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Proletarian issue 58 (February 2014)
Mikhail Kalashnikov – working-class hero
The Soviet inventor of that great leveller, the AK-47, has died. But his legacy will live on for as long as people struggle against oppression.
The working class lost some outstanding comrades in 2013 and, on 23 December, another giant, Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov, passed away at the age of 94, having left a huge imprint on this world.

Born in a peasant village in 1919 to a kulak (rich peasant) family, Mikhail saw his father dispossessed of wealth and power in the 1930s, but he held no bitterness towards the Soviet state and never complained about that event – not even after revisionism took control of the Soviet state, nor even after the USSR’s eventual demise. He remained a loyal communist and a supporter of JV Stalin to the end.

Young Mikhail had felt drawn to machinery from an early age and would not rest until he knew how something worked. He held to a motto in life which he said came from a religious text he had read while young. He forgot most of it, but the following words stuck and the principle became a feature of all his designs: “All that is too complex is unnecessary, and it is simplicity that is needed.

Kalashnikov’s name is now recognised worldwide and linked inextricably to the famous AK-47 assault rifle – two letters and two numbers that are equally well known and recognisable. But there were other sides to Mikhail that are not perhaps as well known.

He loved poetry and wrote verses throughout his life. Six books of his were published, although this is little-known outside of Russia. His war record is another lesser-known fact.

Many people know Kalashnikov was a sergeant in the Red Army, and the natural assumption that follows is that he must have been an infantryman, which would have given him the impetus to develop better small arms.

In fact, though, when he joined the Red Army, owing to his small size and his understanding of engineering (his first adult job had been at a tractor station), he was sent to be a tank mechanic on the T34s, serving with the 24th tank regiment, 108th tank division. Within a relatively short time he became part of the crew and ended his active service as a tank commander.

His active service ended abruptly at the Battle of Bryansk, where he was wounded and sent to hospital. It was while in hospital that he heard wounded soldiers complaining of the unreliability of the Soviet rifles in service at that time.

Guns were among the many machines that had attracted the young Mikhail, and he had often gone hunting with his father’s rifle as a teen (a passion he kept up into his 90s). He became instantly interested in making better weapons for the Soviet soldiers and, after telling officers of his ideas, was assigned after leaving hospital to the Central Scientific-developmental Firing Range for Rifle Firearms of the Chief Artillery Directorate of the Red Army.

It was here that he first altered parts of existing guns, before working on a submachine gun design of his own and then eventually developing the soon-to-be-world-famous Avtomat Kalashnikova(AK) 47.

This weapon, because of the simplicity of its design and the ease of making its parts, has been nicknamed ‘the great equaliser’ as it cheaply equips any group with a light, sturdy and reliable gun, equal to and often better than those used by imperialist armies. Extremes of heat and cold, sand or mud are no difficulty for this weapon, which can be ‘knocked out’ in little peasant huts without needing complex machinery.

Certainly, the AK-47, or some variant of its basic design, has been a mainstay of the armed forces of practically every socialist state, from Cuba to the DPRK and from the German Democratic Republic to China. Its iconic place in anti-imperialist national liberation was reflected in the decision by Mozambique, on achieving its independence, to incorporate an AK-47 as part of its national flag.

Kalashnikov also designed many other small arms and machine guns and, when asked how he felt about designing instruments of death, he told the interviewer that he slept perfectly soundly at night. He had developed a weapon to defend the Soviet Union, he said. If others put them to different uses that was down to them. In other words, he adhered to the materialist position that guns themselves do not kill anyone; it is the people using them.

He also explained that if it had not been for the war he would have quite happily lived a life developing farm machinery, but it was the fascists and other enemies of the Soviet Union that had turned him into a weapons designer.

Comrade Kalashnikov rose to the rank of Lieutenant General and received awards and medals far too numerous to list in full here. He was the proud bearer of the Stalin Prize (1949), the Order of the Red Star, (1949), the Order of Lenin (1958, 1969, 1976), the Order of the Red Banner of Labour (1957), the Lenin Prize (1964), the Order of the October Revolution (1974), the Order of Friendship of Peoples (1982) and the Order of the Patriotic War, 1st Class (1985). Numerous institutions, streets and other facilities were named after him, as he was rightly loved by ordinary people throughout the Soviet Union.

The importance of the AK-47 to people’s struggle was summed up in 1999 by disarmament expert Michael Klare, who declared that the preceding decade had seen the dawn of “the Kalashnikov age”. Some seventy million AK-47s and copies were thought to be in circulation around the world at that time, every one of them simple to use, easy to repair and unbelievably resistant to the ravages of both climate and neglect.

Speaking about Africa, although his words are applicable anywhere, Klare observed: “The adolescent male equipped with a Kalashnikov essentially became the formula for a new weapon of mass destruction. Add grenade launchers to the recipe and you can create serious trouble for a fairly sophisticated state. Add surface-to-air missiles and you can defy a superpower.”
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