We the Living is Ayn Rand’s first novel. Published in 1936, the story is set in Soviet Russia, from which Rand had fled to America ten years earlier.
The immigrant Rand was startled by the failure of American intellectuals and politicians to uphold the American ideals of individualism and freedom, and she was horrified by the widespread acceptance, even sympathy, that greeted the spread of communism, socialism and fascism in Europe. Rand resolved to expose the “noble ideal” of collectivism, through the story of three young people whose lives are sacrificed by an all-powerful state.
Originally titled “Airtight,” this unvarnished account details the methods by which the spirits of its best citizens are suffocated by the collectivist state. The first printing (3,000 copies) sold out, but the book went out of print due to a publisher’s error. An edition revised by Rand was published in 1959, following the success of Atlas Shrugged (1957).
The setting is Soviet Russia, early 1920s. Kira Argounova, a university engineering student who wants a career building bridges, falls in love with Leo Kovalensky, son of a czarist hero. Both Kira and Leo yearn to shape their own future — but they are trapped in a communist state that claims the right to sacrifice individual lives for the sake of the collective.
When Kira is kicked out of the university as an undesirable and Leo’s past makes him unemployable, life becomes a grim struggle for physical survival. Leo contracts tuberculosis but can’t get admitted to a state sanitarium, despite Kira’s best efforts. Desperate, she seeks help from Andrei Taganov, an ardent young communist whose love for Kira helps awaken him to the meaning of genuine personal values, not to be surrendered for others’ sake.
Once these two men are destroyed — Andrei by his disillusionment with communism, and Leo by his inability to go on fighting — Kira tries to flee, but will she find it possible to defy the state’s power?
“Now look at me! Take a good look! I was born and I knew I was alive and I knew what I wanted. . . . And who — in this damned universe — who can tell me why I should live for anything but for that which I want? . . . But you’ve tried to tell us what we should want. You came as a solemn army to bring a new life to men. You tore that life you knew nothing about, out of their guts — and you told them what it had to be. You took their every hour, every minute, every nerve, every thought in the farthest corners of their souls — and you told them what it had to be. You came and you forbade life to the living. You’ve driven us all into an iron cellar and you’ve closed all doors, and you’ve locked us airtight, airtight till the blood vessels of our spirits burst! Then you stare and wonder what it’s doing to us. Well, then, look! All of you who have eyes left — look!”
— Kira Argounova, We the Living by Ayn Rand
Of the three “living” young people in We the Living, Kira is the most alive. She thinks deeply about what she wants from life, what her values are, why she wants them, and how she will achieve them. Her career, her music, the men she loves — to form and strive for such personal values is what it means to be alive.
Kira’s great cause is her own life, not the state or her comrades. Why does she try so desperately to save Leo from tuberculosis, alcoholism, spiritual decay? Not as a duty or a sacrifice for his sake, but because he is her highest value.
The state can destroy Kira physically, but not spiritually. She more than any other character is aware of the injustice of the collectivist state, but her focus remains solemnly on life, for as long as she still has breath in her body.
Leo is best understood in contrast to Kira. Like her, Leo is one of the “living” in We the Living, but he lacks Kira’s passion, her strong dedication to the future, her sense that she is right and nothing else can matter. Consumed with anger at the injustice of the Soviet state, Leo can’t sustain his strength to fight for the right.
When Kira asks what he desires, Leo responds that he wants only “to learn to desire something.” He chooses a career out of defiance, because it’s of no use to the state, not because he personally values it. He never dedicates himself to a cause, the way Kira does with her life and Andrei (mistakenly) does with communism.
Kira’s very presence constantly reminds Leo of what he could have been. Only by abandoning her can he finally deaden his soul and stop feeling pain.
As a soldier in the Red Army, and later as a Communist Party stalwart, Andrei fights bravely for the revolution, believing sincerely that communism will raise everyone up to his level. Kira is just the type of person Andrei thinks should prosper under communism.
An honest idealist, Andrei cannot close his eyes to the evidence that communism isn’t raising people up — it’s holding them down and crushing their lives, bringing only suffering to the woman he loves. Closing down factories and abolishing private property was supposed to liberate the nation. Instead, those who manage to escape labor camps and firing squads find themselves doomed to live in squalor and misery.
Because he sincerely devoted himself fully to a cause, Andrei belongs among the “living” in We the Living.But after realizing that he has sacrificed his life and most precious values to an ignoble purpose, he cannot live with the enormity of his mistake.
— Andrei Taganov, We the Living by Ayn Rand
Pavel Syerov is best understood in contrast to Andrei. Andrei takes ideas seriously and sincerely believes that communism will shape a better world. Syerov, by contrast, mouths the communist line not because he believes it but because it smoothes his way to power. He has no convictions of his own.
As a child, Syerov is not a good person; his method of filling that void is to see himself as better than other people. As an adult, proof of his superiority lies in the power he holds over people, who must beg him for favors, jobs, and political influence.
Whereas idealists like Andrei are pushed out of the Party for demanding accountability to its alleged ideals, Syerov demands nothing of the Party and is no threat. In contrast to Andrei, Syerov doesn’t mind that the promised prosperity never materializes, because it is easier to lord over starving people.
Kira’s cousin Irina wants to be an artist. In this sense, she’s similar to Kira, who understands that to live means to have personal values and pursue them passionately. But Irina understands less than Kira does about the tremendous virtue this attitude represents and about the evil of those who would sacrifice an individual life for the sake of society.
Irina falls in love with Sasha Chernov, a rebel who is determined to fight against the Soviet state. These lovers refuse to cave in and cozy up to the Party, as Irina’s brother Victor does. Victor, to advance his fortunes, is willing to betray Irina and Sasha to the secret police, leading to their exile to Siberia.
— Irina Dunaeva, We the Living by Ayn Rand
Ayn Rand’s theme in We the Living is the supreme value of an individual life, and the evil of a state that claims the right to take and sacrifice that life.
Rand held that each individual has a moral right to live for his own sake, to pursue his own personal happiness. Although they each passionately want to live, Kira and Leo cannot live a human life because they are trapped in a society that refuses to recognize or respect that right by leaving them free.
Statism, by contrast, is the idea that man has no right to exist for himself, that he is the property of society, to be disposed of as the state dictates. This is the power the Soviet state claims over the lives of Kira and Leo.
Stated more simply, then, the main theme of We the Living is: the Individual against the State.
“Sanctity” is one of those terms (like “sacred,” “devotion” and “reverence”) that people think of as exclusively religious. But Ayn Rand rejects religion’s claim on these moral concepts, arguing that they refer to an exalted but earthly state of consciousness.
We the Living stands for the supreme value of an individual life, against the evil of a state that would destroy it. The heroine is Kira, who is passionately devoted to her own life as her highest cause. Unlike Andrei’s communist ideal, Kira’s holy cause does not require sacrifice for something outside herself. She wants her career, her music, her lovers — her most sacred values — for her own sake, and works tirelessly to achieve them.
Kira is the character who best understands what the sanctity of the individual’s life requires. She is Leo’s lifeline, but he lacks her strength to endure. She is Andrei’s teacher, but he devoted his life to a lie.
We the Living dramatizes the evil of collectivism by showing how it chokes off personal ambition in the best people. Kira dreams of becoming an engineer who builds bridges, but that plan dies when she is kicked out of university.
Kira’s father, Alexander, owned a textile factory before the Soviets seized it. Later he tries making soap but fails. Eventually, his greatest challenges are polishing boots and collecting matchbox labels.
To be alive is to be passionately devoted to one’s own life and happiness. Under statism, people lose their ambition, they stop pursuing happiness, and their spirits shrivel. In a free country, a student who’s kicked out of one college can apply to another, but a totalitarian state controls all education. Kira and Leo cannot even travel to the countryside without permission, much less across the Russian border.
Collectivism is evil because it sacrifices individual lives.
Today everyone condemns such horrors as the concentration camps, planned famines and mass executions engineered by collectivist governments in the twentieth century. But some claim that such evils are perversions of a noble ideal that would be practical if only such “excesses” could be avoided. In We the Living, Ayn Rand shows that even with such “excesses” placed in the background, collectivism is still hell on earth.
Rand regarded Americans as far too innocent, and too ignorant of realities overseas, to understand how an all-powerful state forbids life to the living. Although secret police, political executions and forced labor camps figure into her plot, Rand’s detailed focus is on the daily methods by which collectivism crushes the soul.
For anyone who doesn’t know what it means to treat individuals as sacrificial animals and rule them by physical force, Rand wrote, “We the Living will help you to know.”
Not only does a collectivist state suffocate its best individuals — those most passionately dedicated to their own values — it also rewards the worst individuals, those willing to betray or abandon all personal values.
Victor Dunaev marries the proletarian Marisha and betrays his sister to the secret police, solely to enhance his status in the Communist Party. Pavel Syerov will say and do anything to achieve power over others. Even Galina, Kira’s mother, though not an evil character, gains petty advantages by mouthing propaganda and performing state service. These characters remain alive physically, but they kill themselves spiritually by renouncing everything truly personal.
In Rand’s view, it’s no accident that history’s worst monsters — Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot — attain the highest positions in a collectivist state. When success is measured by the sacrifice of individuals to society, the most exemplary practitioners are necessarily those eager to engage in mass killing.