Andrew Osborn

 

 

Chief Russia Correspondent

 

Deputy Bureau Chief Russia/CIS

 

Reuters

 

 

Mr. Kalashnikov

14th July 2007 16:46

The AK-47 assault rifle may seem like an unlikely object of veneration but in Russia, the country of its

‘birth,’ the population is being encouraged to celebrate the gun’s sixtieth anniversary as a national

event. As the Kremlin continues to ratchet up patriotic fervour, the iconic weapon and the man who invented it

– now a pensioner – have emerged as a useful device to instil love of the ‘rodina’ (motherland).

President Vladimir Putin hailed the weapon last week in superlative terms.

“The famous Kalashnikov assault rifle has become not only an example of bold inventiveness, but a symbol of

the talent, the creative genius of our people,” he said in a statement to mark the gun’s anniversary.   

“The AK-47…has faithfully served Russia for decades.”

Lionising a gun whose bullets have claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands in wars across the globe

since it first underwent secret trials in 1947 may seem like an act of bad taste through a Western prism.

But Mr Putin is anxious to reclaim Russia’s great power status and, with his coffers awash in

petrodollars, he is embracing what he regards as ‘the positive elements’ of the country’s Soviet past. 

One of those – in his eyes -- is the AK-47 and its diminutive inventor Mikhail Kalashnikov.

Last week the 87-year old former Red Army Sergeant was the guest of honour at a ceremony studded with pomp

and circumstance at Moscow’s cavernous Armed Forces Museum.   

Fireworks soared into the summer sky, a cannon fired in his honour, and a goose-stepping military honour

guard and brass band welcomed a man whose invention changed the face of modern warfare.   

“I’m touched by all the attention I’m getting,” Kalashnikov said after being presented with a Soviet

red military banner bearing the slogan: “Kalashnikov – The Pride, Honour and Glory of Russia.”

“An arms builder is attached to his designs like a mother to her children.”

Officials from the state-controlled arms exporter Rosoboronexport lined up to lavish the designer with

plaudits and what is said to be the first model of an AK-47 ever went on temporary display, loaned from a

museum in St Petersburg. School children beamed as they had their photographs

taken next to the semi-deaf gunsmith who brandished what he sometimes calls his “child” above his head in

a stance reminiscent of that adopted by guerrilla fighters through the decades.   

Officials described how they had turned the designer’s house in the gun-making town of Izhevsk into a house

museum, a custom appropriated from the Soviet authorities who loved to ‘freeze’ the homes of their

heroes for posterity. In the twilight of his eventful life, General Kalashnikov, who has also lent his famous

surname to a vodka brand, is the object of a mini cult of personality here. At a time when Soviet-style

militarism is making a steady comeback, his achievements and his fame are in

tune with the zeitgeist; that Russia is a great country whose military is mighty.

A museum celebrating the AK-47 already exists in Izhevsk, the town where Kalashnikov lives.

Complete with multi-media displays, it portrays the AK-47 as a symbol of national achievement but makes

little mention of its murderous handiwork. Instead, it celebrates the gun’s main attributes; its

reliability (it never jams), its simplicity to build and use (it has only eight moveable parts), and its

‘defensive’ qualities.   Kalashnikov said last week he had no regrets about

inventing the AK-47 though in the past he has lamented the fact that the weapon-- which has spawned an

estimated 100 million guns -- has sometimes fallen into “the wrong hands.”

On this occasion he said – in a faltering and sometimes reedy voice – that his conscience was clear.

“I sleep soundly at night. It is politicians who are responsible for not resolving their problems without

resorting to arms.” If anyone was to blame for the AK-47 it was, he

claimed, the Germans who invaded his country – the Soviet Union – in 1941.

“I created the weapon at the time of the Second World War when we had to defeat the most powerful enemy –

fascist Germany.” Though his invention has made arms dealers the world

over multi-millionaires, the general himself has not become wealthy and in the Soviet era drew only a modest pension.

That though seems to be of little consequence to him. “People say: If you lived in the West you would have

been a multi-millionaire by now.“ “But are there not other values in life? Which of the

Western weapons makers can say that a bronze statue of them has been erected in their home village.”