The inventor of the iconic AK-47 assault rifle, Mikhail Kalashnikov, has died at the age of 94. His ingenuity earned him widespread admiration, but his legacy became more controversial when his weapons were used in some of the world’s bloodiest conflicts.
“Mikhail Kalashnikov’s entire life is a shining example of dedication to serving your country,” said a statement from Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu. Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed “deep condolences” over the death of the engineer.
Kalashnikov who continued working well into his nineties, had been suffering from heart and intestinal problems, and on November 17 was admitted into intensive care in Izhevsk in central Russia – where the plant that produces the eponymous rifles is located. The official cause of death will be revealed following a mandatory autopsy.
A public funeral will be organized by the regional administration, in consultation with surviving relatives, though no date has been named so far. For most of his life, Kalashnikov, who was famous for his frugal lifestyle, was feted as a straightforward hero.
The self-taught peasant turned tank mechanic who never finished high school, but achieved a remarkable and lasting feat of engineering while still in his twenties. He was forever asked if he regretted engineering the weapon that probably killed more than any other in the last fifty years.
“I invented it for the protection of the Motherland. I have no regrets and bear no responsibility for how politicians have used it,” he told them. On a few occasions, when in a more reflective mood, the usually forceful Kalashnikov wondered what might have been.
“I’m proud of my invention, but I’m sad that it is used by terrorists,” he said once. “I would prefer to have invented a machine that people could use and that would help farmers with their work – for example a lawnmower.”
Indeed, at his museum in Izhevsk, where he spent most of his life working at the factory that was eventually named after him, there is an ingenious mechanical lawnmower Kalashnikov invented to more easily take care of the lawn at his country house.
It’s not what he will be remembered for. Considering his age and circumstances, it was hardly surprising that Kalashnikov felt he could best serve his country by creating weapons.
Born in 1919, Mikhail was the seventeenth child of well-off peasants. When he was eleven, during Joseph Stalin’s collectivization campaign his parents had their land confiscated, and the whole family was exiled to Siberia (a fact rarely mentioned in fawning Soviet-era biographies).
As the country began to mobilize ahead of a war that seemed inevitable, but was as yet undeclared, Kalashnikov chose to go into a tank brigade. His aptitude for engineering was immediately apparent.
He was allowed to create several modifications – a tank shot counter, a running time meter – that were to be adopted for the whole Red Army, and made him famous. He was destined to go on an engineering course, when Operation Barbarossa intervened.