The Gun That Changed The World, by Mikhail Kalashnikov – with Elena Joly

Perhaps morbidly, I remain fascinated with the eastern aspect of Europe’s WWII, and with its later repercussions. That fascination led me to yet another memoir, that of Mikhail Kalashnikov, inventor and developer of the famous (or infamous – you decide) AK 47 assault rifle.
As with most memoirs of this kind I’ve read in the past few years, this one takes on the tone of oral history – a rambling reflection, repetitious at times, that eschews a dramatic telling for casual, gently led conversation. Apparently strong willed and deeply defensive regarding his reputation, he insisted that Ms. Joly remain true to his oral telling in her translation into English.
Kalashnikov’s personality, as with that of other Russian memoirists I’ve read, is ebullient, prone to talk as a celebration of past events. He, one of the world’s premier arms inventors and a generally inveterate inventor in general, sought to develop his gun during WWII to combat Germans. Soviet bureaucracy, which has always moved at a glacial pace, saw the gun’s benefits. As one might expect, they didn’t allow production until after the war.
Kalashnikov, true to many of the poor in the newly formed USSR during its first years, suffered privations. His family was sent to a gulag early in Mikhail’s life. He escaped and lived until glasnost with that life secret concealed. He lost his wife and a daughter early on. Still he lives his life, as he says it, as a “bon vivant,” still working, hunting, fishing, and socializing into his middle eighties.
As with so many Soviet citizens, he still idolizes Stalin, holding his successors in contempt. He derides the lack of work ethic in young Russians, laments the Union’s fragmenting, and the social divisiveness in a nation he once saw as the most egalitarian in the world. While Kalashnikov seems duly proud of helping his nation defend itself, he seems embarrassed at the way the AK series of guns has been used by terrorists worldwide. Still, he seems able to compartmentalize his role in the gun’s use and feels no personal conflict.
Clearly a deeply flawed man, his story gushes with life and positivism about life – and that alone makes it a worthwhile read.


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