As high-ranking officials and Russian Orthodox priests looked on, a 30-foot statue of Mikhail Kalashnikov was unveiled today (Sept.19), in central Moscow. The monument depicts Kalashnikov clutching his creation, the AK-47— the world’s most famous assault rifle—and sits on one of the busiest streets in the city. The unveiling featured much pomp and ritual—a priest sprinkled holy water on the statue, onlookers crossed themselves, and a former spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church took to social and wrote, “our weapon is a holy weapon.”
All of the piety would have likely made Kalashnikov’s skin crawl.
He brooded over his namesake
A year before he died at age 94 in 2013, the inventor wrote a tortured letter to the head of the church. As reported by Ivestia, the pro-Kremlin newspaper, Kalashnikov insisted his “spiritual pain is unbearable.” “I keep having the same unsolved question: if my rifle claimed people’s lives, then can it be that I…a Christian and an Orthodox believer, was to blame for their deaths?” To be clear, Kalashnikov did not always feel this way. In 2007, he said, ”I sleep well. It’s the politicians who are to blame for failing to come to an agreement and resorting to violence.”
Born in 1919 to peasant parents in the southern Altai region, he grew up aspiring to be a poet. He was forced into the Soviet Army during World War II. In 1941, after he was injured in the Battle of Bryansk, he started experimenting with weapons design. He and his comrades felt they were outgunned by the Germans.
The AK-47 was designed in response to the Sturmgewehr 44 (StG 44) assault rifle, the selective-fire (automatic or semi-automatic) rifle issued to German soldiers. Kalashnikov took inspiration from the StG 44 and the American M1. The model name combined “Avtomat (automatic) Kalashnikov” and the year of its introduction, 1947. It wasn’t until 1949 that the Soviet army finally adopted the weapon.
The genius of the AK-47
The strength of the AK-47 is in its simple design—it rarely breaks, can take a beating, and is easy to use. It’s also cheap to make, and individual weapons can last as long as 40 years.
Kalashnikovs now dominate, making up almost a fifth of small arms (pdf, page 3) around the globe. Thousands have made it into the hands of insurgents, terrorists, and rebels. They are prominently displayed on the flags of Mozambique and Hezbollah.
The AK-47 made it into the Guinness Book of World Records because of its impressive volume of product—100 million worldwide. More so, demand for the rifle jumped after president Barack Obama imposed sanctions on Russia and spurred Kalashnikov USA to split from its Russian supplier and seek to make a version of the gun in Florida.
What the statue means
With tensions between Russia and the West at their highest since the end of the Cold War, it’s possible that this monument is yet another volley in what seems to be a never-ending conflict.
Memorializing Kalashnikov may signal a renewed demand for recognition of Russia’s contribution to global warfare, argues Nina Khrushcheva, professor of international affairs at The New School in New York. The weapon is distinctly Russian—created in the Soviet era, it was the standard rifle for the Warsaw Pact countries dominated by the USSR. Yet US-made arms, from manufacturers such as Colt and Smith & Wesson, are featured and memorialized worldwide in movies and television, stirring admiration, and demand. AK-47s are instead associated with vigilantes and terrorists, an image the Kremlin might now be trying to change.
Mark Galeotti, a senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations in Prague, believes the statue is yet another marker of Vladimir Putin’s militaristic nationalism. This moment plays into Russia’s larger military-consumer complex, which includes high-end army fashion, “Crimea is Ours!” commemorative plates, vodka in AK-47-shaped bottles, and other souvenir-type products.