Giant monument to creator of AK-47 is unveiled in Moscow

Guards of honour stand next to a monument to Mikhail Kalashnikov, the Russian designer of the AK-47 assault rifle, during its opening ceremony in Moscow, Russia on Sept 19, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

MOSCOW (NYTIMES) - A towering monument to Lt Gen Mikhail T Kalashnikov, designer of the AK-47, the Soviet rifle that has become the world's most widespread assault weapon, was unveiled Tuesday (Sept 19) in the middle of one of central Moscow's busiest thoroughfares.

The ceremony took place to the sounds of Russian military folk music, the Soviet anthem, Orthodox prayers and words about how his creation had ensured Russia's safety and peace in the world.

The bronze statue depicts Kalashnikov, who died in 2013 at age 94, looking into the distance and cradling one of his automatics in his arms "like a violin," according to Russian state television.

The statue is about 16 feet tall, and on a pedestal about 13 feet tall.

The ceremony contained no mention of the untold millions of people who have been killed or maimed by the weapon since its creation in 1947.

The Russian minister of culture, Vladimir Medinsky, promoted the monument via his Russian Military-Historical Society, a nationalist organisation that promotes patriotism - of both czarist and Soviet stripes - and wraps it in contemporary terminology.

In recent months, the society has been a vehicle for advancing a revisionist view of the Katyn Massacre, in which 21,000 Polish military officers and civilians were executed by Stalin's secret police in 1940, reviving the discredited Soviet claim that Nazi troops were responsible.

The revisionism has infuriated Poles.

In a speech, Medinsky lauded the gun designer as the embodiment of all that was good in Russia, and as a symbol of Russian culture.

"Extraordinary natural talent, simplicity, honesty, organisational skills - all of this made it possible to create a whole line of weapons in defense of the Fatherland, among which, of course, is the Kalashnikov automatic rifle, which is, one can say, a true cultural brand of Russia."

The sculpture was created by Salavat Scherbakov, an artist who gained attention last year for a monument to Prince Vladimir of Kiev, installed near the Kremlin in a ceremony led by the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.

Scherbakov has also designed statues of Czar Alexander I and Pyotr Stolypin, prime minister under Czar Nicholas II, in other prestigious Moscow locations.

A fact sheet distributed at the ceremony by the Military-Historical Society describes Kalashnikov as "one of the most famous Russians in the world, and his invention, the Kalashnikov assault rifle, is depicted on the national emblems of Mozambique, Zimbabwe, East Timor and likewise on the national flag of Mozambique."

The AK-47 combined the portability of machine pistols popular in World War II with the precision of less portable, sharpshooting weapons and the firepower of earlier, heavier machine guns.

The monument was financed in part by Rostec, the Russian state-owned corporation that owns the Kalashnikov Concern, the weapons manufacturer in Izhevsk where Kalashnikov worked for decades (and which was renamed for him in 2013).

Sergey V Chemezov, the chief executive of Rostec, who reportedly became close to Putin in Germany in the 1980s when Putin worked for the KGB, praised Kalashnikov as an "example of unwavering devotion to one's profession and one's motherland" that should serve as "an example to our younger generation."

Kalashnikov's legacy was also cast in religious terms, in line with the Russian government's depiction of itself as a protector of the Orthodox Church and of Christianity more broadly.

The monument was unveiled on Weapons Maker Day, a holiday promoted by Kalashnikov and signed into law in 2011. It coincides with a feast day of the Archangel Michael, the patron saint of Russia's weapons industry.

A priest from the Moscow Patriarchate's Department for Cooperation With the Armed Forces and Law Enforcement Agencies read the Lord's Prayer and blessed the monument with holy water.

The monument is paired with another sculpture, of the dragon-slaying Archangel Michael astride a globe that includes a decorative relief with Kalashnikov rifle parts and an inscription attributed to Kalashnikov: "I created a weapon to defend the Fatherland."

Yelena Kalashnikova, the gunmaker's daughter, told reporters after the ceremony that her father "always said that the designer is not to blame that his weapon is used, politicians are to blame" and that weapons should "always be under secure lock and key and only in the army."

He was not very proud, she said, when he was told that his weapon was "wandering around the world," but he was pleased to be praised by Americans for his design.

"He was very proud when he was recognised and when he came to America and all weapons makers there gave credit to him," she said.

An honor guard in czarist uniform participated in the ceremony and wreaths with official ribbons and bouquets of red carnations and roses were piled at the base of the monument as friends and colleagues paid their respects.

Kalashnikov was born in Siberia to a family that suffered from collectivisation under Stalin, but he always professed staunch allegiance to Soviet values.

On Tuesday, a group of men who had worked in the Soviet defense industry lingered as the ceremony wound down and happily discussed him, stressing that he was "a humble Soviet person" who thought first and foremost of protecting his homeland.

The monument, imposing as it is, should not be seen as threatening, they said.

"Look at how he's holding the automatic, he's holding it like a toy," said Vyacheslav Sokolov, 68, a former weapons designer in Moscow who met Kalashnikov in 1981 in Izhevsk.

"He's not taking aim. He's not even pulling the trigger.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.