Kalashnikov gives name to 'manly' but less lethal products

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FROM Albania to Afghanistan, the legendary Kalashnikov rifle is cherished by terrorists, freedom fighters and revolutionaries.

Lightweight, reliable and deadly, the "Kalash" was invented by Mikhail Kalashnikov, a Red Army tank commander, as he lay in a hospital bed recovering from injuries sustained in the Second World War.

More than 70 million of his automatic rifles have been produced since 1949, but Mr Kalashnikov, now 83, has never received a kopeck in royalties.

All that is about to change.

This week, it was confirmed that Mr Kalashnikov has struck a deal with a German company allowing it to use his name on a range of "manly" products — from snowboards and umbrellas to shaving foam, watches and penknives.

In return, Marken Marketing International (MMI), with a reported annual turnover of 7 million, will give the impoverished inventor a cut of its profits.

The German firm, based in Solingen, hopes to cash in on the rugged, durable image associated with Mr Kalashnikov’s celebrated weapon.

The inventor, who has acquired a 33 per cent stake in MMI, backed the idea, telling journalists: "The articles are very similar to my rifle: reliable, easy to use and indestructible."

Living in the former Soviet Union, Mr Kalashnikov was decorated with numerous honours, including the Hero of Socialist Labour and the Stalin Prize, but was denied any financial reward for his invention.

Yesterday, the Russian press praised his deal with MMI as sweet justice for a man who has hitherto been denied the fruits of his labour.

"Kalashnikov is about to get his revenge," said the daily Moskovsky Komsomolets, which explained that the seeds for the deal with MMI were sown four years ago, when the company’s chief executive stumbled across the inventor in his home town, Izhevsk, in Siberia.

One press report noted the Kalashnikov brand would be applied to "a whole range of products for real men", including a kind of vodka cocktail.

Komsomolskaya Pravda showed Mr Kalashnikov brandishing an AK-47, with a speech bubble saying: "Now, as well as automatic rifles, semi-automatic umbrellas!"

Mr Kalashnikov, who began work on the rifle in 1941, said he had received offers from firms in the United States to use his name but was reluctant to enter a business deal with the Soviet Union’s Cold War enemy. "I thought if an American company used my name for profit it would have been a betrayal of the motherland," he said.

Born in the Altai region in 1919, one of 18 children in a large peasant family, Mr Kalashnikov worked as a railway clerk before joining the army in 1938. During his service he invented several modifications for Soviet tanks, including a device which enhanced firing through turret slits. He was wounded when the T-38 tank he was commanding was hit by a German shell, tearing off a chunk of the vehicle’s armour and smashing it into his body.

Mr Kalashnikov later explained: "I was in the hospital, and a soldier beside me asked, ‘Why do our soldiers have only one rifle for two or three of our men, when the Germans have automatics?’

"So I designed one. I was a soldier and I created a machine gun for a soldier.

"It was called an Avtomat Kalashnikova, the automatic weapon of Kalashnikov - AK - and it carried the date of its first manufacture, 1947."

The Kalashnikov rifle was first issued as the standard Red Army issue in 1949 and quickly acquired near-mythical status as a hardy, reliable weapon. It was adopted by armies, paramilitary gangs and terrorist groups across the world.

By 1990, about 70 million Kalashnikov rifles of various modifications had been manufactured, both in Russia and abroad, including those made under licence or illegally.

Some countries have chosen to include it in their national emblems and guerrilla fighters from Mozambique told Mr Kalashnikov they had named babies "Kalash" in honour of the weapon. However, last year, during a visit to a weapons museum in Germany, Mr Kalashnikov admitted he was proud of his invention, but sad it had become a tool for terrorists. He said he wished he had invented a machine that would have helped farmers with their work - "for example, a lawnmower".