November 01, 2019

The Gunmaker

The Gunmaker
Izhevsk in 1918, the year before the gunmaker Kalashnikov was born here.

The whole world knows the word “Kalashnikov.” Some hear it as a proper noun – the name of Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov, the renowned weapons designer from Izhevsk, the capital of the Urals’ Udmurt Republic. For others, it is a common noun, as in “He grabbed the Kalashnikov and started to shoot.” But even as a common noun (and one found in dictionaries across the world), the gunsmith’s surname has become freighted with history. What kind of a man was Mikhail Kalashnikov? And can we ever separate the man from the legends that surround him and his AK-47?

Another native of Izhevsk, where Kalashnikov spent most of his life, once told of how, when he was a child in the 1970s, he lived next door to Kalashnikov and often saw him going about his business in their neighborhood. When he mentioned this to his classmates, nobody believed him, since everyone thought that the inventor of the AK-47 had long since died. Even in the “closed” city of Izhevsk, people did not realize that Kalashnikov was still alive. The man was already a legend, known to all, but not really known by anybody.

Interestingly, Mikhail Kalashnikov, this Soviet legend, was the son of kulaks, who, as a child, was exiled to Siberia and had to forge documents to escape exile and rid himself of some of the stain on his family history. After a stint as a mechanic at a tractor station back in his native Altai, and then, in 1937-38, as technical secretary in a political office of the Turkestan-Siberia Railroad (such offices propagandized and enforced the party line – and this at the height of Stalin’s terror), Kalashnikov was drafted and made a tank mechanic. During the war, he was wounded and spent months hospitalized. Beginning in 1942, having shown some talent in weapons design, he was assigned to work at an institute, where he came up with what would ultimately become the renowned AK-47 (Avtomat Kalashnikov; the number represents the year it was created). It was only in 1949 that Kalashnikov began working at Izhevsk’s weapons factory. He was married, divorced, married again, had children. Having served in the war as a sergeant, only much later was he promoted to major, then colonel, and ultimately lieutenant general. Over his lifetime he came up with numerous inventions and modernized his own renowned assault rifle.

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