The new statue of Mikhail Kalashnikov cradling his signature AK-47 assault rifle unveiled Tuesday in Moscow commemorates one of Russia’s most renowned and reviled inventions. By some estimates, the AK-47 and its versions account for about one-fifth of the world’s firearms, the rugged and reliable weapon of choice for many armies, terror groups and drug gangs.
A look at Kalashnikov and his gun:
THE MAKINGS OF A DESIGNER
Kalashnikov was born into a Siberian peasant family in 1919. Mechanically minded, he at first aspired to design farm equipment. But World War II called him into the army.
He was wounded in the 1941 battle of Bryansk, and spent several months recovering in a hospital. While on the mend, he heard other soldiers complaining about how the Red Army’s rifles were inferior to those wielded by the Nazis, and he began to work on designs of his own.
The army put him to work as a designer and although his first efforts were unsuccessful, he broke through in 1947. The gun’s name commemorates the designer and the year — Avtomat Kalashnikova (19)47.
A GUN ADOPTED AROUND THE WORLD
The AK-47 soon became widely popular for its adaptability to rugged conditions, including jungles, deserts and cold. It is simple to operate and easy to maintain — with little training, users reportedly can field-strip one in half a minute.
The gun was quickly adopted by Soviet Bloc armies and the Soviet Union distributed them to the armies of ideological allies and revolutionary groups throughout Africa and Asia. Moscow also freely licensed other countries to produce local versions.
A RUSSIAN CULTURE ICON
The AK-47’s distinctive profile with a banana clip makes it one of the world’s most recognizable firearms. It appears on the flag of Mozambique, the flag of Hezbollah and its barrel is shown on Zimbabwe’s coat of arms.
It also enters the precincts of kitsch — souvenir hunters can find glass mock-ups of the rifle filled with vodka.
In the words of Russian President Vladimir Putin: “The Kalashnikov rifle is a symbol of the creative genius of our people.” Or as Russia’s Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky put it: the Kalashnikov rifle has become “Russia’s cultural brand.”
HOW DID KALASHNIKOV FEEL?
Kalashnikov had said repeatedly that he was untroubled by inventing a gun that shed so much blood, insisting that he designed it to defend the Motherland.
“I sleep well. It’s the politicians who are to blame for failing to come to an agreement and resorting to violence,” he said in 2007.
But a few months before his death in 2013 at age 94, he had penned a brooding letter to Russian Orthodox Church leader Patriarch Kirill.
“My mental anguish is unbearable. I have the same insoluble question: if my submachine gun took people’s lives, does it mean that I, Mikhail Kalashnikov, 93 years old, the son of a peasant, and Orthodox Christian by my faith, am responsible for the deaths of people, even if they were enemies?” he wrote.
The patriarch responded that the blame lies not with him, but with those who used his weapon with evil intentions.