Gun inventor, ‘happy man’ Kalashnikov turns 90
Moscow -- Mikhail Kalashnikov, the Russian inventor of the globally popular AK-47 assault rifle, declared himself a happy man with few regrets as he celebrated his 90th birthday on Tuesday.
"Age is not significant. I have plenty of life left in me. But still, this is a special date and it needs to be celebrated," the white-haired inventor said in remarks broadcast on Russian television.
Kalashnikov, whose tie was decorated with a metal pin shaped like an AK-47, smiled and read patriotic poetry to journalists in Izhevsk, his hometown and the site of the huge Izhmash factory which produces the rifles.
He later visited Moscow to receive an award from President Dmitry Medvedev at the Kremlin.
Meanwhile birthday wishes poured in for Kalashnikov from across Russia and even from space, with two Russian cosmonauts congratulating him by video link from the International Space Station (ISS).
"Your name, like that of the first cosmonaut, Yury Gagarin, became a symbol of our country in the 20th century," ISS crew member Maxim Surayev said in the video message, which was broadcast on Russian television.
Kalashnikov is considered a national hero in Russia for designing the AK-47, a rifle whose name stands for "Kalashnikov’s Automatic" and the year it was designed, 1947.
Also called the "Kalashnikov,” the rifle and its variants are the weapons of choice for dozens of armies and guerrilla groups around the world.
More than 100 million Kalashnikov rifles have been sold worldwide and they are wielded by fighters in such far-flung conflict zones as Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia.
But their inventor, a World War II veteran, has barely profited financially from them and lives modestly in Izhevsk, an industrial town 1,300 kilometres (800 miles) east of Moscow.
Part of the problem, according to Izhmash, is that "counterfeit" AK-47s are produced in Bulgaria, China, Poland and the United States, costing the company 360 million dollars (261 million euros) annually.
But Kalashnikov himself has dismissed the importance of money, insisting that he has always been more motivated by service to his country.
"In my 90 years I feel myself to be a happy man," he said in an interview in the Russian government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta.
"Of course, like anyone else, there are things to regret…. But I can say one thing: I would not have chosen to lead my life any other way if I had had the opportunity."
Born in a Siberian village on November 10, 1919, Kalashnikov had a tragic childhood during which his father was deported under Stalin in 1930.
Wounded during combat in 1941, Kalashnikov started working on his rifle in 1947, driven to design by Soviet defeats in the early years of World War II at the hands of far better armed German soldiers.
The Kalashnikov quickly became prized for its sturdy reliability in difficult field conditions.
During the Cold War it became a standard-issue weapon in the militaries of Moscow’s Soviet-era allies.
Kalashnikov remains surprisingly healthy for his age, speaking regularly at conferences devoted to Russian weapons. He told Rossiiskaya Gazeta that he had slowed down recently, but still goes moose hunting once a year.