Russia’s Geniuses That (Re)Shaped America: Part 1. Ayn Rand

Click here to read the introduction to the Russia’s Geniuses That (Re)Shaped America series.

Part 1. Ayn Rand

The second best-selling book of all time is a 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged by the Russian-American writer Ayn Rand. To grasp the magnitude of this achievement one should consider its only competitor. The Bible.

Ayn Rand landed in America at the age of twenty one famously tearing up the sight of the Manhattan skyline. She was an opinionated, high-spirited aspiring author with many of her fundamental ideals already (in)formed by her personal and scholastic experiences in the Motherland. Meanwhile, surprisingly, in most official and unofficial biographies the chapter on Rand’s childhood and adolescence in Russia is relegated to three phrases: born in St. Petersburg, decidedly renounced the Bolshevik Revolution, and immigrated to the United States.

Many interesting facts are often overlooked. Zinovy Rosenbaum, Rand’s father, rose from a life of poverty in the Brest-Litovsk shtetel to running his own pharmaceutical business in prestigious Znamenskaya Square at the end of Nevsky Prospekt in St Petersburg. Into this “bourgeois” family Ayn Rand was born Alisa Rosenbaum on January 20 in 1905. Legend has it that the unusual girl resolutely decided to become a professional woman of letters at the age of nine years old. In 1917 Alisa greeted the February revolution enthusiastically, but, as she would later assert, rejected subsequent October revolution. It is difficult to discern ability of a 12 year old to adequately analyze political reality. However, the experiential difference was profound. While in February the tsar was abstractly stripped of his power, in October the family drug store and other property was confiscated by the new authorities.

Ayn Rand (right) and her sisters

The Rosenbaums sought refuge in the Crimea, then under the control of the White Army. Rand biographers like to draw parallels with the Nabokov family on the basis of their common Crimean exodus, especially since in St. Petersburg Alisa attended an all-girls school with Olga, the sister of future literary maverick Vladimir Nabokov. Cambridge professor of Slavic Literature Alexander Etkind writes: “The Nabokovs were able to escape to England by selling precious jewels along the way, while the financially ruined Rosenbaums would have to return to Petrograd. This hypothesis, to put it lightly, is absurd. The issue at hand does not even have anything to do with money, but with the perception of the historic changes of that time. For the Nabokovs the Bolshevik government was totally alien and hostile, whereas the Rosenbaums perceived it differently. That is why the Nabokovs sailed away by ship and Alisa’s family safely waited out the malaise of the civil war and returned North.”

In August 1921 Alisa matriculated at the Petrograd State University, part of the first group of women allowed access to higher education. It was there that she became acquainted with the works of Friedrich Nietzsche, whose influence she always denied despite much evidence to the contrary. The ideas of the German philosopher created a challenging dichotomy in her young psyche. On one hand, she wholeheartedly hated the Bolsheviks for their low socio-economic background, their pandering to the unenlightened masses and contempt for the individual. On the other hand, she harbored admiration for the Ubermenschliche (superhuman) ambitions of these revolutionary heroes. This dissonance formed the basis for much of Any Rand work and the philosophy of objectivism, which she pioneered.

In America she took great interest in the booming film industry settling in Los Angeles and working as a successful screenwriter and playwright under the chosen name Ayn Rand. Her novel The Fountainhead became an international best-seller in mid-1940s and was made into a critically acclaimed motion picture starring Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal. Success in Hollywood and on Broadway emboldened Rand and exposed her ideas to new audiences. She held many controversial views. A passionate anti-Communist she testified for the United States House Un-American Activities Committee which infuriated the liberal Left. Yet the conservatives were dispirited by her equally staunch atheism. Twelve publishers rejected her enormous manuscript for the Atlas Shrugged before it was finally released in 1957. The critics initially dismissed this odd mixture of science fiction, detective story and political parable. Yet the readership grew steadily over the decades with each generation drawing inspiration from Rand’s ideas and images. In 2011 a long awaited screen adaption of the novel was released.

After Atlas Shrugged became the runaway global phenomenon, Ayn Rand expressed no desire to return to creative work. She devoted her time to promotion of the objectivist philosophy touring colleges, appearing at conferences and publishing several monographs: Capitalism: the Unknown Ideal, For the New Intellectual, The New Left: the Anti-Industrial Revolution and others. She is one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century. Former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan is an old friend and lifelong supporter. Executives of such diverse US enterprises as Comcast, Dallas Mavericks and Whole Foods have credited Rand’s philosophy with the success of their business models. Who else can boast direct impact on politics, technology, entertainment and nutrition? Well, perhaps indeed the Bible.

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