As a kid growing up in the pre-Perestroika ‘80s, I used to think, “The only good Commie is a dead Commie.” Today, that sounds harsher than it did then, but something about one of my state’s U.S. Congressmen and 268 others getting blown to bits by a Soviet SU-15 fighter jet – along with hundreds if not thousands of the USSR’s ICBMs aimed squarely at the US of A – rendered such ham-fisted maxims far more socially acceptable back when we all just wanted our MTV. But hey, we grow up, we become educated and experienced, and regardless of whether or not our feelings about such things change, we learn to enter into discourse in more subtle and nuanced (some would say “more civilized”) ways than youthful, jingoistic references to “dead Commies” . . .
In my case, yesterday’s news of one particular dead Commie gave me pause, not because I’ve suddenly developed a soft spot for a political system I believe is evil, but because I think it marks an occasion where one individual’s contribution to mankind can be viewed as a telling data point in the larger discourse surrounding human governance. Yesterday, legendary Russian weapons designer Mikhail Kalashnikov – originator of the famed Avtomat Kalashnikova, model of 1947, the most abundant firearm on earth – took his final breath, ending a 94-year life which witnessed both the birth and death of Soviet-style Communism.
You can read all the news stories and obituaries about Kalashnikov and his famous avtomat, and it’s no secret that his design, though indisputably derivative of contemporary weapons, pulled together just the right combination of elements – economy, simplicity, size, ergonomics, etc. – so that the final product, although an assimilation of conventional ideas, was revolutionary enough to become “the rifle of the revolution.”
In much the same way that acclaimed film-score composer John Williams reworked passages from Romantic Period greats like Tchaikovsky and Wagner (and Gaston Glock cribbed ideas from handgun innovators like John Browning), Mikhail Kalashnikov’s genius was manifest through his ability to deliver a “best of” package in which he – an affable Marxist true-believer and Politburo poster boy – served as an integral part. But the real proof was in the kutya, as his “best-of” package proved as powerful as the Russian winter at protecting the Mother Land.
Of course, the AK-47 did a lot more than protect Mother Russia, and predictably, this is where the “blame-the-gun” crowd and their mouth-foaming media fomenters leap off the philosophical deep end. Yes, AKs of various types have, over the years, killed untold numbers of innocent people, and this is certainly tragic. But these weapons have defended, safeguarded, and freed an untold number, as well.
Regardless of how the gun was used, one thing is undeniable: its existence, accessibility, simplicity, and lethality imbued its user with a degree of self-determinism that would not have otherwise been available. The old saw rings true today: “God made man; Sam Colt made them equal.” But when it came to proliferating the highest level of military small arms to those who would have otherwise been – for better or for worse – hopelessly outgunned, it was, ironically, a motivated, innovative Communist whose inventive design democratized modern firepower more than any other gun designer in modern history.
For his part, Kalashnikov often expressed regret at the bloodshed his rifle caused in the wrong hands, but saw political failures at the root of such misuse. As a Soviet military man and later, as a Soviet politician, his optimism for the grand vision of the Leninist-Marxist ideal never seemed to waver. A quote from yesterday’s AP article exemplifies this. Once asked if he regretted not living in the West where he could have monetized his success, Kalashnikov answered, “At that time in our country, patenting inventions wasn’t an issue…We worked for Socialist society, for the good of the people, which I never regret.”
In yesterday’s surprisingly-balanced New York Times story (written by noted AK expert and author C.J. Chivers), Kalashnikov tipped his hand even further as to what motivated him: “I am told sometimes, ‘If you had lived in the West you would have been a multimillionaire long ago’…There are other values.”
Doubtless, Kalashnikov believed deeply in those “other values,” and to a great extent, he lived them, consistently giving credit to his collaborators, the Soviet government, and the Russian people. But the luminance of the individual is still unmistakable: Today, nobody is celebrating the great, collective effort enacted 66 years ago by the Russian people to design the world’s most widely-used firearm. Instead, they are respectfully marking the passing of one man – sincere, unrepentant Commie though he may have been – who empowered untold millions to exercise their own free wills with a degree of agency they never otherwise would have ascertained.
A man like that ought to have his passing (respectfully) marked, and regardless of his beliefs, I’m definitely not glad he’s dead.
An early TTAG contributor, Atlanta native Don Gammill, Jr. currently teaches English at Georgia State University where he is pursuing a Ph.D. degree in Rhetoric and Composition. His major research interest involves public perceptions of morality, especially with regard to the Temperance Movement in the late 19th century. He is an uncompromising supporter of the Second Amendment and an enthusiastic promoter of legal concealed carry.