Rage against the machine: was Kalashnikov really racked with regret over the AK-47?
On what would have been Mikhail Kalashnikov 100th birthday, we explore the legacy of a man who showed remorse over his ‘creation’ in the years before his death
Death was never far from the life of Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov. It stalked his childhood as the son of impoverished peasants deported to southern Siberia. One of 19 children, he was among only eight who survived to adulthood. But he was a sickly boy; little Mikhail came close a number of times to joining his siblings in the grave.
In later years, he faced near-death in battle. Conscripted into the Red Army, he served in a tank regiment and was badly wounded in Russia’s disastrous defeat at the Battle of Bryansk in 1941, which left an estimated 100,000 of his comrades dead or missing. Nothing he experienced, though, came close to the slaughter that resulted from his creation, the AK-47 assault rifle that is more commonly known by his last name.
It is estimated that up to 100 million may still be in circulation to this day, 72 years after its debut, although, as there is no central database for production and because there are so many unlicensed copies, these figures are mere guesswork.
How many have died from a bullet from a Kalashnikov rifle is also impossible to calculate. It has reportedly killed more than any other firearm in history. It has been used in almost every conflict of the past 60 years, by everyone from private militias to terrorists, child soldiers and drug lords. While Kalashnikov, who would have turned 100 on November 10, died in 2013 at the age of 94, his weapon lives on – or rather kills on. It is still in use in up to 100 countries and an integral part of a global arms trade.
Kalashnikov was once defiant about his part in its creation. “I didn’t put it in the hands of bandits and terrorists and it’s not my fault that it has mushroomed uncontrollably across the globe,” he said in a 2006 interview. Yet his final years were haunted by this dreadful legacy. In 2012, he sent an anguished letter to Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church. “My spiritual pain is unbearable,” he wrote. “I keep having the same unsolved question: if my rifle claimed people’s lives, then can it be that I … a Christian and an Orthodox believer, was to blame for their deaths?” He also said he first stepped inside a church at the age of 91, later being baptised.
How the AK-47 came into being
As a 22-year-old tank commander he had no such doubts. During what Russians call the Great Patriotic War, the conflict fought between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany between 1941 and 1945, he lay recovering from his war wounds in hospital. There was nothing patriotic in the opinions of those surrounding him. Why, his fellow wounded soldiers wondered, were their own weapons so inadequate in battle, frequently jamming and generally unreliable? Kalashnikov was discharged in 1942 and, with one arm still in a sling, he set out to find a solution. A trained army mechanic, he had enjoyed tinkering with machinery since childhood. As an adult, he turned those skills from tanks to guns.
Kalashnikov did not actually invent the assault rifle, but he refined and improved – if that’s the right word – upon existing designs. In later years, it suited the propaganda machine of the Soviet Union to create the myth of the man, a heroic figure who would become a Hero of Socialist Labour and two-time winner of the Lenin Prize. The design was adapted from a weapon created by Russian firearm designer Alexey Sudayev, who conceived the idea of a lighter, more reliable rifle, but died in 1946 before it could be finalised. Kalashnikov and his team presented their version that same year. It was approved by the Russian military and called the Avtomat Kalashnikova, or “automatic weapon of Kalashnikov”. The first year of manufacture, 1947, was added to those letters – and thus, the AK-47 was born.
The battle against imperialism
What made it so deadly? Other guns would be faster and more accurate, but none was as dependable as the Kalashnikov, nor as cheap or as easy to make. It was particularly suitable for the poorly trained conscripts of the Red Army. The AK-47 kept working even in the most difficult conditions. Mud, water, dust – it always delivered up to 600 rounds per minute.
As a symbol of armed struggle against the forces of imperialism, the weapon even appears on Mozambique’s national flag
The Russians did one other thing to ensure its immortality: the Kalashnikov is one of the first examples of open-sourced technology. Moscow made its design freely available to its allies all over the world so they could make their own. More than 40 countries, from Finland to India, have produced the AK-47 and its later variants. It has been widely reported over the years that tiny workshops made reverse-engineered guns in the highlands of Afghanistan for as little as $10, while American soldiers fought Vietcong guerrillas armed with these locally sourced versions.
As a symbol of armed struggle against the forces of imperialism, the weapon even appears on Mozambique’s national flag.
And what of its inventor? The peasant boy whose parents were practically illiterate rose through the ranks to become a lieutenant general. Dozens of versions of the rifle were produced, but, as a loyal employee of first the USSR and then the Russian Federation, it is said that Kalashnikov never received a rouble in royalties.
Twice married, he had four children, including a son who also went on to become a weapons designer. For his 90th birthday in 2009, Kalashnikov was named a “Hero of Russia”, the nation’s highest honorary title, by then-president Dmitry Medvedev. Two years ago, a statue of Kalashnikov cradling his famous gun was erected in Moscow.
His crisis of conscience near the end of his life seemingly fell on deaf ears. Medvedev lauded Kalashnikov for inventing “the brand every Russian is proud of”. And the response to that anguished letter to the Patriarch? It came from his press secretary, Cyril Alexander Volkov, and read: “The church has a well-defined position when the weapon is defence of the Fatherland. The Church supports its creators and the soldiers who use it.”
Kalashnikov once said he originally wanted to become a poet. Would the world have been any different if he had?
Updated: November 14, 2019 03:47 PM