We the Living
About We the Living
Born in Russia in 1905, Ayn Rand witnessed the Russian Revolution and experienced life under communist tyranny firsthand. We the Living (1936) was her first and most personal novel, a work which she said is “as near to an autobiography as I will ever write.”
Set in post-revolutionary Russia, We the Living tells the moving story of three people struggling against Soviet oppression: the novel’s heroine Kira Argounova, a young woman whose fiercely independent spirit rebels against communism; Leo Kovalenksy, the man she loves, whose bourgeois origins mark him as an enemy of the state; and Andrei Taganov, an officer of the Soviet secret police who is forced to confront the clash between his ideals and the reality of communist life.
The novel’s portrayal of the destructive effects of collectivism reflects Ayn Rand’s focus in her early philosophic thinking on moral and political issues; its theme, she said, is “the individual against the state.” Published (with considerable difficulty) at the height of the Red Decade, American intellectuals’ infatuation with Soviet Russia, We the Living is an indictment not merely of Soviet-style Communism, but of any and every totalitarian state that claims the right to sacrifice the supreme value of an individual human life.
Explaining the autobiographical nature of We the Living, Ayn Rand wrote that “it is not an autobiography in the literal, but only in the intellectual, sense. The plot is invented; the background is not. . . . I was born in Russia, I was educated under the Soviets, I have seen the conditions of existence that I describe. . . . The specific events of Kira’s life were not mine; her ideas, her convictions, her values were and are.”
Discussion Questions on We the Living
- When Kira Argounova, the novel’s heroine, meets Leo Kovalensky, a handsome stranger who thinks she is a prostitute, why does she not correct him?
- The Communist war hero and much feared secret police agent Andrei Taganov is a pure proletarian, completely devoted to the Party’s cause. Why then does he lose respect for the Party—and why does he fall in love with Kira?
- In a society that outlaws profit, what secret business deal does Leo, an aristocrat, make with Pavel Syerov, an important Communist? Why? Who profits from it?
- How does the discovery by the secret police of one article of clothing in Leo’s room set the course for the resolution of the story?
- Although Communism’s ideal state, the USSR, has collapsed, many communists are still undeterred: they argue that Communism is good in theory but was misapplied by Stalin in practice. By reference to events in We the Living, what arguments can you present in response to such a position? How would Ayn Rand respond?
- We the Living shows that under Communism the poor become much poorer. Some would argue that Communism fails the downtrodden because human nature is “not good enough.” How would Ayn Rand respond to this? Where does she place the blame for the misery wrought by Communism?
For more resources and lectures related to Ayn Rand’s We the Living, visit our student Web site at Aynrandnovels.com and our educators Web site at Aynrandeducation.com.
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