In week one of our We the Living Study Group, we were introduced to year five of the Soviet Revolution: “the State’s New Economic Policy (NEP) had allowed a temporary compromise.” It is 1922, and in Part 1, Chapter 2 we were also introduced to Kira’s Gen Z cousin, Irina,
A door crashed open and something came flying into the anteroom; something tall, tense, with a storm of hair and eyes like automobile headlights; and Galina recognized Irina, her niece, a young girl of eighteen with the eyes of twenty-eight and the laughter of eight.
Representing Soviet temporary compromises was Irina’s brother Victor, who tells his family,
The days of confiscations are past. The Soviet government has a most progressive policy outlined. The most promising career for a woman is offered by employment in a Soviet office. One has to be practical nowadays – as you ought to know.
Here, Ayn Rand has used an economy of words to illustrate the implied threat in every sentence: there will be future confiscations, ambiguous centralized economic power equals progress, and female careers outside a Soviet office are not promising. Practicality means pragmatism, rational principles be damned.
Irina’s principles were still being developed, yet she knew she wanted to live. More precisely, to learn what it was like to be really alive. Upon seeing her cousin Kira for the first time in four years, she excitedly asks, “Did you eat fresh fruit in the Crimea? I’ve been dreaming, yearning and dying for grapes. Don’t you like grapes? Victor, they’re wearing the funniest things in the south. Did you notice Kira’s wooden sandals?”
While Kira’s dream was to build, and work with steel because it doesn’t tell lies, Irina’s was to work with music and paint because great art reflects her highest values. Victor’s highest aspiration was to conform, to do anything necessary under the fog of Soviet dictates, and volunteer for the dirty work needed to enforce the equality of their social justice.
To attain power, the Soviets preached ‘equality,’ for the ‘goodness of humanity.’ It was a world-wide proletariat lives matter movement after all. In Chapter 2, Kira asks Victor what his “stupendous whole” called society really means,
I don’t understand it. To whom is it that I owe a duty? To your neighbor next door? Or to the militia-man on the corner? Or to the clerk in the cooperative? Or to the man I saw in line, third from the door, with the old basket and the woman’s hat?
Yet, mindless duty is nearly universally accepted in 2020 America. In Chapter 1 of Part II, Ayn Rand explains that “the people” does not have a mind. In 1776, Adam Smith explained further in his classic treatise on economics, An Inquiry in to the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations,
It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their own self-interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk of our own necessities, but of their advantages.
However, in order to rationalize government power, the 1920’s Soviets and 2020 American Democrats chose the 19th century economics and philosophy of Karl Marx,
The less you eat, drink and read books; the less you go to the theatre, the dance hall, the public house; the less you think, love, theorize, sing, paint, the more you save-the greater becomes your treasure. The less you are, the more you have.
This quote from Marx was intended to demonize capital, and capitalists, yet it became the ideal behind Soviet control of every day life in 1920s Russia. In this case, “treasure” belongs to Communist Party insiders and Washington political elites. With the removal of Revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky in 1925, pragmatic five-year New Economic Plans (NEP) became the norm.
Likewise, in Part II, Chapter 8 of We the Living, Victor Dunaev betrays everything he had ever claimed about self-sacrifice being a virtue and self-interest being a vice. He paid his dues by informing the Soviet secret police about his sister Irina’s ‘counter-revolutionary’ behavior. In order to get ahead in Party politics, Victor snitched that Irina was hiding her boyfriend Sasha in their apartment.
Victor’s father-in-law knew betrayal, and the Soviet big secret very well. During the wedding party in the previous chapter, Kira had heard Lavrov’s wife grunting about Leo Kovalensky’s new-found display of wealth, “And they say private traders don’t make no money . . . Dictatorship of the Proletariat, Lavrov growled, and spat loudly.”
Irina, still desperate to learn what it was like to be really alive, was arrested, taken to prison, and sentenced to ten years in a Siberian gulag. Upon being hauled away, she faced Victor,
Her eyes stopped him. They were looking at him fixedly; they looked suddenly like the eyes of Maria Petrovna in the old portrait. She turned and followed the soldiers. Without a word. She went first.
Her life now ended before it had really begun, Irina’s eyes had acquired the consciousness of the living dead, something Ayn Rand had described when Kira noticed a Soviet guard at the Petrograd train station, “His eyes were austere and forbidding like caverns where a single flame burned under cold, gray vaults. The soldier looked at her coldly, indifferently, astonished.”
The soldier’s vision was closed to a future for himself, and he was surprised to see it in another human being. Irina’s father Vasili was finally broken too; not by Maria’s kind of submission to God or Victor’s to Society, but by the 18th century moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant that combined both and dominated Soviet culture,
Many years ago, I felt sure of what I thought. I knew when I was right and I knew when to condemn. I can’t do it now. I don’t know that I can condemn anyone for anything. You’re my son Victor. I love you. I can’t help it, as you can’t help being what you are.
Vasili has submitted to the idea that we can not know what is objectively true, so principles are subjective. We do not possess free will, so good intentions are all that matter. Here, We the Living becomes the ultimate mystery novel. While visiting Irina in prison, before her transport to Siberia, Irina asks Kira,
There’s your life. You begin it, feeling that its something so precious and rare, so beautiful that its like a sacred treasure. Now its over, and it doesn’t make any difference to anyone. But there’s something that should be understood by all of us. Only what is it, Kira? What?