Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Kalishnikov Turns 90!

Gun inventor, 'happy man' Kalashnikov turns 90
By Alexander Osipovich (AFP)

MOSCOW — Mikhail Kalashnikov, the Russian inventor of the globally popular AK-47 assault rifle, on Tuesday declared himself a "happy man" as he celebrated his 90th birthday with a burst of poetry.

Lavished with honours for designing the iconic rifle, Kalashnikov said he had never intended for it to become the preferred weapon in conflicts around the world.

"I created a weapon to defend the fatherland's borders. It's not my fault that it was sometimes used where it shouldn't have been. This is the fault of politicians," he said during an award ceremony at the Kremlin.

Kalashnikov was handed the prestigious Hero of Russia prize by President Dmitry Medvedev, who hailed the AK-47 as "a brilliant example of Russian weaponry" and "a national brand which evokes pride in each citizen."

The white-haired Kalashnikov -- who is an amateur poet and the author of six books, as well as a weapons designer -- also read aloud a brief patriotic poem that he penned himself.

"I wrote poetry in my youth, and people thought I would become a poet. But I didn't become one. There are many bad poets out there without me. I went along a different path," he told reporters at the Kremlin.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin praised Kalashnikov as a "truly legendary" figure while state television was filled with tributes to the 90-year-old inventor.

In one tribute, two Russian cosmonauts congratulated Kalashnikov 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.

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 kilometers (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.

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 a 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 Soviet dictator Joseph 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 rifle quickly became prized for its sturdy reliability in difficult field conditions.

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.

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