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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Hunting With Kalashnikov

In November, I went hunting for moose with the Russian equivalent of Japan's Sony or America's Coca-Cola. It's a story I think I shall want to tell my grandchildren. I went hunting with Kalashnikov.


Kalashnikov, I should say at once, is neither a brand-name nor a fizzy drink. He's a man: a small man, now aged 74, with gray hair combed in a precise quiff over his forehead; an upright bearing; pale blue, almost colorless eyes; and a watchfulness and air of separation that comes either from his deafness, or from the fact that he was (more or less) a state secret for more than 50 years.


He lives in a three-room apartment just off the main street of Izhevsk, a city of 635,000 people in the foothills of the central Urals. He has a small car, with a driver, and a small wooden dacha outside the city, where he spends weekends, often working at a lathe in the garage. He is the most successful weapons designer in history, but he cannot afford to travel much, or even take the plane to Moscow. His last payment for author's rights to the 70 million weapons produced from his designs in 15 countries was for 41 1/2 rubles: about four U.S. cents at the then-prevailing rate of exchange.


Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov is someone in a unique situation. For the wheel of Russian history has turned, and in doing so has undermined all the certainties that used to sustain him. His first masterpiece -- the AK (Avtomat Kalashnikova) 47 -- was produced when he was still a sergeant, recently invalided out of the Tank Corps, and obsessed, after the death of many friends, with the superiority of German weaponry.


He had no more than a high-school education. But from this first extraordinary success -- through the AK70, the AKM and the PKS series of machine guns -- he gladly served his country, as a konstruktor in a closed city.


Now, though, the country that he worked for has ceased to exist, and the veil of secrecy that once shrouded him has been lifted. So now he has to confront not only the fact that his name is a household word from China to Nicaragua, but also the fact that his products -- with their immediately recognizable banana-shaped magazines -- are the grim stars of every single evening news broadcast.


Until just a few years ago, of course, he was the personification of the Cold War. More than any other man, perhaps, he made come true Mao's dictum about power growing out of the barrel of a gun. As instruments of state policy, his weapons enabled peasant armies; they democratized death-dealing. So ubiquitous, so mythical, so powerful did they become that today they are preferred, not only by "liberation" armies and "freedom" movements, but by the Mafia in Calabria and the street gangs in Los Angeles, by both sides in Bosnia and Northern Ireland -- and even on the streets of Moscow, where parliament and government supporters fought it out with Kalashnikovs last October.


It is not easy then, in these revisionist times, being Kalashnikov. For all this is a long way from his humble beginnings: a remote village in Siberia and a job on the local railway. Now his guns are on stamps and statues and in the logo of the Hizbollah. In the Sudan there's even a marching song which goes, roughly speaking, "You're trash, can't get no cash, without your Kalash." His guns are so good, so impervious to extreme conditions and rough handling, that they will last well into the next century.


I thought of all this as we drove in convoy up into the hills outside Izhevsk on a fiercely cold day last November. I thought of it again as we settled into a mountain lodge heated by huge Russian stoves and as we made our first pass for moose along tracks and through sudden clearings. Mikhail Timofeyevich was carrying the prototype of a new hunting weapon he has designed. He said that he sometimes wished now that he had become an agricultural engineer, building tractors and combined harvesters.


But the truth is that, like many others in this country, he is nostalgic for the past, for its security and certainties. With the coming of these new times, the whole meaning of people's lives has changed. Mikhail Timofeyevich may be an extreme case, but he is typical, I think, of a general malaise. It is not easy having to live through times that make villains of those who were heroes, times that have turned the morality upside down. We should remember that there used to be in Russia a genuine patriotism, genuine honor, that were not tawdry things.


I cannot hope that Mikhail Timofeyevich now designs better and bigger weapons. But I hope he enjoys many more years of happy hunting.