I always had a soft spot for old Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov, who died just before Christmas. When I met him, his Siberian eyes were as alert as a wolf’s; he was brash, tough, unashamed. I guess he had to be. To have given your name to the most famous rifle in the world – which I had myself seen in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, “Palestine”, Libya, Algeria, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bosnia, Serbia, Yemen – you have to have a reply to the obvious question. How could Kalashnikov justify all this blood pouring from human beings, courtesy of his diabolic invention?
“You see,” he said, “all these feelings come about because one side wants to liberate itself with arms. But in my opinion it is good that prevails – it will be after I am dead. But the time will come when my weapons will be no more used or necessary.”
Now that man – a small squat figure with, when I met him 12 years ago, grey, coiffed hair and a few gold teeth – has indeed departed to the heaven of all armourers, having spent some of his last days in the weapons factory he still ran at the incredible age of 94 in the central Russian city of Izhevsk. And the very next day, there were the rebels of the Central African Republic on our television screens, brandishing his Kalashnikov AK-47 automatic rifle – AK for Automat Kalashnikova, 47 for 1947, the date of its first manufacture. Kalashnikov’s story is well known. Wounded in the Battle of Bryansk in 1941, he lay in his hospital bed and pondered a question from a fellow patient. “A soldier in the bed 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.”
Mikhail Kalashnikov was all too well aware of his gun’s mythic status. “When I met the Mozambique Minister of Defence,” he told me, “he presented me with his country’s national banner which carries the image of a Kalashnikov sub-machine gun. And he told me that when all the liberation soldiers went home to their villages, they named their sons ‘Kalash’. I think this is an honour, not just a military success. It’s a success in life when people are named after me, after Mikhail Kalashnikov.”
I did not mention that the Lebanese Hezbollah had also incorporated his wretched gun into their banner; the rifle forms the “l” of “Allah” in the Arabic script on their yellow and green flag.
Yet Mikhail Kalashnikov had obviously thought much about his role in the world – and about death – and he wanted, I thought, some kind of absolution. “It is not my fault that the Kalashnikov became very well known in the world, that it was used in many troubled places,” he said. “I think the policies of these countries are to blame, not the weapons designers. Man is born to protect his family, his children, his wife. But I want you to know that apart from armaments, I have written three books in which I try to educate our youth to show respect for their families, for old people, for history…”
The old boy produced an English-language edition of his book – From a Stranger’s Doorstep to the Kremlin Gates, quite a good read, with plenty of self-deprecating patriotism – and signed it in blue crayon.
He told me an odd story, did Mikhail Kalashnikov, who was still wearing his two Hero of Socialist Labour medals. A Saudi army major had once asked him, he said, if it had occurred to him to change his faith. “By Christian standards you are a great sinner,” the Saudi told him. “You are responsible for thousands, even tens of thousands, of deaths around the globe. They’ve long prepared a place for you in Hell.” Kalashnikov was a true Muslim, the major nonetheless insisted. When the time of his earthly existence was over, Allah would welcome him as a hero because “Allah’s mercy is limitless”, he said.
So is Mikhail Kalashnikov now in heaven or hell? Of course, I asked him back then what God would really say of him when he died. “We were educated in such a way that I am probably an atheist,” he replied. “But something exists…”