Mikhail Kalashnikov, the Smith and/or Wesson of the 20th century, has died (peacefully) at 94. While his final months were spent in Izhevsk, the 19th-largest city in Russia, his name is famous far beyond the peaks of the Western Urals.
Creator of the AK-47 (Automatic by Kalashnikov), Kalashnikov became synonymous with global combat–from guerrilla to gangster to guard and everything in between–after the weapon first appeared in 1949 and took off from there. Earlier this year for Tablet, Haroon Shah scribed an unbelievable piece about the weapon’s inimitable place in Kashmir. Decades after its debut, the AK-47 remains the most popular weapon in the world. (Here is one of many poems about Kalashnikovs in the ether.)
One startling example of the weapon’s extension into the social fabric: Last week when an American drone strike killed a number of civilians in a wedding convoy in Yemen, the Kalashnikov was there as solace:
At first, the Yemeni government, a close partner with the Obama administration on counterterrorism matters, said that all the dead were militants. But Yemeni officials conceded soon afterward that some civilians had been killed, and they gave 101 Kalashnikov rifles and about 24 million Yemeni riyals (about $110,000) to relatives of the victims as part of a traditional compensation process, a local tribal leader said.
The son of Siberian peasants, Kalashnikov wanted to be a poet, he wanted to “construct agricultural machinery” were it not for the Nazis and his love of Russia. Instead, he became a bombastic icon, a national hero, and “a Soviet nostalgist” as C.J. Chivers wrote. About the proliferation of his infamous weapon, Chivers added:
It cemented its place in martial history in the 1960s in Vietnam, where a new American rifle, the M-16, experienced problems with corrosion and jamming in the jungles, while Kalashnikovs, carried by Vietcong guerrillas and North Vietnamese soldiers, worked almost flawlessly.
By this time, in an effort to standardize infantry weapons among potential allies, the Soviet Union had exported the rifle’s specifications and its manufacturing technology to China, Egypt, North Korea and the Warsaw Pact nations. Communist engineers would eventually share the manufacturing technology with other countries, including Iraq.
The weapon’s design was also incorporated into arms manufactured in Finland, Israel, South Africa and other nations. The result was a long line of derivatives and copies. Almost all are referred to as AK-47s by colloquial, if inaccurate, shorthand.
His name ubiquitous for generation, Kalashnikov remained a cherished national figure late into his life:
At a lavish Kremlin ceremony on Kalashnikov’s 90th birthday, then-President Dmitry Medvedev bestowed on him the highest state honor – the Hero of Russia gold star medal – and lauded him for creating “the national brand every Russian is proud of”.
And better yet, a local legend:
He said he was proud of his bronze bust installed in his native village of Kurya in the Siberian region of Altai. He said newlyweds bring flowers to the bust. “They whisper ‘Uncle Misha, wish us happiness and healthy kids,’” he said. “What other gun designer can boast of that?”
He’s got us there.
Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.