Last week, my friend and colleague, Mikhail Kalashnikov, was laid to rest in Moscow after a long and distinguished career that made his name instantly recognizable the world over. He will be long remembered here in Russia and by his many friends around the world.
Kalashnikov was, of course, the soldier who during World War II invented the AK-47, which since then has been the most widely manufactured and copied “assault rifle” in world history. Guinness World Records estimates that as of a few years ago, more than 100 million AKs had been produced not just in Russia, but in China and virtually everywhere else that one can picture firearms being manufactured and deployed. The AK, which was first issued to the old Soviet military back in 1949, is standard issue to the police agencies of more than a hundred countries 65 years later, and its image even graces the national flags of several countries.
In some ways, the invention of the Kalashnikov was an accident of history. Young Mikhail Kalashnikov joined his nation’s armed forces in 1941 as Hitler’s armies swarmed over her borders. He was assigned in August of that year as a tank commander, but was soon critically wounded in the fierce fighting that characterized the Nazi attempt to drive our armies from the field. He was, however, a patriot of the first order, and as he lay in the hospital, began thinking of other ways in which he might help.
He began thinking about and tinkering with the way weapons worked and how they might be improved. By 1945, he was ready. He entered an automatic firearms development contest and within two years, his design was dubbed the AK-47 and being recommended for adoption by the Soviet military. It was adopted two years later as the “7.62 mm Automatica Kalashnikov, Model 1947” and the rest, as so many Americans like to say, is history.
Kalashnikov was quickly awarded the Order of the Red Star and Stalin Prize First Class for the development of the rifle that has since been listed as one of the 20th century’s “most outstanding inventions.” At the time of his death, he was the only person who, among many other state honors, had been recognized as a “Hero of Russia” and twice as a “hero of Socialist Labor.”
The Russian version of the AK was manufactured from 1949 on at Izhevsk, which quickly became known as the Russian weapons capital. As a general, Kalashnikov headed weapons development at the plant for many years and was involved not just in later versions of the AK, but in the design, development and manufacture of more than a hundred other weapons, may of which are in wide use today.
Despite the honors, the recognition and all that came with it, however, Kalashnikov remained the smiling young soldier who went off to war in 1941 to defend his country. His warmth, sense of humor and willingness to work with and share credit with others were legendary, as was the circle of friends he developed around the world.
A product of rural Russia, young Kalashnikov had dreamed not of designing weapons, but of writing poetry and did, in fact, continue producing poetry right up to the day of his death. Like many young people growing up on farms or in the countryside in those days, he discovered that he had both a talent and interest in tinkering with, repairing and improving machinery. He worked as a tractor mechanic, and it was as a mechanic that he joined the army in 1938.
He became a weapons designer because he had a burning desire to defend his country. He once said that he would have been just as happy designing farm equipment, but it was modern weaponry that was needed as he lay in that hospital bed listening to fellow soldiers complaining about the failures and weaknesses of the weapons they were carrying into battle.
The success of the AK was based on simplicity. It was easy and inexpensive to produce, to use and to maintain. It worked in wet environments and in the desert, and rarely misfired. That was exactly what Kalashnikov had in mind when he developed it. He once said that he had “read somewhere that God the Almighty said all that is too complex is unnecessary, and it is the simple that is needed . So this is my motto — I have been creating weapons to defend the borders of my fatherland, to be simple and reliable.”
Critics of the military and of firearms were constantly targeting him as somehow “responsible” for the uses and misuses of his invention, but he never gave an inch. “I am not responsible for the many people killed by my weapon,” he once said. “Blame the politicians. They’re the ones who start wars.”
Last year, I had the pleasure of attending the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting in Houston. Kalashnikov couldn’t join me, though we have both been “life members” of the NRA for years. At 93, his health was even then beginning to fail, but I thought of him as I toured the exhibit area where I saw dozens of AK-47 clones. Most of them were manufactured in places like China, the Czech Republic or even the former Yugoslavia. They were fine copies, but like everyone visiting the exhibit, I realized with pride that when one thinks of the AK, one thinks of it as one of Mikhail Kalashnikov’s and our country’s greatest accomplishments.
Sen. Alexandr Torshin is first deputy chairman of the Federal Assembly, the parliament of Russia.