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Russia honors Kalashnikov with giant monument in Moscow

Russia is commemorating Mikhail Kalashnikov, designer of the famous AK-47 assault rifle, with an imposing statue in Moscow. It's a powerfully symbolic tribute and an expression of how Russia sees itself in today's world.

Everyone knows the name Kalashnikov. The AK-47 assault rifle is one of Russia's few popular exports, and on Tuesday the weapon's designer, Mikhail Kalashnikov, was honored with a monument unveiled in Moscow. The occasion was Gunsmith's Day, which has been celebrated on September 19 for the last five years as a special day honoring Russia's weapons manufacturers.

Machine gun as 'cultural trademark'

The eight meter-tall (26 feet) statue was unveiled at an intersection in the center of the Russian capital. Kalashnikov is portrayed wearing simple workman's clothing, standing upon a plinth and holding the gun in his hands as if it were a baby. The talented and humble engineer, said Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky at the dedication ceremony, symbolizes "the best attributes of a Russian." He added that the machine gun was "truly a Russian cultural trade mark." The monument was commissioned by the Russian Military History Society, of which Medinsky is president. 

The unveiling of the monument, designed by sculptor Salavat Scherbakov, had been postponed several times since January. The statue also underwent slight changes during that time. The composition consists of two parts: In the foreground is the figure of Kalashnikov, and in the background is the archangel Michael on horseback killing a dragon with a spear. Scherbakov told Russian media that the work was designed to symbolize "the eternal struggle between good and evil," describing the AK-47 as a "weapon for good."

Millions sold since 1947

The famous machine gun is also celebrating its 70th birthday this year. Kalashnikov's design won a nationwide competition in 1947 and went into production shortly thereafter. The first version was simply called by the acronym AK-47, for "Avtomat Kalashnikova," Russian for "Automatic Kalashnikov." The design has been revised several times throughout its history. It is considered to be cheap, simple and robust. According to manufacturer figures, more than 70 million Kalashnikovs have been sold since it went into production. 

The Izhmash armaments company, located in Izhevsk and now called Kalashnikov, also produces sport and hunting rifles. The company says that its exports have tripled since 2016. Nevertheless, the Russian arms maker has lost ground in a few lucrative markets. Kalashnikov was placed on a US sanctions list following Russia's incursion into Ukraine, for example. Company leadership says it hopes to re-enter the American market soon.

Symbolic of the spirit of the times

Russian journalist Oleg Kashin told DW that the Kalashnikov monument is highly symbolic. "In today's Russia it has become entirely normal to speak of war not as a tragedy but rather as good advertising for Russian arms," he said, adding that pacifism has gone out of fashion in the country, and thus the "cyclopean Kalashnikov" monument seems to be an adequate symbol for the spirit of today's times.

In an opinion piece penned for DW, Russian author Viktor Yerofeyev wrote: "I don't know what a weapon for good is supposed to be, that is just an empty phrase. It is as if the French would suddenly declare the guillotine an instrument for the emotional education of the nation." A machine gun brings death, not well wishes, he added, because it can be "used against those who sing its praises at any time."

Palestinian military forces hold Kalashnikov rifles (picture-alliance/dpa)

Kalashnikov's creation remains one of Russia's leading exports to this day

Vladimir meets Vladimir

Over the last several months, a number of symbolically powerful monuments have been erected across Russia. The largest was a statue of the medieval grand prince Vladimir. The sculptor responsible was the same one that made the new Kalashnikov monument, Salavat Scherbakov. The 62-year-old seems to be the "go to" artist for such projects in Russia today.

A saint, a founding father and a warrior – that is how Russian President Vladimir Putin described his namesake in November 2016 when he unveiled the grand prince's statue, which stands within sight of the Kremlin. Vladimir, said the president, "expanded and protected Russian soil." It would seem that today's leader sees himself in the same role.

Vladimir, the grand prince of Kyiv, is considered one of the most important rulers in the history of the medieval state of Kyivan Rus, in which both Russia and Ukraine see the roots of their people, their statehood and their Christianity. In the 16 meter-high statue, Vladimir is bearded and adorned in princely attire, his right hand firmly grasps a very large cross. He holds a sword in his left hand. Some observers suspect that the monument is meant to honor Putin rather than the grand duke. Every time the president enters or leaves the Kremlin, he drives past the statue.

About a year ago, in October 2016, a monument honoring the first Russian czar, Ivan IV, was unveiled in the southern Russian city of Oryol. He is also known in Russian history as Ivan the Terrible, and he, too, is represented with cross and sword – apparently that is how modern Russia sees itself.

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