ideas: men’s rejection of reason in favor of faith, and of self-interest in favor of self-sacrifice. If this is a society’s philosophical consensus, it will not be long before an all-powerful Leader rises up to direct the faith and sacrifice that everyone has been extolling.
Rand, Ayn. We the Living . Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
But what I see in this story is a lot of people who only pay lip-service to the so-called faith (in communism or socialism, or whatever) that they are supposed to have. And they quickly learn how to work the system to their own advantage. It is not only the dictator, or the very high government officials who are the oppressors. A large body of lesser officials and just everyday folks, having already cynically given up on the supposed ideals of the system, have figured out how to manipulate things to their own advantage, all while piously spouting the platitudes about sacrifice and so on that are the official opinion. These people, who profess to have the strongest faith – in this instance, in the sacred value of the people – are certainly not giving up their self-interest in favor of self-sacrifice, no matter how many speeches they make to the contrary.
Against this background, there is the love triangle of Kira and Leo and Andrei. Kira, the protagonist of the story, falls in love with Leo, the son of a disgraced admiral. Because he sees himself as too good to sink to the level of the Communists, she regards him as the ideal man. They attempt to flee the country together but are caught and sent back before they really get anywhere.
Andrei is a serious Communist – a member of the G.P.U. Kira meets him at the technical institute she attends in the beginning. She keeps trying to convince him that the idea that people must live for the state is evil. It is not until much later that he becomes convinced.
Leo becomes ill with tuberculosis and needs to go to a sanatorium out of the city. The only way Kira can afford to send him is to agree to become Andrei’s lover in exchange for money.
When he returns from the sanatorium, Leo has changed, and not for the better. He becomes involved in a shady business deal since he can get no legitimate work. Eventually, the precarious network of corruption behind Leo’s business is exposed by other people trying to forward their own interests, and Andrei comes to his apartment to arrest him. After Kira goes to Andrei’s apartment and yells at him, Leo is released yet again, and his partners are blackmailed into keeping quiet about the whole affair. Andrei commits suicide, earning himself a massive Party funeral, where shortly before everyone was warning him he would not survive the next purge. Leo, too timid to commit suicide directly, continues to invite disaster by drinking, gambling, and going off on vacation with his partner’s wife. And Kira makes serious plans to leave the country alone since she can’t get Leo interested in coming with her.