The merchant of death is dead: Mikhail Kalashnikov passed Monday at 94 in a hospital in Izhevsk, the capital of the Russian republic of Udmurtia.
Of course you know his name; everyone knows his name. It’s as famous a name as Samuel Colt, maker of the gun that won the West. Except that Kalashnikov designed the gun that has bedeviled the “other,” larger West for more than 60 years.
Kalashnikov’s AK-47 (“the automatic Kalashnikov” and the year it won a Soviet design competition, 1947) is arguably the world’s most abundant firearm.
As The Times' Steve Chawkins wrote Monday:
Historians say the AK-47 and its spinoffs changed combat forever. While they aren’t as accurate as other guns or as effective at long distances, they weigh only eight pounds and have few moving parts. Child soldiers can take them apart and put them back together in 30 seconds. They can tolerate sand, grit, mud and humidity. They work just as well in jungle and swamp as on city streets.
“Together these traits meant that once this weapon was distributed, the small-statured, the mechanically disinclined, the dimwitted and the untrained might be able to wield, with little difficulty or instruction, a lightweight automatic rifle that could push out blistering fire for the lengths of two or three football fields,” wrote journalist C.J. Chivers in “The Gun,” his 2010 book about the AK-47.
(“The dimwitted and the untrained”: Great, just the folks you want to have a gun capable of firing hundreds of rounds a minute, right?)
It’s the great irony of Kalashnikov’s life. To the Russians, he’s a hero. To revolutionaries everywhere (heck, an image of the gun is on the national flag of Mozambique), he’s a hero. To the drug lords of South America, the gangbangers of America’s ghettos, the child soldiers of Africa, the Taliban of Afghanistan and countless others, his gun is the great equalizer.
But for humanity, Kalashnikov and his gun have been a tragedy. The AK-47 has spread misery and death to every part of the globe. Remember: More than 36,000 Americans died in the Korean War; more than 58,000 died in the Vietnam War; more than 2,000 in Iraq and more than 4,000 in Afghanistan. How many fell victim to Kalashnikov's gun?
The great American physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, “father” of the atomic bomb, remarked later that witnessing the first explosion of that horrible new weapon brought to mind the words from the “Bhagavad Gita”: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
In his own way, Kalashnikov also became “Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
And at times, Kalashnikov himself seemed to sense this:
“I am proud of my weapon but I am sad that terrorists use it,” he told the Russian online publication newsru.com in 2009. “I wish I had invented a machine which people could use, which could do good for farmers — for example, a sowing machine.”
A man does what a man does. Kalashnikov designed his weapon to defend his country. He’s not responsible for what happened to it later, to the deadly purposes for which it’s been used.
But you can’t help thinking how much better off the world would be if he had invented the AK-47 sowing machine.