Russia's most popular weapon celebrated its 60th birthday, and it couldn't come at a better time for Russia's weapons industry.
At a ceremony in Moscow's Armed Forces Museum, a first model of the Kalashnikov rifle, the AK-47 (the first version was produced in 1947), was unveiled and placed into the hands of its creator, Mikhail Kalashnikov.
|NBC News/ Yonatan Pomrenze|
|Mikhail Kalashnikov, inventor of the famed rifle, celebrates 60 years of the weapon dominating armed conflict all over the world.|
The 87-year-old Kalashnikov said he was excited to greet what he called his "first-born," but also said he loves all versions of the Kalashnikov equally – the way a mother loves all her children.
Weapon of choice
He's not alone in loving Russian weapons. Russia is second in the world in weapons exports, with only the United States selling more. The vast majority of these weapons are sold through the official state arms export agency, Rosoboroexport.
According to government estimates, Russia sold over $6 billion worth of weapons last year and plans to break the $7 billion mark in 2007. The government agency also estimates that future orders booked last year will be worth over $20 billion.
Venezuela survived the U.S. arms embargo by buying billions of dollars worth of Russian weapons, and Israel complains that Russian weapons sold to Syria make their way to Hezbollah. While those deals by Russia get most of the critical Western press attention, the country's main weapons trade is with China and India.
But no export is as well-known or widespread as the Kalashnikov rifle. Easy to manufacture and tough to jam, the Kalashnikov is the weapon of choice for national armies (President Hugo Chavez ordered 100,000 for Venezuela) and countless militias, guerrillas, and insurgent groups.
An estimated 100 million Kalashnikovs are in circulation in the world – outstripping the U.S.'s M-16 (estimated 12 million) by almost 10-1 – and are ubiquitous in armed conflicts around the world. They are manufactured in 14 different countries.
But the Kalashnikov's status may be best gauged by the range its cultural symbolism. One can find the Kalashnikov on the flag of Mozambique, the logo of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp., the flag of Hezbollah and even referenced in the N.B.A. – Utah Jazz star (and Russian native) Andrei Kirilenko's number is 47 (hence his nickname, AK-47).
But for the weapon's inventor, Mikhail Kalashnikov, the existence of vast numbers of the weapon doesn't faze him.
Without even being prompted by the question, he told reporters that he sleeps fine at night, because it's "the politicians to blame for failing to come to an agreement and instead resolving their problems with violence."
All he did, he says, was create a weapon to defend the Russian fatherland.