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  • Yehoshua Paul

1938 - Anthem

1938. The world is focused on Germany’s annexation of Austria and Hitler’s threat to invade Czechoslovakia if he doesn’t receive the Sudetenland. Meanwhile in the Soviet Union, Stalin’s purges, show trials, and draconian collectivization and industrialization efforts continue unabated.

Stalin wants to consolidate all power by killing or exiling anyone suspected of disloyalty, or thought to be suspected, or related to the person suspected, or has a vague recollection of being nice in kindergarten to the person being suspected. These purges result in somewhere between 681,692 (documented executions) and 1.2 million people being killed; the latter figure also includes deaths in detention and those who died shortly after being released from the Gulag. To justify the purges, Stalin puts on several show trials in Moscow, which include the infamous “Trial of the twenty one” that takes place on March, 1938. Twenty one people, many of whom are former senior members of the Communist government, are accused of being a “bloc of rightists and Trotskyists” who intend to overthrow socialism and restore capitalism to Russia, among other things. All twenty one are found guilty, eighteen are sentenced to be shot, and the remaining three are sent to the Gulag.

A list from the Great Purge signed by Stalin, Molotov, Kaganovich, Voroshilov, Mikoyan, and Chubar.

Those who want to avoid being purged need to prove their loyalty by contributing to the industrialization and agricultural collectivization efforts. New legislation introduces labor books and major revisions to labor law. Being absent or even twenty minutes late are now grounds for being fired, and managers who fail to enforce these laws face criminal prosecution. Anyone who is fired promptly loses the right to use ration and commodity cards, the right to use an apartment and is blacklisted from future employment. This is basically starvation, which is not made any easier by the famine brought about by collectivization efforts. Over 99% of soviet agriculture is produced on collective farms. However. the Kulaks, the prosperous peasants who actually know how to run the farms are resettled in Kazahkstan, Siberia, or the Russian far north; anyone who opposes collectivization is deemed a Kulak. Most of the peasants are pretty opposed to their farms being nationalized and slaughter their livestock before it can be confiscated, adding famine to the list of challenges Communism now needs to solve. Ayn Rand is surprised by none of this. She anticipated these events already in the twenties, and fled to America the first chance she got. In 1938, she publishes her dystopian novella, “Anthem”, warning of the nightmarish results of the Communist philosophy. She fails to convince.

1938 NKVD arrest photo of the poet Osip Mandelstam, who died in a labor camp.

Ayn Rand (1905-1982) was an American Russian writer and philosopher, best known for her two bestselling novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, and her philosophical system, Objectivism, which argues that human knowledge and values are objective, and are determined by the nature of reality, as opposed to the subjective ideas humans create with their consciousness. The moral purpose of each individual is to pursue one’s own happiness, and that only social systems that display a full respect to an individual’s rights can be considered moral, in other words, laissez-faire capitalism.

Rand’s outlook on life was shaped by the October Revolution of 1917 and the changes that followed, which included her father’s pharmacy being confiscated, her family being forced to flee to the Crimea (where she finished high school), and several periods of near starvation. In her final year of high school, Rand was introduced to American History, and she immediately adopted it as her model of what a nation of free people could become. When her family eventually returned from the Crimea, Rand entered the University of Petrograd (now open to women) where she studied philosophy and history, and got to experience first-hand how the Soviet takeover resulted in the destruction of academic freedoms. In 1925, twenty-year old Rand received a visa to visit relatives in Chicago, and after several visa extensions became a permanent resident and then a citizen of the United States, whose “founding ideal was the principle of individual rights”.

Cover of the first edition

“Anthem” tells the story of Equality 7-2521. They are a young man raised in a future society of “we”. Equality are six feet tall, which makes them stand out from society, and viewed as pariah, as none should stand out for all are equal. All members of Equality’s society receive the same education, and when reaching adulthood are assigned a job, which they are required to happily perform until the end of their lives. There is no room for preference as all jobs are of equal value and are assigned by a council who best know what society needs. Equality desires to be a scholar, but they are assigned to become a street sweeper. A chance accident causes equality to stumble on a cache of old technology and this results in them rediscovering electricity and inventing light-bulbs. They attempt to present this discovery to the World Council of Scholars, but they are harshly denounced and told the discovery will disrupt the Department of Candles, and wreck the plans of the World Council, “and without the plans of the world council the sun cannot rise”. Equality is forced to flee for their life, and this results in them making the most profound discovery of his entire existence.

I felt the story was an okay story with a very powerful message. The language is polished and very moving, but the tale itself is a bit bland, and more than a little predictable – basically the story of a young man who doesn’t fit into the role assigned to him by society and is unhappy as a result. The dystopian society is primitive and harsh with religious overtones, but it is similar to many other dystopian societies I have read about in other books. You shouldn’t be reading the story for its plot. What makes this story stand out is the complete absence of singular pronouns throughout most of the book, and the message that it is the complete elimination of individuality that created the society being described – a message which I only partially agree with.

The monumental slab at the entrance to the Sandarmokh burial grounds reads: "People! do not kill one another", Russia

The Omer today is splendor in foundation. “Anthem” explores two important foundations: individual identity and group identity. The former is the most splendid thing in the world while the latter results in the downfall of mankind. In the dystopian future of “Anthem” (and the dystopian past of the Soviet Union) these two concepts are in competition, and this results in the group identity destroying the individual identity. In Rand’s worldview, the opposite is the desired goal. Individualism is the ideal, and collectivism is slavery. I disagree with her on this. Individual identity and group identity do not compete, but rather complete one another. In Judaism, we see this in the Shema, which begins with the plural “Hashem is our god”, continues with the singular, “Thou shalt love Hashem your god,” and then back to the plural again “If thou shalt listen to My commandments”. This dual foundation is written into the tefillin, the splendor we place on our heads every single day, further enhancing the commandment Hashem gave us and the meaning behind it, and this is something I definitely plan on thinking about next time I put them on in the morning.

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