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Staring down the barrel

The flag of Hezbollah features an AK47 below the words ‘Party of God’

Firing an AK-47 assault rifle really is a lot of fun. The first – and only – time I did it was in 1982 when I was 17 years old, standing alongside an Israeli-American in a rocky field in the Galilee hills. Like many others of his generation he had rushed back from the US when it looked, for a short and astonishing few days, as though the AK-wielding armies of Egypt and Syria were going to win the Yom Kippur war in 1973 and defeat Israel. They didn’t, but rather than return to the US after victory the man had “kinda got stoned and stayed”. He didn’t tell me where he had picked the AK up from – “souvenir” was the term he used – but standing on a dirt track shooting tracer rounds at a mountain I felt the intense power and pleasure of messing about with the world’s most ubiquitous small arm and, lest we forget, killing machine.

And I’m sure you would enjoy it as well, but don’t worry if you don’t know any  Israeli-American-Yom Kippur war vets – there are plenty more AKs out there. The UN has claimed that there are 70 million of them worldwide – but that figure is probably a gross underestimate, given that variants of the gun have been manufactured for seven decades. During the Cold War the Soviet Union made its guns at the giant Izhmash complex in the city of Izhevsk in the Urals. But the Kremlin also gifted the blueprints and machinery for AK production lines to its Warsaw Pact allies. Consequently, and given that several additional countries simply copied the design and made their own versions under a different name, many more millions of banana-clipped assault rifles have been manufactured in Bangladesh, Bulgaria, China, Egypt and Yugoslavia.

The result is apparent in the ongoing carnage across the world’s combat zones; the AK is cheap, impervious to heat and cold, dust and damp, and extremely easy to operate. Although it pains the AK’s designer and namesake Mikhail Kalashnikov to consider the fact, there can be little doubt that his invention has caused more human death and misery than J Robert Oppenheimer’s work on the atomic bomb – not so much a weapon of mass destruction but a weapon of destruction for the masses.

The Soviet Union’s success in spreading the production of  the gun around the world created a severe problem for Izhmash and the city of 628,000 people that depend upon the plant for its livelihood. The problem was simple: in the post-communist decades no one wanted their guns. After the fall of communism the home market suffered as the Russian army’s budgets were slashed and the nation’s assets disappeared into the hands of a rapacious new class of carpetbaggers. Meanwhile, foreign markets were lost to former allies like Bulgaria, whose Arsenal Corporation makes very good AKs that are cheaper than the Russian ones. In 2004, a deal with the US to supply AKs to the reconstituted post-Ba’athist security forces in Iraq was lost to Arsenal, leaving a furious Russia to threaten Bulgaria with a court case. But as there had been no patents under the Soviet system, they could do little but fume.

By 2009 Izhmash had been obliged  to declare itself bankrupt in an attempt to restructure its debts and outmoded production facilities. So the stakes were high when Alexander Baditsa, spokesman for Izhmash, unveiled the prototype AK-200 assault rifle in 2010. The new gun was a modern multi-platform assault rifle which, for all its sleek modernity and black anti-oil and dust coating, was essentially based on the AK-74, the most successful in a long line of variants that go back to the original. This incarnation still employed the unmistakeable ammunition clip that makes the gun instantly recognisable and the link with the iconic collection of letters and numbers which originally spelled out “Kalashnikov’s 1947 automatic’” If the new gun was successful it could save a plant and a city that had fallen on desperate times. I knew this well as, although I have never met Alexander Baditsa, I have been to his place of work.

“The weapon went on to develop a second life as a signifier of revolt with an international brand power comparable to Coca-Cola”

In 2004, the year of the lost Iraqi contract, I visited the factory one night in the small hours after – as is compulsory in those parts – a vodka-drinking session with a stranger in downtown Ishvesk, who invited me to take a tour of the plant. Was this possible, I wondered, given that it was after midnight and we were both slightly drunk? ‘No problem!’ declared my new companion.

And there wasn’t any problem. We drove slowly past a vast reservoir dug on the orders of Tsar Alexander I in 1810 to supply the water for the iron foundries that made the cannons that would face Napoleon at Borodino. Entering by a gate in the imposing iron railings that face the reservoir we edged through the complex of factories and huts until we passed a guard smoking a joint and arrived at the “banya” – essentially a brothel, in which bored girls in thigh boots and miniskirts watched MTV in a room lined with glass-fronted fridges filled with vodka and champagne.

It was an entertainment facility designed to keep customers happy – but there were no customers. Izmash was at the nadir of its fortunes; its production limited to 15,000 rifles a year, its order books near empty and its factories quiet. This was a facility that during the Second World War had produced more weapons than every arms factory in the German Reich combined, and  was now reduced to making limited runs of sports rifles and Soviet-style motorbikes that were unlikely to generate large flows of foreign income. The Russian army, still a lumbering behemoth, was awash with AK-74s, the ideal weapon for a largely conscript force, and was not in need of new firearms. There was a real possibility that production of the AK would cease in its motherland – which would be a devastating blow to national pride.

It was no surprise then that at the unveiling of the AK-200 in 2010, the then-prime minister, Vladimir Putin, rushed to be associated with the new weapon, arriving in Izhevsk to lend his own bare-chested, man-boobed virility to the attempt to reclaim a gun that had once been the supreme symbol of Soviet ingenuity and reliability, whilst simultaneously reinforcing his own credentials as the protector of the motherland and its eternal values. Putin, a visceral politician as dependent on impulse as he is on parliamentary majorities, knew well that the AK operates as much as a message as it does a machine.

The flag of Hezbollah features an AK47 below the words ‘Party of God’

Kalash of cultures

The AK-47  has always generated its own mythologies. The first came with the report in Pravda that the competition held by the Soviet Union to find a new assault rifle had been won by wounded war veteran Sergeant Mikhail Kalashnikov, thus establishing the AK as the product of proletarian genius. But the Soviets would soon lose control of the gun both physically, by giving it away, and also culturally as its release coincided with the rise of television and an outbreak of people’s revolutionary and anti-colonial movements across the developing world.

As Mikhail Kalashnikov admitted to me himself, the AK became a “Golem”, a creature that had taken on a life of its own and was no longer under his or Russia’s control. The weapon imagined by a Soviet Army sergeant who had seen his comrades mown down by the Germans in the chaos and carnage of 1941 went on to develop a second life as a signifier of revolt with an international brand power comparable to Coca-Cola.

This process began in the 1960s in Vietnam, where the AK-47 proved itself to be the most reliable assault rifle in the world, its simple mechanism – only seven moving parts – outperforming the over-engineered American M16 in the heat and damp of jungle and paddy field (so much so that American troops preferred captured AKs to their own weapon, which would frequently jam). Vietnam was the world’s first televised war and the AK’s instantly recognisable ammunition clip made it a star when, during the 1968 Tet offensive, AK-carrying Viet Cong troops attempted to storm the US headquarters in Saigon.

The camera would continue to love the Kalashnikov and filmmakers have added to its cultural power. As Samuel L Jackson’s gangster, Ordell Robbie, so memorably says in Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Jackie Brown’: “AK-47. The very best there is. When you absolutely, positively got to kill every motherfucker in the room, accept no substitutes.”

In the 2005 film ‘Lord of War’, the AK is so central to events it deserves equal billing alongside the film’s star Nicolas Cage. Cage’s character, the weapons trader Yuri Orlov, makes the gun’s case eloquently: “an elegantly simple nine-pound amalgamation of forged steel and plywood, it doesn’t break, jam, or overheat. It will fire whether it’s covered in mud or filled with sand. It’s so easy to use even a child could use it, and they do. The Soviets put the gun on a coin, Mozambique put it on their flag.”

But it wasn’t just Mozambique – which uses the gun as a symbol of the long guerrilla war against their Portuguese colonial overlords and where many men in their twenties are called Kalash. To this day the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah operates under the banner of a green AK on a yellow background above the Arabic words ‘Party of God.’

The pull of the AK has been particularly powerful in the Middle East but it morphed from a symbol of freedom to one of terror when gunmen of Black September group carried AKs during their assault on Israeli athletes at the 1974 Munich Olympic Games. It has kept this dark edge ever since. The late al-Qaeda leader’s video propaganda messages were invariably a double act – bin Laden and an AK either propped against the wall behind him or on his lap.

The gun became so synonymous with resistance to the US and its ambitions in the Middle East that American soldiers used the gun as visual shorthand for the enemy. A fact brought home to me very sharply in 2004 when I spent an evening AK-hunting with the US 1st Cavalry Division in Sadr City, the slum city of one million people outside Baghdad, then undergoing an uprising led by Muqtada al-Sadr’s Shiite Maahdi army. The Americans drove me in their Bradley fighting vehicle through the slums until they saw the unmistakeable banana outline on their night vision screen and opened fire with the Bradley’s chain gun. Three men died that night, each with an AK in his hand. Just as well, then, that the first delivery of Bulgarian AKs to Iraq went missing almost as soon as they arrived – an event that must have caused grim satisfaction in Ishvesk but still left the home of the AK without a market.

The AK-12 rises

Back in 2010 Alexander Baditsa said: “the AK-200 is designed to contribute to a full-blown modernisation of the Russian Armed Forces. Significantly, the new model is based on the AK-74, internationally known for its reliability and ease of use. The AK-200’s sophisticated design is fully in tune with new demands for waging modern warfare.’” This was a wish list for Izmash as much as it was a reality. Now that the AK-200 has emerged as the production line AK-12 after two years of testing, will it fulfil its promises? It seems unlikely. The Russian Armed Forces are yet to undergo “full-blown modernisation”, and the demands of “modern warfare” have been perfectly adequately met by the millions of AKs that are already out there. With or without the AK-12, the gun’s banana-clipped forefathers will continue to do their malevolent business across the world, from the Horn of Africa to the Caucasus, from Afghanistan to Lebanon.

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