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4.3 out of 5 stars
We the Living (Penguin Modern Classics)
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
I had such mixed feelings about this book. On the positive side, it's a wonderfully readable account of the horrors of the Communist regime in the last years of the rule of Lenin and the beginning of the Stalin regime. Rand's descriptions of St Petersburg and life in Communist Russia in the 1920s are superb (she wrote that the novel was not specifically about Russia in the 1920s, but it is in fact the historical background that gives the novel a lot of its power). Unusually for such an aggressive and dogmatic thinker, Rand the hater of Communism does manage to show us why decent men such as the sailor Stepan Timoshenko or the 'good' Communist official Andrei Taganov were drawn to socialism and Marxism, and how desolate they became when the regime fell into the hands of corrupt officials such as (in the novel) Pavel Syerov and (in reality) Stalin and his henchmen. Rand's three main characters are compelling, particularly Andrei and her heroine, Kira (though Kira occasionally becomes rather too much a mouthpiece for Rand's philosophy and ideals). Although the villains in the novel tend to become nasty caricatures all too easily, there are some very vivid minor characters, including Marisha, the working class girl who briefly becomes a heroine of the Socialist regime but is destroyed by her marriage to the corrupt Party official Victor Dunaev (a former aristocrat who denies his past and betrays his own sister to join the Communists), Marisha's fierce peasant father who hates what the Communist regime has done to Russia as much as he hated life under the Tsar, Stepan Timoshenko, who sees his socialist ideals shattered under the Communist government, Irina the young idealist who ends up sentenced to 20 years in a Siberian prison for hiding her revolutionary lover and Vassili, uncle of the heroine Kira, who remains stoically cheerful as he goes from being furrier to the Tsar to a life as a street seller of saccharine tablets. As a description of the horrors of life in 1920s Russia, this book must be one of the best, even if it lacks the wry humour that made so much Eastern European literature of the 20th century so enjoyable.

My main problem with 'We the Living' and with Rand's philosophy in general is that Rand does not really offer us a desirable alternative to the Communist regime. Rand views her heroine Kira and Kira's lover Leo as superb individuals who have proved that they know how to live because they live for themselves, but all too often both of them come across as merely selfish. This is particularly the case with Leo, who appears totally self-involved, and rarely expresses any love or fellow-feeling for another human being or any interest in anything other than getting drunk and having a good time. One can't help wondering what it is that Kira sees in Leo, particularly when she has the heroic Andrei in love with her, and at one stage offering to run away with her abroad so that they can leave Russia and the horrors of the Socialist Republic. But Rand seems to admire Leo BECAUSE of his cruelty and egoism, and place him higher than Andrei in her estimation. Kira is more sympathetic; she genuinely loves her family, and her dreams of the future and of becoming an architect or engineer are moving, but at times she can also seem incredibly selfish. I found her decision to despise most of her fellow men and her declaration that she would despise anyone who believed in God because belief in God 'devalued man' rather frightening and dismissive, and the scene in which she mocks Andrei for loving her is heartbreaking - here she comes across as rather cruel. Also, her slavish devotion to Leo got extremely irritating, particularly as he grew more and more unpleasant! Rand clearly intends us to admire Kira wholeheartedly (as is obvious from her 1958 preface to the book) and to see her as a romantic heroine, but while we can admire Kira's courage and energy, I don't feel she's as likeable as Rand means her to be.

One's left at the end of 'We the Living' with the feeling that, while a state in which the individual is sacrificed to society (as Communism turned out to be) is a terrible thing, a society in which people were like Kira and Leo and largely lived for themselves would be none too pleasant either. I'm really glad to have read the book and would recommend it - but I don't think I'll be reading any of Rand's philosophical writings any time soon!
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22 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on 20 September 2009
This book was one of my greatest literary pleasures and surprises in recent years. I had somehow managed not to read anything by this writer, even though the genre this book can be categorized in is probably my favorite, i.e., classic Russian literature. Apparently, Ayn Rand grew up in Russia, in the same period as this book (early twentieth century), and it's clear that she still had a huge Russian influence when she wrote it, because in some aspects it is almost indistinguishable from the style and atmosphere of the Russian greats. She seems to also have inherited a great deal of passion, and she excels at expressing her beliefs in noble and beautiful ways. Her characters are well-drawn, deep, realistic and diversified, and she was obviously an intelligent and perspicacious woman, who had a good grasp of the human psyche in all its varied forms. Her depiction of the incredible and impossible conditions which people had to suffer through in this period in Russia is extremely well-written, as is all the absurdity of the communist doctrine, and how it made people act and even think. I think I can say that Ayn Rand has become one of my favorite writers through one book alone, and I look forward with the greatest pleasure to read the rest of her work.
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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on 31 August 1999
We the Living is Ayn Rand at her greatest. Her phenomenal writing talent moves the story along at a fascinating pace. The characters are totally believable. They don't become the non-human symbols of people which populate her other two masterpieces (although they're all fascinating, you can't relate to them on a human level). She manages to interweave her philosophy in bits and pieces, rather than the page-after-page rants in Atlas Shrugged. Kira, though, is a frustrating heroine to admire. While she treats Andrei like crap, she pours her life into Leo, a fascinating but brutal hero. Also, if a basic tenent of her philosophy is self-reliance, of holding no one higher than one self, one wonders why Kira becomes dependent on Leo, and sacrifices so much for him. In re-reading this masterpiece again and again, I kept thinking of how Rand was using Greta Garbo as her heroine. Also, the Italian movie made of "We the Living" is an absolute must-see for any admirer of this book. It runs over 3 hours and is amazingly faithful to the book. To think that this film was made in Italy and not in Russia is a shock. And to think it was made right at the height of World War II, with bombs exploding all over the place, makes it even more extraordinary.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 9 January 2014
Having read Rand's Atlas Shrugged, I enjoyed the continuity of her philosophy in this smaller and less theoretical work. The story took priority over the mind numbingly repetitive philosophical rants which were prevalent throughout Atlas shrugged. Rand's heroine, Kira, is an appealing and interesting character in this drama set in post October revolution Russia.
DEFINITELY WORTH A READ
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on 18 June 1999
As far as I'm concerned, this is the only real novel that Rand ever wrote. Lacking the soapbox diatribes of her later works, this novel is filled with a savage beauty, deft characterization, and beautiful poetic prose. It is the story of a young woman who must endure the turmoil of revolution and the imposition of a totalitarian state & who ultimately risks everything for freedom. Don't avoid this novel just because you don't like objectivism (this was written before she started her philosophical movement) or you'll definitely be missing out on one of the best novels of the 20th century.
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on 23 July 1996
This book is interesting in light of Rand's other writings and to illuminate her historical perspective. She said herself that this book was as close to an auotbiography as she would get, an autobiography in emotion and philosophy not in exact circumstances. Rand grew up in communist Russia, and the world that she creates for you in this book is as vivid and painful as it must have been for her. The plot can be slow in spots, and you may find yourslef wanting to scream at her main character at times. All in all this is a valuable reading experience if you are looking for more insight to Rand, or communist Russia, or just another good book from this masterful writer.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 14 April 1998
I picked up a musty old copy from the 1959 recently..being in a glow about Atlas. This book moved me beyond belief with the struggles and harsh realities presented. I probably am one of the few Rand readers that like her clumsy style but in this story, her words flowed well and the American reader did not get all mixed up with long names and places that we could not reference. To quote Ayn: "..is not a novel about Soviet Russia. It is a novel about Man against the State. Its basic theme is the sanctity of human life..." To those who associate Ayn with the defenders of big companies and nazism...remember her semi autobiographical outlet in Kira. People that were Ayn's protagonists were those with life premises, to live and exist for themselves. Be it Dagny or Andrei, Ayn Rand's message was true and bittersweet.
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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on 28 May 1999
I read the Fountainhead first, then Atlas Shrugged, then We The Living. We The Living is by far the most moving, engaging, and realistic of these novels. How interesting that this was her first novel; written, presumably, before her Objectivist Philosophy had taken full shape, and taken over all other considerations. The novel's strengths lie in the believability of the characters; their motives are human and their actions and circumstances realistic rather than idealistic. I was truly drawn into all of her novels, however We The Living made clear to me the problems in her later novels-- in the later novels, Ayn Rand ceased to consider plot and character as useful ends unto themselves, and began utilizing them solely as mechanisms by which to disseminate her philosophy. We the Living is strong because her characters struggle to maintain the heroic integrity she assigns them. In her later books, the love stories she created lack the passion and innocence (and believability) found in We The Living. If Ayn Rand's goal was to present to the world a philosophy for man to live by on earth, We The Living is the only one of her fictional novels in which the plot and character are believable enough to have have existed on this earth.
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on 16 June 2015
Supposedly autobiographical, it's actually a love story in the most part and the earliest version of her philosophy applied to fiction, very loosely based on Ayn's experiences before she got away from the anti-semitic collectivist Russia, oppressed during the tzar and more so after the communist revolution. This isn't how the book ends, but I shalln't spoil it for you.
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
"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."

So says Leonard Peikoff, a philosopher and executor of Ayn Rand's literary estate, in the 2008 introduction to this edition. In We the Living, Ayn Rand's first published novel, she presents this philosophy clearly and entertainingly. In so doing, however, she demonstrates what is, in my view, the weakness of this philosophical approach, and the one that, I suspect, will prevent me from ever identifying myself with the Objectivist movement. Kira, the novel's heroine, is certainly a reserved and critical rationalist in a world gone mad, but she is a lonely and selfish one too. I struggle to think of a single example of her having helped anyone to whom she was not bound by ties of kin or love. While I'm all for rejecting faith in favour of reason, I cannot but believe that great human beings find space in their spirits for a little self-sacrifice in the service of the common good as well as their self-interest.

Rand draws on her experience of Soviet Russia in the years just after the Revolution, but it seems to be a frequent claim for this book - one she made herself - that this background is a mere detail and that its message stands independently to that. That might be the case, but for me the historical elements about life in St Petersburg, Petrograd and Leningrad was a major element of my enjoyment. Fascinating, for example, to learn of the importance of the primus stove in the daily life of urban Russians in the early twentieth century, as they more or less camped in the luxurious buildings vacated by their bourgeois former owners. I wonder how well the message of the primacy of individual freedom over collectivity would look contrasted with societies that were, while communal in nature, much less authoritarian, and far less murderous, than the Soviet Union. That would include societies like Switzerland, the Scandinavian countries, indeed much of western Europe at the time when Ms Rand wrote this book and enjoyed her fame.

Still, it's good to have made a start, and now on to The Fountainhead - which, annoyingly, is not available on Kindle.
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