The first time I met General Mikhail Kalashnikov he was wearing fun-fur leopard-skin ankle slippers and his housekeeper’s cardigan. He was standing in the doorway of his dacha in the Urals, a cabin by the shore of the reservoir that fed the great arms factory at Izhevsk. I was writing a book about the AK-47, the gun Kalashnikov had invented in 1947: a gun so simple, children could use it. And, 60 years later, they increasingly were.
The housekeeper served elk soup. The general’s grandson Igor passed round pickled herring and beetroot salad, poured vodka and Chilean red wine, and translated.
As we talked, there were, according to the UN, 70 million AKs in circulation throughout the world. The real number was far higher and no one had any accurate idea of how many people had been killed by the gun across the globe or even, most painfully for the general, across the ex-Soviet Union. I asked about the people who had died until, angered by my questioning, the 83-year-old exclaimed: “I invented a gun to defend my motherland, to beat the fascists.”
A month later, the general came to London and a different translator called me. “The general would like to see the big wheel.” Big wheel? She meant the London Eye. In 2004, it was only four years old and people still stopped simply to watch it go round, partly because it cost so much to get on. I hoped Kalashnikov would be content to do the same, as I had even less money than he did. Eugene Stoner, the American inventor of the M16 assault rifle, had become a millionaire. Not Kalashnikov. He had earned only the fraternal gratitude of the Soviet people.
It was this comparative poverty that had brought the general to London; he was lending his name to the launch of a drinks brand, Kalashnikov Vodka, an attempt by a British consortium to cash in on his fearsome reputation.
When we met the next morning, Kalashnikov made it clear that he wanted to go on. In the ticket hall there were no concessions for Heroes of Socialist Labour, or holders of the Stalin Prize (first class) and Lenin Prize, three Orders of Lenin, the Order of the Red Banner of Labour, Order of the Great Patriotic War (first class) and Order of the Red Star. So I ruefully forked out.
I thought of the general as an engineer rather than a mass murderer, and so had come equipped with facts: “The wheel is 443 feet high. It travels at 0.6 miles an hour. It takes the wheel 30 minutes to make one revolution . . .” But his mind seemed elsewhere.
I now suspect that behind those impassive brows the old man was beginning to rethink everything. Kalashnikov had, in his own way, become Death, destroyer of worlds. As we passed over the Thames at 0.6 miles an hour he struggled with the immensity of his legacy.
Shortly afterwards a group of Chechen terrorists armed with AK-47s walked into School Number One in Beslan, North Ossetia. At least 385 people, many of them children, died in the carnage. Kalashnikov Vodka never did get a UK licence.
This article appears in the 21 Jun 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM