Mikhail Kalashnikov, who died last week at 94, once designed and built a lawnmower for his own use: Mass-produced mowers weren’t available in the Soviet Union. Oh, and he also designed the world’s most widely used assault rifle.
A lot of the encomiums and obituaries on Kalashnikov have missed the ironies of a man who became a living symbol of the state and political system that ruined his family. Now, as President Vladimir Putin brings back some of the Soviet era’s distinctive features — such as state domination of the economy, censorship and the exile of dissidents — the Russian army is preparing to take on the fifth-generation Kalashnikov rifle, the AK-12.
Kalashnikov was born to a relatively well-off peasant family in the Altai, a beautiful part of Siberia that borders on Kazakhstan. In the early years of Josef Stalin’s rule, the family’s property was confiscated for a collective farm and the Kalashnikovs were sent north in a cattle car. Kalashnikov’s father only lasted a year in exile before dying, and his son moved away as soon as he could. At 18, he was drafted into the Red Army and trained as a tank driver.
From the start, he was inventing simple mechanical devices, such as a shot counter for his tank. But it wasn’t until he was wounded in the arm and shoulder in 1941, as the Soviet Union appeared to be losing the war to the Nazis, that Kalashnikov first considered gun design as a career. The idea was born of frustration at the failures of the Soviet state’s lack of preparation for war.
I “lay in the dark with my eyes open and thought: How come?” he wrote in an autobiography. “We had been told before the war that we would not incur heavy casualties and that we would fight with up-to-date weapons. But now, whoever I asked said that he had to share a rifle with another soldier when fighting. Where were our automatic arms?”
Staff Sergeant Kalashnikov built his first gun in a railway workshop while on sick leave. When he showed it to an established armorer, a general, he was told that his prototype was no better than existing weapons and advised to get more training. Kalashnikov, however, had no interest in formal studies: He dreamed of the perfect submachine gun and produced it just after the war, in 1947 (hence the rifle’s name, AK-47).
In 1971, when Kalashnikov was supposed to defend his doctoral thesis, he laid out his weapons in front of the committee, saying: “This is in lieu of a presentation.”
Probably the most important feature of Kalashnikov’s design was the loose fit of the gun’s moving parts. As he described it, “All the elements are spaced out, as if they were hanging in air.” Later, when he demonstrated the weapon, he would sometimes pour sand into the firing mechanism and the AK-47 still would not jam. The hours of relentless work also went into making the gun easy to produce and assemble. The writer Guy Martin called it “the Ikea of gun design.”
In tests organized by the U.S. Army in 1966, American soldiers assembled and disassembled an M-16 in 80 seconds and the AK-47 in 34. Russians could do it in less than 30 seconds. When I went to high school in Moscow in the early 1980s, we handled the guns, too, in obligatory military training classes. My own record was about a minute: I was never good at soldiering.
At the same time, kids my age used the gun to kill people in African conflicts. It sold for a few hundred dollars, and it never jammed. Fighters didn’t care too much about the Kalashnikov’s problems with accuracy at long range: It was cheap, light and easy to use. It did the job.
An estimated 100 million of the weapons have been made. No one has counted how many people they killed. Kalashnikov, who said he had invented the gun “to defend the Fatherland,” knew it was used for lots of other things but didn’t lose sleep over it. “Let the politicians who start wars sleep badly,” he told the newspaper Izvestia. “The designer is not to blame.”
The gun’s amazing spread owed as much to the Soviet superpower’s global reach as to its cheapness and durability. “Had the AK-47 been created in Luxembourg, few people would likely have ever heard of it,” C.J. Chivers wrote in his book, ‘’The Gun.’’ “But Luxembourg could not have created this weapon, because it lacked the Soviet bureaucracy and the particular historical pressures that ordered the Kalashnikov to its form within the USSR.”
Indeed, the AK-47 wasn’t associated with Mikhail Kalashnikov the man, whose existence was only declassified in the late 1980s, but with the Soviet system. Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, whose resentment of Russia ran high, ordered his country’s military to replace the AK with the U.S.-made M-4. “Goodbye old weapon, long live the new one!” he told soldiers as he handed out the first new rifles. Later, as Russian soldiers rolled through Georgia in August 2008, they didn’t pick up the abandoned M-4s: They liked their AK-74s (the number of the current model) better.
Kalashnikov received too many medals to fit on his chest. He also got enough money from the government to live a comfortable life, though not the royalties (a capitalist concept) that might have made him a multimillionaire. He was showered with praise and honors for doing something few other Russians had done — start a global brand. That this was a brand for a somewhat sinister product hasn’t bothered those who continue to eulogize him as a man who showed the world what the Russian mind could do.
The designer himself might have preferred to be famous for something other than the world’s deadliest gun. He blamed “the Germans” for making him a weapons designer, and once told reporters, “If it had not been for World War II, I probably would have designed machinery to ease the hard peasant labor.”
Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow and Kiev correspondent for Bloomberg’s World View.