Among the displays of assault rifles at the Mikhail Kalashnikov Museum in Izhevsk is a small lawnmower Kalashnikov designed to push about the grounds of his summer cottage. It is said that Mikhail Kalashnikov loved to care for his grass. Kalashnikov gave the lawnmower the same sensible qualities he gave the gun that bears his name. The lawnmower is light, simple, cheap to construct and easy to hold—something a child could use.
Kalashnikov didn’t regret inventing the Kalashnikov rifle. “I invented it for the protection of the Motherland,” he said. Still, he once mused that he would like to have been known as a man who helped farmers and gardeners. “I wanted to invent an engine that could run forever,” Kalashnikov once said. “I could have developed a new train, had I stayed in the railway.” But this was not to be.
Mikhail Kalashnikov was born in the rural locality of Kurya, the 17th child of peasants. When Kalashnikov was still a boy, his family’s property was confiscated and they were deported to Western Siberia. The farming was hard there, but harder was the shame of being exiled from the Soviet workers’ paradise. Kalashnikov was a sickly child and though his studies didn’t take him past secondary school, the future inventor dreamed of being a poet. After finishing the seventh grade, young Kalashnikov gathered his poetry books and worked as a technician on the Turkestan-Siberian railway, until he was conscripted into the Red Army in 1938. Kalashnikov worked with tanks and, in his spare time, tinkered with small arms. In 1941, Kalashnikov was wounded in battle. There, in the hospital, suffering from war wounds and shellshock, Kalashnikov had his vision. “I decided to build a gun of my own which could stand up to the Germans,” he would later say. “It was a bit of a crazy escapade, I suppose. I didn’t have any specialist education and I couldn’t even draw.” At first, Kalashnikov had trouble finding attention for his designs, but as his story continues, we find him persevering. By 1949, Kalashnikov’s 7.62mm assault rifle was adopted by the Soviet Army. The shy Mikhail Kalashnikov, thirty years old, was awarded the Stalin Prize for Industrial Work. Later, the son of peasant farmers would become known as a Hero of Socialist Labor.
Had Mikhail Kalashnikov died in the war, he would never have known the results of his invention. But, as it turned out, Mikhail Kalashnikov lived a very long time. He lived to see millions killed with AK-47s. Perhaps just as devastating, he saw millions become killers. The killers were often people with whom Mikhail Kalashnikov otherwise stood— the poor, the vulnerable, those deserving to be liberated from oppression. But the AK-47 was popular with everybody—warlords, assassins, criminals. Even so, Kalashnikov felt the positive effects of the gun outweighed the negative. “I sleep soundly,” he told The Guardian in 2003. “The fact that people die because of an AK-47 is not because of the designer, but because of politics.” Yet he was not without reflection. “I’m proud of my invention,” he relented, “but I’m sad that it is used by terrorists.” “When I see how peaceful people are killed and wounded by these weapons,” he told The Times in 2006, “I get very distressed and upset. I calm down by telling myself that I invented this gun 60 years ago to protect the interests of my country.”
Over the long years, people would forget about the inventor Mikhail Kalashnikov. And then an AK-47 would end up in a news story, next to a teenager in the Ivory Coast maybe, and people would ask him again, “Are you troubled by your invention?”
And then, upon the death of Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov at the age of 94, was the revelation of a letter, written by Mikhail Kalashnikov to the head of Russia’s Orthodox church with the help of his local priest. The letter, typed onto Kalashnikov’s home stationary, was published by the Russian paper Izvestiaand patchy translations soon found their way into the international media. It was the anguished confession of a terrified old man on his deathbed.
“My spiritual pain is unbearable,” he wrote. “I keep asking the same insoluble question. If my rifle deprived people of life then can it be that I … a Christian and an orthodox believer, was to blame for their deaths?
“Yes! An increasing number of churches and monasteries in our land. And yet evil does not decrease! … Light and shadow, good and evil, two opposites of a whole, that can’t exist without each other?”
At the bottom of the letter he finished, “Slave of God, designer Mikhail Kalashnikov,” and scrawled his signature to seal it.
There are two prevailing ideas about invention. The first is that it comes from necessity, as in the well-known saying, “Necessity is the Mother of invention.” Technology, in this case, is a direct extension of human need. The Soviets liked this definition, liked to think of machines as the reward of an enlightened people, birthed directly from pure, unadulterated Purpose, a purpose that lead directly to progress. As one Stalin propaganda campaign explained: “The Party and Workers Should Master Technology …Technology Decides All.”
The second definition of invention is that it is the product of pure Imagination. In this understanding, invention is strictly for its own sake, and is its own justification. Invention is an act of creating. Too much focus on results is detrimental to creation. Here, the inventor is a little god, magically pulling contraptions out of the void.
The author Mary Shelley had a third understanding of invention, which might be closest to the truth. “Invention, it must be humbly admitted,” she wrote in the 1831 Preface toFrankenstein,” does not consist in creating out of void but out of chaos. … the materials must, in the first place, be afforded: it can give form to dark, shapeless substances, but cannot bring into being the substance itself.” In the Shelleyan explanation, invention doesn’t come from nothingness or need. The inventor is neither a hero whose inventions are venerated nor a god whose inventions are beside the point. The Shelleyan inventor is a translator, an interpreter between Nature and human desire.
Whether it’s a lawnmower or a locomotive or an AK-47, the inventor is always faced with the same burden—how to turn chaos into order. But the chaos the inventor faces is not only the chaos of Nature; it is also the chaos of human desire. The inventor stands between these two forces, pulled in both directions, servant to both Nature and Man.
So, as every invention is a translation of Nature, it is also a battle with it. Maybe it’s better to say that every invention is a re-ordering of Nature according to people tastes at any given time. How can we best shape the grass? How can we move through space and time faster? How can we kill more efficiently?
There must be, I think, something illuminated about the lifeworld of the inventor. I imagine the inventor sees an animated world, where all the things of being—organic and inorganic—are part of the same universal soul. For people who use objects and don’t make them, meaning and value come after the thing. But for an inventor, the meaning comes before the material. “I wanted to invent an engine that could run for ever,” Kalashnikov said. “I could have developed a new train, had I stayed in the railway.” And then he said of his train, “It would have looked like the AK-47 though.” For an inventor like Mikhail Kalashnikov, a train is just as much an extension of our humanity as a lawnmower or a gun. They are just different shapes of chaos.
Deep within the soul of the inventor is a yearning — to be a bridge between the visible and the invisible, the natural and the mechanical. This is a large burden, because so much gets lost in translation. The dangerous consequences of invention are not separate from its amazing results; sometimes they are indistinguishable. Mikhail Kalashnikov said it himself: Light and shadow, good and evil, two opposites of a whole, that can’t exist without each other. It’s not so far from what Victor Frankenstein said of his magnificent wretched Creature: “I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.” If there’s one thing Mary Shelley wanted to tell us in her book it is this: Victor Frankenstein never sets out to make a monster. He sees himself as a beacon in the darkness, an explorer seeking to reveal “the outward substance of things or the inner spirit of nature and the mysterious soul of man.” Victor Frankenstein doesn’t fashion his Creature ex nihilo; the Creature is an extension of his own humanity, the materialization of his ambition. Indeed, Victor Frankenstein sees the Creature as a fulfillment of the aspirations of all humankind.
In the letter he wrote to the Orthodox Church — so much like the confession of Victor Frankenstein to Robert Walton — Mikhail Kalashnikov speaks of his AK-47, his Creature, as a “miracle weapon.” And there is the danger at the core of every invention, no matter what it is. We think we are creating miracles with our inventions, and all the while, we are creating monsters, too. In other words, the story of the AK-47 is not simply whether guns are inherently good or bad. Nor is it whether they can become good in the right hands and evil in the wrong hands. It is, rather, that an invention will always, eventually, rage out of its inventor’s control. The inventor never controlled it in the first place.
“It was like a genie out of the bottle,” Kalashnikov said of his weapon, “and it began to walk all on its own and in directions I did not want.”
All this translation takes a toll on the soul of the inventor. The obsession to vulcanize rubber brought Charles Goodyear and his family to ruin. Wallace Carothers, the chemist who invented Nylon, once listed for a colleague at DuPont all the famous chemists who had committed suicide. And then, after taking a fatal dose of cyanide in 1937, added his own name to the list. The dapper pioneer of flight Alberto Santos-Dumont who liked to fly his marvelous dirigibles around Paris ended his days hanging from a pipe in a hotel room in Guarujá. Jack Parsons developed the rocket fuel that launched the United States into space and called himself the Antichrist. “The mainspring of an individual is his creative Will,” he wrote.
This Will is the sum of his tendencies, his destiny, his inner truth. It is one with the force that makes the birds sing and flowers bloom; as inevitable as gravity, as implicit as a bowel movement, it informs alike atoms and men and suns.
To the man who knows this Will, there is no why or why not, no can or cannot; he IS!
There is no known force that can turn an apple into an alley cat; there is no known force that can turn a man from his Will. This is the triumph of genius; that, surviving the centuries, enlightens the world.
“This force burns in every man,” wrote Jack Parsons, and then blew himself up in his home.
“Man keeps inventing things all the time,” said the designer Mikhail Kalashnikov. “Life is composed of different inventions.” How true his statement is. As much as inventions come out of the inventor’s hands, they are, in the end, form to the dark shapelessness of all life. Remember, Shelley warned us in her story, inventors only give form to substance. They cannot bring into being the substance itself. The form of Mikhail Kalashnikov’s invention was an AK-47. But the substance of his invention is us.