Stephen McGinty: Haunted by the AK-47 curse

Kalashnikov with a model of his AK-47 assault rifle. Picture: AP
Kalashnikov with a model of his AK-47 assault rifle. Picture: AP
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History will find that Mikhail Kalashnikov, the inventor of the notorious weapon named after him, was innocent of the deaths of countless soldiers and civilians, argues Stephen McGinty

MIKHAIL Kalashnikov was ten years old when he first shed a tear over a gun. Born and raised on a collective farm in western Siberia, he was fascinated by machinery, by sprockets and gears, switches and engines.

One day he found an old, broken pistol which he repaired from scavenged spare parts and when he showed his parents, instead of being praised for his ingenuity he was told to break it up and throw it away in the forest. Before his birth, his parents had been branded kulaks, rich peasants and enemies of the new Soviet Union, and were evicted from their farm and banished to the east and so had little appetite for indulging their son at the expense of strict rules governing the possession of personal arms. Kalashnikov did as he was told, but not without weeping over his loss.

In a long, eventful life it would not be the last time he would become upset over a weapon, or 100 million of them, to be more precise. The inventor of the AK-47 assault rifle died last month at the age of 94, and for many years he defended his lethal ingenuity while politely regretting the use with which it had been put by boy soldiers in the Congo, muslim fundamentalists in the Middle East and Mexican drug dealers.

Yet this week a Russian news site reported that more than a year before his death, Kalashnikov had written an anguished letter to the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, in which he confessed to being tortured by guilt over the countless deaths his invention had triggered.

He wrote: “My 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? The longer I live, the more this question drills itself into my brain and the more I wonder why the Lord allowed man to have the devilish desires of envy, greed and aggression.”

The letter was typed on Kalashnikov’s personal writing paper, and was signed with the erratic wavering hand of the elderly by “a slave of God, the designer Mikhail Kalashnikov”.

He was not alone in succumbing to a degree of “inventor’s regret”. Alfred Nobel, the Swedish chemist who gave the world dynamite could have assuaged his feelings of regret that his invention had proved so lethal to man on the grounds that this was not his principal objective. Dynamite was for blowing out tunnels, not blowing up people, yet he still changed his will in 1895 in order to found the Nobel Peace Prize among others.

The Nobel Peace Prize was eventually won by Sir Joseph Rotblat, the Polish nuclear physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project to invent the atomic bomb, before dedicating his life to pushing the genie back into the bottle through nuclear disarmament. During the American Civil War, Richard Gatling developed the world’s first machine-gun in the hope that its tremendous firepower would eventually reduce the requirement for large armies. However, man’s propensity for conflict led in time to even larger armies in which each man had the firepower of a Gatling gun.

Yet does the inventor of a lethal device have blood on his hands, or is it only the person who ultimately pulls the trigger, plunges the detonator or orders the A-bomb to be dropped? I would argue that it depends on the individual’s intent: are they doing so for defence, aggression or even pure profit? In the case of Mikhail Kalashnikov, I do not think that he was ultimately responsible for the use to which his invention has been put over the last 75 years, for when he began work on his design in 1942 his goal was to give Mother Russia a fighting chance against the marauding German army.

While lying in a field hospital, recovering from shrapnel wounds received during the Battle of Bryansk, Kalashnikov heard soldiers nearby complaining bitterly about the Soviet army’s lousy weapon in comparison to the German army’s automatic weapons. As Kalashnikov later said: “Courage was not enough. The Nazis had superior armoury. I wanted to redress the balance.” He set about working on new designs for a sub-machine gun, his first attempt was a failure, while a carbine he designed in 1944 was also less than successful, but his third attempt completed after the Second World War had ended was a technical triumph. His goal had been simple, a dependable gun that could be easily understood by an illiterate peasant as the bulk of the Soviet Army then consisted off.

The AK-47, named after Kalashnikov and the year of its development, was so simple that even a child could use it, as so many later did in Africa. It had a distinctive curved magazine and one lever that could be moved to one of three settings, safety, single shot or automatic fire which could expel ten bullets per second. The design was so resilient that where other guns would jam or seize when dropped in water, sand or the mud of a forest floor, the AK-47 would continue to prove lethal.

Stalin was said to have kept the prototype on his desk for two days, so impressed was the dictator by the utilitarian design. By 1949 the AK-47 was standard issue across the Soviet Army and was widely used across the soviet bloc in Eastern Europe as well as in China. As the model was easily copied, duplicates were manufactured and by the 1970s the AK-47 had become the weapon of choice for anti-imperialist struggles around the world.

It would eventually become an icon, appearing on murals in Belfast or woven into Afghan carpets. Saddam Hussein’s son, Uday had a gold-plated AK-47 in his personal armoury while in Sudan a popular song goes: “Can’t get no cash/you’re trash without a kalash.”

It is impossible to say how many people have been killed by Kalashnikov’s design. Millions? Tens of millions? And yet there is one point in Kalashnikov’s favour: he never made a kopeck from his eponymous killing machine, although after the ideology for which he fought had crumbled and collapsed and in the final years of his life he struck a deal that saw his name emblazoned on T-shirts and glasses.

It is this point that separates him from the most famous victim of a weapon’s success, Sarah Winchester. When her husband, William Winchester, the heir to the successful armaments company, died in 1881, Sarah Winchester visited a spiritualist in Boston who told her to go west, to the end of America, if she wished to outwit the ghosts of the thousands killed by her family’s Winchester rifles. She was also told to begin building a house and to never stop lest the ghosts take residence in the finished structure, and so, in 1884 in what would become San Jose in California, construction on the Winchester House began.

For the next 38 years construction continued seven days a week on an insane, unplanned rambling structure, where doors opened on to brick walls, and rooms were askew and contorted all the better to confuse and trap restless spirits. In the end, the $1,000 per day profits from a 50 per cent share in the Winchester Repeating Arms Company brought her a 160-room mansion and no peace. The incessant hammering and sawing stopped on the day Sarah Winchester died.

If Kalashnikov, like Winchester, feared damnation and the torments of angry spirits, he was reassured by the Russian Patriarch Kirill, who replied to his letter stating: “The Church has a very definite position: when weapons serve to protect the Fatherland, the Church supports both its creators and the soldiers who use it.” His spokesman later added: “He designed this rifle to defend his country, not so terrorists could use it in Saudi Arabia.”

I would agree.