He has designed over 150 models of small weapons in total, but Mikhail Kalashnikov was made famous as the inventor of the AK-47, the world’s most famous small arms weapon in the world. Throughout his career, Kalashnikov has received over 14 medals as well as 2 major awards: the Stalin Prize and the Lenin Prize from the Soviet Union. The country of Russia presented him with decorations, awards, medals* until as recently as 2009, Kalashnikov would have been 90 at the time.
Kalashnikov’s father, Timofey Aleksandrovich Kalashnikov, was a peasant. He completed two grades of parochial school and could read and write. In 1901 he married Aleksandra Frolovna Kaverina, who did not share in his in his ability to read or write. Together, they had 19 children, but only eight survived to the adult age; Kalashnikov was born 17th, and nearly made it 12/19 when he was near death at age six.
According to the political theory of Marxism–Leninism, “kulaks” were class enemies of poorer peasants. Lenin described them as “bloodsuckers, vampires, plunderers of the people and profiteers, who batten on famine.” Between 1929-1933, Stalin sought to collectivize the peasants. He demanded that peasants with a couple of cows or five or six acres more than their neighbors were “kulaks”.
In 1930, Timofey Kalashnikov was named a kulak, for resisting to turn grain over the government. He was immediately deprived of property and deported to Siberia, where he died shortly after, Mikhail Kalashnikov would have been 11 year old at the time.
As a youth Mikhail Kalashnikov spent much time writing poetry, which he would continue throughout his life, publishing six books. But life in Siberia required resources beyond farming and Mikhail Kalashnikov learned to hunt using his father’s rifle.
After completing 7th grade, Kalashnikov left his family and returned to the village where he was born, hitchhiking nearly a 1,000 miles. When he returned he took employment at a mechanics shop. By 1938 he was sent into the Red Army; however, because of his small stature he was assigned to tank mechanic; later relisted as a tank commander. Kalashnikov was wounded in battle in October of 1941 and would remain hospitalized for seven months. While in the hospital he overheard fellow soldiers dissatisfaction about the Soviet rifles.
Kalashnikov set out to design a new rifle, while his first design was not accepted, his design talent was. From 1942 onward, Kalashnikov became the Chief Artillery Directorate of the Red Army. He set out designing gar-operated carbine, which was meant for the SKS rifles, but would become the prototype for an entirely new family of rifles. By 1947 the AK-47 was finalized, two years later it was standardized as the assault rifle of the Soviet Army.
In the 2005 movie, Lord of War the opening scene begins with a monologue of arms dealer, Yuri Orlov, “Of all the weapons in the vast soviet arsenal, nothing was more profitable than Avtomat Kalashnikova model of 1947. More commonly known as the AK-47, or Kalashnikov. It’s the world’s most popular assault rifle. A weapon all fighters love. An elegantly simple 9 pound amalgamation of forged steel and plywood. It doesn’t break, jam, or overheat. It’ll shoot whether it’s covered in mud or filled with sand. It’s so easy, even a child can use it; and they do. The Soviets put the gun on a coin. Mozambique put it on their flag. Since the end of the Cold War, the Kalashnikov has become the Russian people’s greatest export. After that comes vodka, caviar, and suicidal novelists. One thing is for sure, no one was lining up to buy their cars.”
It has been heralded as The Gun that Changed the World. It is an incredibly reliable weapon that fires 600+ rounds a minute. 82 countries have AK-47s in their state arsenal and 14 nations manufacture them. Estimates put the number of AK-47 that have been produced over 100 million.
It also the world’s most poorly regulated small arms weapon. In some parts of Africa you can purchase on for as little as thirty American dollars. Mr. Kalashnikov has been a supporter of international regulation being quoted as saying, “When I watch TV and see small arms of the AK family in the hands of bandits, I keep asking myself: how did those people get hold of them?”, but also suggested also that “It is not the designers who must ultimately take responsibility for where guns end up – it is governments who must control their production and export.”
Kalashnikov like many modern designers believed in the power of minimalism, “When a young man, I read somewhere the following: God the Almighty said, ‘All that is too complex is unnecessary, and it is simple that is needed’ … So this has been my lifetime motto – I have been creating weapons to defend the borders of my fatherland, to be simple and reliable.”
Despite this, Kalashnikov has spent most of his life defending his work:
“It is not the designers who must ultimately take responsibility for where guns end up – it is governments who must control their production and export”
“I’m proud of my invention, but I’m sad that it is used by terrorists … I would prefer to have invented a machine that people could use and that would help farmers with their work — for example a lawn mower.”
“I created a weapon to defend the borders of my motherland. It’s not my fault that it’s being used where it shouldn’t be. The politicians are more to blame for this.”
Kalashnikov himself claimed that he was solely motivated by service to the Soviet Union and not to money, which he made no direct profit from the weapon’s production.
What is to become of Mikhail Kalahnikov’s legacy? His design 50+ years later continues to be produced at a rate of 1 million per year by both manufactures in Russia and knockoffs around the world. This same invention that contributes to the one thousand small arms murders committed daily throughout the world. It would be too easy to assume that he was fully aware that his design would have changed the course of history (for better or worse) or that he could anticipate his product ending up in the hands of children in Sudan; however it’s also hard for me to swallow that despite seeing this that he continued building upon this legacy. Even today as he passed away at age 94 from a prolonged illness, his legacy survives him as his son Victor continues on the family tradition and grandson Igor profits from trademarks and merchandise carrying the family name: vodka, umbrellas, knives, et cetera. They sell it all.
At the end of the day, I feel indifferent about the story of his life. A very hard beginning and a life surrounded by praise for a more efficient device to kill people…
It’s sad when design is used for evil or maybe that’s just my belief, but as long as I’m around Lion + Panda will continue our mission: To Make The World A Sexier Place*
*And maybe just a little nicer, too.
Want to read more about Mikhail? Check out C.J. Chiver’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Gun, many of the facts stated here are borrowed from the book and multiple Wikipedia entries.