More than 100 million Kalashnikov rifles, designed by Mikhail Kalashnikov, have been sold worldwide and are wielded by fighters in such far-flung conflict zones as Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia. (MAXIM MARMUR/AFP)
MOSCOW — Mikhail Kalashnikov, the designer of fabled AK-47 automatic rifle, died Monday, the office of the presidency in the Udmurtia region where he worked said. He was 94.
Kalashnikov designed a weapon that became synonymous with killing on a sometimes indiscriminate scale but was seen in the Soviet Union as a national hero and symbol of Moscow’s proud military past.
“He died about one-and-a-half hours ago,” Viktor Chulkov, the spokesman for the Udmurtia leader Alexander Volkov, told AFP.
Lavished with honors including the prestigious Hero of Russia prize for designing the iconic rifle, Kalashnikov has said he had never intended for it to become the preferred weapon in conflicts around the world.
“I created a weapon to defend the fatherland’s borders. It’s not my fault that it was sometimes used where it shouldn’t have been. This is the fault of politicians,” he said during an award ceremony at the Kremlin to mark his 90th birthday.
AK-47’s name stands for “Kalashnikov’s Automatic” and the year it was designed, 1947. Also called the “Kalashnikov,” the rifle and its variants are the weapons of choice for dozens of armies and guerrilla groups around the world.
More than 100 million Kalashnikov rifles have been sold worldwide and they are wielded by fighters in such far-flung conflict zones as Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia.
But their inventor, a World War II veteran, has barely profited financially from them and lived modestly in Izhevsk, an industrial town 800 miles east of Moscow.
The Izmash factory that was the home manufacturer of the weapon in the central Russian region of Udmurtia has now fallen on hard times after a collapse in orders following the fall of the USSR, a fact that prompted Kalashnikov to make a personal appeal to President Vladimir Putin.
Born in a Siberian village as the 17th child of his family on Nov. 10, 1919, Kalashnikov had a tragic childhood during which his father was deported under Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin in 1930.
Wounded during combat in 1941, Kalashnikov designed his rifle in 1947, driven by Soviet defeats in the early years of World War II at the hands of far better armed German soldiers.
In October 1941, in fierce battles around Bryansk, he was heavily wounded and shell-shocked. According to his official Izmash biography, Kalashnikov first conceived of the weapon while recovering in hospital.
The rifle quickly became prized for its sturdy reliability in difficult field conditions, and Kalashnikov was honored with the Soviet Union’s top awards, including the Lenin and the Stalin prizes.
Yet the design was never patented internationally, and Izmash always complained that its potential income from the weapon was hit badly by the “pirated” versions of the designs made abroad.
The 205-year-old Izmash plant remains one of the main producers of Russian weapons and is treasured as a national icon.
But Izmash has also suffered from dwindling demand and a failure to make up for this with foreign orders — a problem plaguing many specialised post-Soviet industries.