Approaching 90, the inventor of the Kalashnikov assault rifle has one big regret:
The almost unstoppable Kalashnikov, designed in 1947, has become the weapon of choice for militants and rebels from Liberia to Afghanistan as well as gangsters and drug traffickers.
“It is painful for me to see when criminal elements of all kinds fire from my weapon,” Mikhail Kalashnikov said in a videotaped address to a conference of Russian arms traders and designers at a top-secret Soviet-era arms testing facility outside Moscow.
For his services to Russia, Kalashnikov is a hero whose 90th birthday will be celebrated in a lavish state affair next month.
While his invention was embraced by revolutionary movements from Asia to Latin America, for their opponents in the West, he was the creator of a weapon of slaughter and carnage.
Kalashnikov made it clear in the video that he never foresaw the firearm’s global reach.
“I created this weapon primarily to safeguard our fatherland,” he said, looking frail and weak and with his eyes watery.
Designed just after World War Two to work in the harsh conditions in which Soviet troops operate, the gas-powered Kalashnikov, which is cheap to build and easy to maintain, became one of the most successful weapons ever produced.
“When a young man, I read somewhere the following: God the Almighty said, ‘All that is too complex is unnecessary, and it is simple that is needed’,” Kalashnikov, dressed in a general’s camouflage uniform, said.
“So this has been my lifetime motto I have been creating weapons to defend the borders of my fatherland, to be simple and reliable.”
“The arms bearing my name are now in service in 55 nations,” Kalashnikov, who is still the chief arms designer for Izhmash, the holding company that makes Kalashnikovs, added with pride.
“In some countries, even newborn children are named ‘Kalash’,” he said. “This is very pleasing.”
Money and image
Although some 100 million Kalashnikovs have been produced during its 60 years of service, only roughly half of them are licensed output, meeting Russian quality standards.
For Russians, fiercely proud of their few world-renowned national brands — the Bolshoi ballet, vodka, the Soyuz spaceship and the Kalashnikov rifle, this is galling.
Anatoly Isaikin, the chief of the arms trading monopoly Rosoboronexport, said counterfeit Kalashnikovs “tarnish the brand because these weapons are sold in conflict regions.”
“Of course, their quality can stand no comparison with those Kalashnikovs produced in Russia,” Isaikin said.
Rosoboronexport is negotiating draft agreements with foreign producers of the weapon to protect it and other Russian arms, he said. He said 30 foreign producers currently make Kalashnikovs.
In Soviet days, Moscow would routinely sign 25-year license agreements with communist satellites in Eastern Europe allowing them to produce Kalashnikovs. Now such agreements have expired.
Vladimir Grodetsky, the head of Izhmash, said to date Russia had signed a license agreement only with Venezuela where a proper plant would be built and output would start in two years.
He said others, including China and several East European nations were ready to negotiate agreements, signalling respect for the copyright, but this must be done at a government level.
“Our enterprise, at prices it sets for its Kalashnikovs, loses annually between $400 million and $500 million in damages from piracy,” Grodetsky said. “This is more than our exports.”
But despite the quality of its Kalashnikovs, Russia still sells them at prices 50 % lower than those paid for an American M-16, Grodetsky said.
“We first need to create a civilized Kalashnikov market. Only then can we boost the price,” Grodetsky sighed.