February 18, 2007
Heads Up | Izhevsk, Russia
AK-47 Museum: Homage to the Gun That Won the East
By C. J. CHIVERS
VALENTIN YAKOVLEV stood quietly, almost solemnly, before the assault rifles, all of them tidily arranged behind glass. It was a cold morning in Izhevsk, a city in the Ural Mountains, and Mr. Yakovlev, who as a small child survived the siege of Leningrad and is now a pensioner from a former Soviet arms plant, had beaten the crowds to pay homage to an almost ubiquitous accompaniment to modern war.
He made the rounds alone, gun by gun, the latest visitor to one of Russia's curious recent cultural attractions: the Museum Complex of Small Arms of M. T. Kalashnikov, a series of halls and multimedia exhibitions devoted to the AK-47 assault rifle and its offspring — the most abundant firearms ever made.
High culture has long existed beside Russian roughness and industrial grit. The State Hermitage Museum and its cousins in St. Petersburg and Moscow have survived revolution, war and upheaval to become part of oil-rich new Russia's urban allure for visitors from around the world. But Russia and other post-Soviet republics also offer several museums dedicated to the socialist state's technical and military might, a sector of the economy and a martial state of mind in which much of Russian society was invested.
Travelers who stray from typical itineraries will encounter museums commemorating everything from communications troops to the secret development of Joe 1, the Soviet Union's first atomic bomb. By providing different angles of insight from those available in the Pushkin art museum or at the Bolshoi Theater, they offer useful lenses for examining Russia's extraordinary contrasts and recent past. They also shed light on ways the reawakened nation is choosing to perceive itself as it flexes its muscles anew.
Such is the case in Izhevsk, a once closed city of about 700,000 people that has quietly left its mark on the world and whose museum complex has been drawing on average 10,000 visitors a month. They come for a sense of the center of Soviet production of the AK-47 (shorthand for Avtomat Kalashnikova 1947), a sprawling line of assault rifles that has become, depending on your point of view, either a superproduct or a scourge.
The view in Russia is superproduct. With money from the state (and from donors that include Anatoly Chubais, one of the men who dismantled the Soviet economy), the AK-47 now has a place among memorialized military objects. The result is a museum that is at once sleek and quirky, careful and earnest.
On the surface, the museum, opened late in 2004, serves as Russia's monument to an infantry weapon and to the workers who have made it for almost 60 years. It presents the guns and their history with civic pride and a revived sense of national confidence. Think of Izhesvk as the Detroit of Slavic small arms. The exhibitions, ranging from static displays of weapons to plasma-screen video presentations showing the guns' use in recent decades, reflect a laborer's affection for what has long flowed from nearby foundries and assembly lines. Much of the material is also viewed through the life of Gen. Mikhail T. Kalashnikov, the man credited with designing the weapon in secret trials in 1947, and who, at 87, still lives a few blocks away. Were you to substitute automobiles for firearms and add a bit of military décor, this might be a museum celebrating Henry Ford.
Mr. Yakovlev, 67, speaking in the tones of his generation, summed up the effect. “This museum makes patriotic feelings,” he said. But the museum is not merely a booster's tribute to local achievement. Mr. Yakovlev also reflexively offered the Russian line on the Kalashnikovs, whose distinctive burnt-orange stock and banana-shaped magazines have become battlefield icons. “It's progressive, defensive, very effective,” he said. “And as far as I know there is still not anything comparable to this weapon anywhere else.”
One word in that testimonial — defensive — underscored the museum's other objective: managing the troubled image of the weapon it celebrates.
Outside Russia, Kalashnikovs are often regarded as unchecked instruments for crime and terror. Knowing that, the museum has focused backward in time. Thus it chronicles the official biography of General Kalashnikov, from his childhood as a peasant in the distant region of Altai, near Kazakhstan, and the dark turn in his life when his family was exiled to Siberia, where his father soon died. After conscription, the young Sergeant Kalashnikov was wounded early in World War II. In the resulting furlough, he began experimenting with arms, leading to his appointment to a weapons design team and eventually to being credited with leading the team that created the AK-47.
In a sort of socialist franchising, the design was coupled to the industrial capacity of the Soviet Union, the Warsaw Pact and ideologically aligned nations, including China and North Korea. Together these nations made the Kalashnikov one of the world's most commonly seen products of the ensuing decades.
The museum's position is clear. General Kalashnikov — a peasant turned proletarian hero — became a gunsmith while trying to expel Nazis from Russian soil. (What better motive could there be than that?). His brainchild is Russian made. It is easy to use. It does not jam. Critics of the AK-47, the museum asserts, know only part of its tale. “We emphasize the peaceful side of this story,” said Nadezhda Vechtomova, the museum director. “We are trying to separate the weapon as a weapon of murder from the people who are producing it and to tell its history in our country.”
Anyone hoping for an apologia be warned. You will find none. The Kalashnikov is regarded here the way some Americans revere the Winchester, the Colt or the M1 Garand, but on a far grander scale. While some might find this approach incomplete (there is no reference to Soviet distribution of these weapons to all manner of proxies or any discussion of how it has crept into the logos of several new jihadi groups in Iraq), there is much here for the military minded.
The exhibition serves as a new complement to two well-known Russian museums: The Central Museum of the Armed Forces (still proudly Soviet with a massive bust of Lenin filling the eye at the entrance hall) and the shopworn Military-Historical Museum of Artillery, Engineering Troops and Communications Troops in St. Petersburg.
Visitors may also get a glimpse of General Kalashnikov himself, who keeps an office in the museum. On this day he appeared briefly and joked that the museum and the tourists it has drawn have placed new demand on his time. “After the museum opened,” he said, “my quiet life ended.”
The general slipped away ahead of the rush. The growing crowds soon overtook Mr. Yaklovev, who also disappeared, replaced by tourists from across Russia. One of them, Roman Katayev, 26, was on an excursion from Perm. He paid a 75 ruble fee (about $2.80 at 27 rubles to the dollar), and a photographer on the museum's staff handed him an unloaded Kalashnikov with a grenade launcher. “It feels good,” Mr. Katayev said, after posing. “This museum enlightens the people about what kind of weapons we have.”
The Kalashnikov museum is open Tuesday to Sunday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Admission is 50 rubles (about $1.85 at 27 rubles to the dollar) for Russians and 240 rubles for foreigners. Tours in Russian, lasting about 45 minutes, are available for 100 rubles for a group. Almost all of the printed material in the museum is in Russian. English-speakers can download a booklet at www.AK47-guide.com, and tours in English or German can be arranged by calling (7-3412) 513-452.
For a sense of the depths of contrasts in Russia, visit the Tchaikovsky estate and museum in Votkinsk, a short drive from Izhevsk (7-3414-551-107; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday; 15 rubles for Russians, 30 for foreigners).