Ayn Rand was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, in February 1905, and grew up in Russia during one of the country’s most tumultuous periods. Socialist revolutionaries overthrew the monarchy in 1905, and in 1906 the first Duma, the new Russian congress, convened. Several different socialist groups emerged after the revolution of 1905, chief among them the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks. Several groups of revolutionaries fell to infighting, especially during World War I, in which the Bolsheviks urged an international civil war to bring about the rule of the proletariat, or governance by the working class. The country fell into a bitter civil war. The Bolsheviks, under Lenin, eventually emerged as the preeminent party, and the group later became the Communist Party.
In 1917, when she was twelve, Rand witnessed the Bolshevik Revolution, in which the Bolsheviks took control of the Soviet government, ushering in the Communist era in Russia. Her family lost its business and was reduced to a state of extreme poverty during the new regime. Rand despaired of the corrupt Communist system, which claimed to subjugate the needs of the individual to the needs of the many, but was ultimately manipulated by a few greedy and tyrannical leaders, with disastrous consequences for Russia’s economy and people.
Rand completed high school in the Crimea, where she had fled to escape the civil war. She returned to St. Petersburg (then called Petrograd), where she attended the University of Petrograd, and she graduated in 1924 with a degree in philosophy and history. She also studied screenwriting at the State Institute for Cinema Arts.
After Joseph Stalin ascended to power in the early 1920s, a disillusioned and disgusted Rand escaped to Chicago in 1926. She then moved to Hollywood to pursue a career as a screenwriter. In Hollywood, she met her husband-to-be, actor Frank O’Connor, whom she married in 1929. Rand and O’Connor remained married until his death fifty years later. In 1932, Rand sold her first screenplay, Red Pawn, and her first stage play was produced on Broadway. The play, Night of January 16th, was a largely autobiographical account of the Soviet Union just after the revolution. She completed her first novel, We the Living, in 1933, and it was first published in 1936.
Anthem, Rand’s second work of fiction, was first published in Great Britain in 1938. She later revised the novella and, in 1946, published it in the United States. According to the preface she wrote for the American edition, the only differences between the two editions were stylistic. In the American version, Rand sought to eliminate poetic and flowery language and to simplify and clarify the themes she laid out.
Rand is best known for her two longest works of fiction, The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957). She began work on The Fountainhead in 1935, at the same time she was working on Anthem. Both works introduce her theory of objectivism, or egoism, the idea that an individual’s worth comes from him- or herself and not from what he or she contributes to society or to mankind. Objectivism is, as both The Fountainhead and Anthem make explicit, a wholesale rejection of the collectivist theories and tactics that Rand believed were at the center of the brutalities visited on Russia during the early part of the twentieth century. While The Fountainhead is the fictional embodiment of objectivism, Anthem is Rand’s political manifesto. It takes the form of an allegory, a fictional story whose purpose is to present a philosophical idea. Anthem describes a dystopia, a nightmarish imaginary world through which Rand speculates on the eventual result of society’s negative aspects. Rand uses the dystopia to show what she believes will happen when a nation or society embraces collectivism and community ideals.
The novella largely mirrors the state of the Soviet Union under the Stalinist terror, during which Stalin ordered purges of all those who opposed him, especially independent thinkers and intellectuals. In her novels, Rand idealizes those of the sort Stalin executed and exalts her hero, a vibrant, intelligent, and physically beautiful youth, who fights his way through the nameless, faceless mass of society that seeks to use him for its own ends while draining him of all vitality and vigor. She rejects religion and group identity in favor of ego and self-determination.
Many consider Atlas Shrugged, which Rand began in 1946 and first published in 1957, to be her greatest accomplishment as a fiction writer. It is her longest and most elaborate novel, and it was her last fictional work. In the novel, she traces the lives of several individuals who are involved in big business in the United States, exalting their will to succeed and self-centered egoism. Atlas Shrugged fleshes out the philosophy Rand had been developing all her life, the beginnings of which are introduced in the concluding chapters of Anthem. The world depicted in Atlas Shrugged is modeled closely on America in the 1890s, during the height of free markets and governmental nonintervention in business.
After the publication of Atlas Shrugged, Rand wrote and lectured on objectivism. She died on March 6, 1982. Her books have garnered her a cult following of philosophers and thinkers, who continue her pursuit of objectivism and egoism in the form of foundations and think tanks devoted to her work.