The Regrets of the AK-47 Creator

The late Russian general is not the first inventor to have second thoughts about his deadly design.

Russian honor guards salute during a funeral ceremony of Mikhail Kalashnikov, the designer of the iconic AK-47 assault rifle, in Mytishchi outside Moscow on Dec. 27, 2013.
National Journal
Marina Koren
Jan. 13, 2014, 8:56 a.m.

The cre­at­or of the world’s most fam­ous as­sault rifle knew well its deadly ca­pa­city. Still, Mikhail Kalash­nikov, who died last month at the age of 94, ex­pressed few re­grets about his in­ven­tion while he was alive.

“The fact that people die be­cause of an AK-47 is not be­cause of the de­sign­er, but be­cause of polit­ics,” he told The Guard­i­an‘s Nick Paton Walsh in 2003.

Now, a let­ter Kalash­nikov wrote just months be­fore his death, pub­lished Monday by the Rus­si­an news­pa­per Izves­tia, re­veals that the AK-47’s im­pact weighed heav­ily on his mind.

“My spir­itu­al pain is un­bear­able. I keep ask­ing the same in­sol­uble ques­tion. If my rifle de­prived people of life then can it be that I … a Chris­ti­an and an or­tho­dox be­liev­er, was to blame for their deaths?” wrote Kalash­nikov to Pat­ri­arch Kir­ill, the chief bish­op of the Rus­si­an Or­tho­dox Church, last April.

“The longer I live,” said Kalash­nikov, whose years of test-fir­ing the weapon rendered him al­most com­pletely deaf, “the more this ques­tion drills it­self in­to my brain and the more I won­der why the Lord al­lowed man the dev­il­ish de­sires of envy, greed and ag­gres­sion.”

Kalash­nikov de­signed the AK-47 in 1947 for the Red Army. Cheap to pro­duce and easy to use, the as­sault rifle be­came one of the most widely used weapons in the world, with 100 mil­lion AK-47s cur­rently in use. The gun has killed more people than any oth­er fire­arm in the world.

The Rus­si­an gen­er­al had pre­vi­ously said he cre­ated the weapon to “pro­tect the moth­er­land” and did not sanc­tion its glob­al spread. “It was like a genie out of the bottle, and it began to walk all on its own and in dir­ec­tions I did not want,” he said.

Al­though Kalash­nikov ap­peared haunted by his role in the mil­lions of deaths caused by his famed gun, he con­tin­ued to see the AK-47 as a “mir­acle weapon,” ac­cord­ing to the let­ter. A dec­ade ago, he likened his af­fec­tion for his design to a moth­er’s love for her child. “For months she car­ries her baby and thinks about it. A de­sign­er does much the same thing with a pro­to­type,” he said. “I felt like a moth­er — al­ways proud. It is a spe­cial feel­ing, as if you were awar­ded with a spe­cial award.”

Kalash­nikov is not the first in­vent­or to re­gret the im­pact of his cre­ation. Robert Op­pen­heimer, the cre­at­or of the atom­ic bomb, was haunted later in life by his re­search. “We have made a thing, a most ter­rible weapon that has altered ab­ruptly and pro­foundly the nature of the world … a thing that by all the stand­ards of the world we grew up in is an evil thing,” he told a group of sci­ent­ists. The sci­ent­ist con­fessed to Pres­id­ent Tru­man in a private meet­ing that he felt like he had blood on his hands. About 225,000 people died dur­ing the atom­ic bomb­ings of Hiroshi­ma and Na­ga­saki in 1945.

Al­fred No­bel, re­morse­ful that his in­ven­tion — dy­nam­ite — was viewed as a killing ma­chine in mil­it­ary ap­plic­a­tions, used his en­tire for­tune to cre­ate the eponym­ous fund that fin­ances an­nu­al prizes in phys­ics, chem­istry, medi­cine, eco­nom­ics, lit­er­at­ure, and peace.

A spokes­man for Rus­sia’s pat­ri­arch re­spon­ded to Kalash­nikov with sup­port: “He de­signed this rifle to de­fend his coun­try, not so ter­ror­ists could use it in Saudi Ar­a­bia.”

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