In 1922 after five years of revolution and civil war, the Argounova family in We the Living returns from the Crimea to Petrograd in a boxcar. In all the mud, fear, crudeness, and destitution of this city in those days, Kira Argounova, age 18, returns to Rand’s fond city, with the thought “Isn’t it wonderful!” (WL 23). She is wearing homemade wooden sandals. She smiles at the greeting of an old friend, the bell of a tram outside the station and smiles at the adventure of life before her. At the train station exit door, there is a poster with welcoming words above a rising sun, “Comrades! We are the builders of a new life!” (WL 22).
As a child, Kira had read a story about a conquering Viking who respects neither throne nor altar. This story was Kira’s favorite, high above all others. This conqueror is never defeated. At the end of the story, looking over a city he had conquered, the Viking raises a goblet of wine and speaks: “To life, which is a reason unto itself” (40–41).
Kira had entered life, not with head bowed in religious awe, nor with “a cold skin crying for the warmth of the herd. Kira Argounova entered it with the sword of a Viking pointing the way . . .” (WL 42–43). The sword-point of the Viking in the childhood story is the point to which he looks no farther, “but there was no boundary for the point of his sword” (WL 40).
Kira did not aspire to be a Viking, though the line of her mouth when silent “was cold, indomitable, and men thought of a Valkyrie with lance and winged helmet in the sweep of battle” (WL 36). She did not aspire to be a warrior or Valkyrie; neither did she aspire to a “life of discipline and hard work and useful labor for the great collective” (WL 37).
“From somewhere in the aristocratic Middle Ages, Kira had inherited the conviction that labor and effort were ignoble” (WL 41). She made good grades, but she would not learn to cook or darn. She balked at piano exercises, but chose for her future “the hardest work and most demanding effort. She was to be an engineer” (WL 41). Over Kira’s bed was the picture of an American skyscraper. She imagined she would build houses of glass and steel, a white bridge of aluminum. She imagined “men and wheels and cranes under her orders, about a sunrise on the steel skeleton of a skyscraper” (WL 41).
“She knew she had a life and that it was her life. She knew the work which she had chosen and which she expected of life” (WL 41). And she worshipped and expected joy (WL 41–42).
When Rand first began working on this novel in 1929, its title was to be Airtight: A Novel of Red Russia. Clearly, one of the objectives of her novel was to exhibit the moral, economic, and technological inferiority of communist Russia in comparison to America and Europe. The main writing and rewriting of the novel was in 1933–35. By 1933 America was at the depth of its greatest economic depression. There was much clamoring from business and labor leaders for “economic democracy,” for the cartelization and socialization of major industries, and for central planning of production and consumption.
The picture of communist Russia that Rand was exposing in We the Living was as in the early 20’s. By the 30’s Russia was not Russia in the immediate aftermath of revolution and civil war. There were large construction projects underway over there, which were being touted by Stalin’s government to show the superiority of communism.
A scene in Rand’s novel retained through her first couple of drafts to May 1934 was one in which Kira’s lover Leo mentions to her that in New York there are six million inhabitants and that they have subways. “It must be delightful—a subway” Leo remarks to Kira who adores such things (Milgram 2004, 13). That was cut from the novel by November 1935. There are additional reasons for removing the passage, but I think one was that Stalin’s Russia had completed its first underground metro, in Moscow, in May 1935. Rand’s use of the lack of subways in cities of communist Russia as illustration of its technical stagnation would not have been effective by 1935.
The adoration of big cities and their technological advancement by Kira and her creator was at odds with Nietzsche. “In the desert the truthful have always dwelled, the free spirits, as the rulers of the desert; but in the cities dwell the well-fed, famous wise men—the draft animals” (Z II “On the Famous Wise Men”). “‘Oh Zarathustra, this is the big city: here you have nothing to gain and everything to lose’. / . . . . / [Zarathustra] looked at the big city, sighed, and kept silent for a long time. Finally he spoke thus: “‘I am nauseated too by the big city . . . . Here . . . nothing can be bettered, nothing can be worsened’” (Z III “On Passing By”).
In her love of city and technology, Rand would not find a kindred spirit in Nietzsche. Strikingly different between Nietzsche and Rand are the central objects of human creativity. Nietzsche’s foci are on creation in the arts, in philosophy, and in one’s own character. His lack of appreciation of creativity in technological realms always amazed me (okay, appalled me).
Nietzsche thought one desirable circumstance of aristocracy their “freedom from deadening labor.” Having to labor is nothing of which to be proud if one is aristocratic in nature. Similarly, Kira is introduced as a girl who does not perform menial work such as cooking and darning. Partly that trait is a contribution to setting the character Kira apart from women keeping to traditional, less-ambitious social roles. Mainly it is to set Kira above all who perform menial labor, to set her as of some sort of aristocratic spirit.
In Nietzsche’s view, only aristocratic society has ever advanced the type man. Such a society
“believes in a long ladder of rank order and value distinctions between men and in some sense needs slavery. Without the pathos of distance as it grows out of the ingrained differences between stations, out of the way the ruling caste maintains an overview and keeps looking down on subservient types and tools, and out of this caste’s equally continuous exercise in obeying and commanding, in keeping away and below—without this pathos, that other, more mysterious pathos could not have grown at all, that demand for new expansions of distance within the soul itself, the development of states that are increasingly high, rare, distant, tautly drawn and comprehensive, and in short, the enhancement of the type “man,” the constant “self-overcoming of man” . . . . (BGE 257)”
Rand’s Kira does not look at the workers who would build her skyscrapers and bridges as subservient types; she sees them simply as carrying out her orders. She does not look down on the building trades. Kira’s author gives no indication of agreeing with Nietzsche’s view that the importance of allowing the existence of individuals aristocratic in spirit is to improve the type man by self-overcomings in the souls of such men.
Nietzsche writes that a good and healthy aristocracy does not feel that it is a function serving the state or community (BGE 258). Kira and her author certainly agreed with that. But Rand’s Kira would not squarely concur when Nietzsche writes that it is right for there to be “sacrifice of countless people who have to be pushed down and shrunk into incomplete human beings, into slaves, into tools, all for the sake of the aristocracy” (BGE 258). She would not accept that society should exist “only as the substructure and framework for raising an exceptional type of being up to its higher duty and to a higher state of being” (BGE 258). Rand in We the Living adores Petrograd and the man who ordered its creation, but she does not adore it because it gave that man a higher state of being. Kira simply values great creations and their creators. She values the man-made, the making, and the makers, to the purpose of life and joy.