It’s hard not to conclude that Ayn Rand sometimes lacked good judgment, or at least good timing.
I am sure that is true, though not necessarily in the case that vexes Heller. Why does Heller doubt her good judgment? Because in 1936, at the height of the Stalinist murderous purges, Rand not only wrote “We the Living” in which she detailed the Communist horror but also ran around doing her utmost to enlighten Americans about the true nature of Soviet totalitarianism. Heller writes disdainfully:
She lectured at the then-famous New York Town Hall Club on “Whitewashed Russia,” where she asked the audience to imagine being ruled by a group of men who have not been elected and cannot be recalled, who control all public information, who distribute all food, housing and employment. They cannot be criticized; they dispatch political adversaries to dungeons or death without a trial or hearing. They claim that individual rights do not exist. Would her listeners wish to live under the thumb of these “two million snow-white [Stalinist] angels,” as she characterized the Left’s view of them?She gave dozens of radio and print interviews in which she described her bourgeois Russian background, elaborated on her hatred of the Bolsheviks, and mentioned the approximate date and circumstances of her escape to the United States. In one New York newspaper interview in late spring, titled “Only High Ransoms’ for Passports Open [Soviet] Border, Says Miss Rand,” the interviewer observed that the Russian-born author, whose first remark was, “If the [Soviet] borders were ever opened there would be a migration like that of the early Middle Ages,” was also known as Mrs. Frank O’Connor.
Of course, Ayn was right not only about the horrific nature of the Stalinist regime but also about the consequences of the opening of the borders to emigration, as was most vividly seen following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Nor can there be any doubt that liberal/leftist intelligentsia led by the New York Times’ infamous Stalin apologist, Walter Duranty, did its utmost to keep the West ignorant of the heinous nature of the Stalinist regime. Indubitably, blogs, Twitter and Youtube could have helped Rand’s efforts to fulfill the promise she made to those she left behind “to tell” the world the truth about that so called workers’ paradise.
Heller does not seem to comprehend Rand’s “fire in the belly,” perhaps because she still does not truly share Rand’s negative view of the USSR. Heller sees, instead, an ambitious author trying to exploit her biography at a time such exploitation could harm her family for Rand was doing everything in her power to bring her parents to America. Heller even implies that Rand had an “exaggerated” view of their hardship (my italics):
At the same time, Rand was making a determined effort to rescue her parents from their life of hardship in Russia. Although the Rosenbaums no longer remained in danger of starving, they, like much of the rest of Soviet Russia, had settled into an underfed, fearful, precarious, and dreary routine that she considered inhuman.
Heller admits that Rand had been trying for years to get her family American visas, but her efforts were thwarted ostensibly by insufficient income. “We the Living” royalties solved the American visa problem. It did not solve the Soviet exit visa because the Soviet refused to let them go. Ayn’s Chicago relatives claim and Heller agrees that Rand’s failure to keep her mouth shut was to blame.
There is a mystery here. Even as she renewed her efforts to get her family out of Russia, she was publicly presenting herself as an anti Communist activist. That she wasn’t aware that Soviet agents might be watching her - and might easily confirm that Alissa Rosenbaum, Mrs. Frank O’Connor and Ayn Rand were different names for the same woman - is hard to believe. She took normal, recommended precautions, such as using only her legal, married name in government correspondence and not sending her parents a copy of her book. But in the 1930s, there was a Soviet government agency whose specific job it was to read correspondence from abroad, and Russian agents at home and in the United States and Europe were notorious for their ruthlessness and skill in tracking and spying on Russian emigres.
I am not sure evil is banal. I am sure all tyrants use similar methods to stay in power and one of them is silencing refugees. Hence, 1936 Moscow has much in common with 2009 Tehran. The Iranian crackdown goes global, Farnaz Fassihi reports:
His first impulse was to dismiss the ominous email as a prank, says a young Iranian-American named Koosha. It warned the 29-year-old engineering student that his relatives in Tehran would be harmed if he didn’t stop criticizing Iran on Facebook.Two days later, his mom called. Security agents had arrested his father in his home in Tehran and threatened him by saying his son could no longer safely return to Iran.
“When they arrested my father, I realized the email was no joke,” said Koosha, who asked that his full name not be used.
Ayn Rand faced the same conundrum Koosha does, though there is no evidence her family was hurt by their association with her. Very few Soviet citizens were granted permission to leave Russia during the Great Purge of 1936-38. Rand did her best and, when all hope was lost, she tried to protect them with her silence for receiving letters from abroad was dangerous. In her other new biographe Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right ,Jeniffer Burns points out that her parents kept writing pleading letters but Rand, turning herself into a salt pillar, did not answer.
Instead, Rand dedicated herself to trying to salvage what remained salvageable, the United States of America. Like a Biblical prophet, she used every method she could think of to keep freedom alive in her new homeland. Ayn Rand did not live in a world she made. She lived in a world she warned. At no time was there more attention paid to her warnings than today, though it is not yet clear if she will end up resembling Jonah whose heeded warnings saved Nineveh or Jeremiah whose ignored warnings led to the destruction of the temple.
In the meantime, many dedicated Iranian emigres take inordinate risks to prevent the Islamic Republic of Iran lasting as long as the U.S.S.R.. Technology prevents their testimony from being dismissed in the manner that Rand’s testimony was. That does not mean that Obama is willing to do more to get rid of Ahmadinejad than Roosevelt was willing to do to get rid Stalin. Chances are that some talented Iranian emigres will follow in Ayn Rand’s footsteps and spend their lives to warning the world of the perils of Mullahcracy. Let’s hope they will be treated more compassionately than Rand has been, and that their message will be more welcomed than hers has been.