Arms and the Man
How the father of the AK-47 became an unlikely Soviet hero
The AK-47 and the Evolution of War
by C. J. Chivers
In the final days of the Soviet Union, when the old icons were fast decaying and any future ones were frantically packing off to escape the ruins, the guardians of Russia’s past had few relics to showcase. One of the last heroes standing, a Stalin Prize winner and two-time Hero of Socialist Labor, was Mikhail Kalashnikov, designer of the world’s most famous automatic rifle, the AK-47. Even after the USSR fell, Kalashnikov—now ninety—has enjoyed an afterlife as a living monument to the days when the Kremlin’s fiat reached from Eastern Europe to Southeast Asia and well into Africa. With characteristic bluster, Boris Yeltsin, the would-be revolutionary who overturned the ancien régime, not only crowned Kalashnikov a lieutenant general but draped the Order of Saint Andrew the First-Called—a revived imperial medal—around his neck.
Indeed, as the old order faded, Kalashnikov’s legend only grew, his name becoming a trademark—there would be Kalashnikov T-shirts, Kalashnikov vodka (sold in AK-shaped bottles), a Kalashnikov museum, even a bronze bust in his native village. Russians demanded the myth of a proletarian defender of the motherland. The weapons designer, with his diffident manner, love of Tchaikovsky, and rainbow of medals across his chest, stood nearly alone. Above all, the Russian state needed him. The father of the AK-47 and its long list of progeny embodied the best of a world torn asunder.
The story of Kalashnikov’s unlikely career has been told before. Indeed, he himself has written or cowritten a shelf of autobiographies. These tales, like the flood of interviews