Unsung Hero of Soviet Imperialism

Mikhail Kalashnikov, the isolated creater of the AK-47 rifle, receives belated homage

HE constructed his first gun when he was 10 years old. Today, more than 50 million automatic rifles later, his is probably the best known name to have come out of the Soviet Union.

The man behind the name, Mikhail Timofeyvich Kalashnikov, designer of the AK-47, stepped into the limelight last week after decades of obscurity.

At a 75th birthday party here that he certainly could not have afforded to host himself on his $65-a-month pension, a glittering crowd of VIPs showered him with honors and gifts.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin came to pay belated homage to the father of the most widely used weapon ever made. So did the head of the Federal Counterintelligence Agency (the new name for the KGB), and the Defense Minister, who promoted him to reserve major general.

It was not always thus for Mr. Kalashnikov, who has lived modestly for years in the same four-roomed apartment in Izhevsk, a heavy industrial town in central Russia where guns have been made for 200 years.

His name is a household word in every corner of the globe that has known conflict in the past 50 years. His gun, with its distinctive banana clip, became a symbol of third-world liberation struggles - and of Soviet expansionism.

He himself has hardly benefited from the success of his brainchild. But he is not a man to complain about his lot. ``Who has an easy life nowadays?'' Kalashnikov asked resignedly in an interview on his birthday last Thursday. ``Everbody has his own problems.''

His elfin face lively beneath a shock of white hair, and only the quaver in his voice betraying his age, Kalashnikov is a slight man who responds to questions briefly and directly. His answers are as simple as the mechanism of his gun.

The son of Siberian peasants, Kalashnikov was wounded as a tank sergeant in World War II. Recovering in a hospital, he had plenty of time to ponder the superiority of German weapons over Soviet arms, and he began to think about a new type of gun.

Eventually, after winning a competition against established weapons designers, Kalashnikov's prototype was approved by the Soviet Army. It went into production two years after the war ended as the Avtomat Kalashnikova 1947 - the AK-47.

Nearly 50 years later, the AK-47 or one if its many variants is widely used in more than 50 countries. Simple, cheap, and durable, it is popular among peasant guerrillas, though elite Russian troops carry it too, and Israel and South Africa made copies.

``It's as tough as old boots,'' says Terry Gander, editor of Jane's Infantry Weapons, the definitive reference book. ``It will work in the sand and snow and keep on going. It is very simple, has few basic parts, and it'll be around for the next 100 years.''

Mikhail Timofeyvich, however, has hardly seen a penny from his invention, aside from the money that came with his Stalin Prize in 1949. He spent that on a car and on the furniture that still adorns his sitting room.

His other rewards were the two ``Hero of Socialist Labor'' stars that hang from red ribbons on his lapel. He's seen the private jet of Eugene Stone, who invented the M-16, but refuses to resent his relatively meager compensation.

``Everything I did in my life I did of my own free will,'' he says, ``Nobody made me do the things I did.''

He also remains philosophical about the fact that he has lived most of his life in Soviet secrecy in a ``closed city,'' almost wholly unknown.

``I lived in a system where workers in the military-industrial complex were not known to the outside world. We were not advertised. In those days, I considered this normal,'' he says simply.

If Kalashnikov was ever anything other than a model Soviet citizen, doing his job for his motherland, he hides it well.

And if he is ever stung by moral doubts about the number of men and women who have been killed by bullets from his rifle, he doesn't let on.

``I like my gun,'' he said in a documentary film that was shown during last week's festivities. ``It's not the fault of the designer or the gun, it's politicians who lead to wars and bloodshed. Even if I hadn't invented the gun, these bloody wars would still happen.''

Yet he is not always able to shrug off his responsibility like that, says his daughter Elena. ``Sometimes it does get to him,'' she says. ``And I try to distract him from thoughts like that.''

Indeed, in a sign of what might have been remorse, Kalashnikov once broached the idea of an international fund to aid gunshot victims to be paid for by gun manufacturers. But the plan never got off the ground. ``Nobody supported my idea,'' he complains. ``I was left alone, and it remained just words, not backed by anyone.''

Today Kalashinkov still sits at his drawing board, working both on new guns and more specific pursuits: He recently came up with a camping gadget combining a shish-kebab grill, a fry pan holder, and a kettle-hook.

But even that, as he demonstrates its mechanisms, locks into position with the firm snap of a magazine clipping into an AK.

Old habits die hard, and Kalashnikov is not going to question them now. ``Once I chose my path I stuck to it, and I have no regrets,'' he says. ``If I had a chance to repeat my life, I would do it exactly the same way.''

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