Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov wakes in gray light to the sounds of the injured soldiers in the cots beside him moaning, crying out. He is still in such agony from the wound to his shoulder, still so groggy from medication, that he isn’t certain that the sounds are not his own. It is October 1941. The hospital ward in Y—– is crowded after the Battle of Bryansk. Even as the wounded soldiers die and are taken away, new ones come to replace them. There aren’t enough nurses, so those who are here are haggard and cross. The ward smells sharply of rubbing alcohol, and under that the too-sweet smell of sickness, damaged flesh. In the distance, he hears the clatter of trays sliding into the trolley. Soon there will be weak tea and porridge.
Later, while they eat, the soldiers talk of home, their wives and girlfriends. They talk, too, of the war, complain about the need to share a gun between three men, and those guns heavy, prone to jamming. “Pieces of horse shit,” the soldiers say. “Garbage.” There is great admiration for the Germans’ Schmeisser, an assault rifle that shoots and shoots without the cumbrous reloading of the Soviet guns.
Mikhail Timofeyevich has always disliked this sort of complaining. He hears in it resignation, complacency, wallowing. He likes to identify a problem and then set about solving it. He is a believer in solutions, in setting things to rights. Already in his short time as a soldier, he has devised a mechanism for counting shots fired from the tank. When his infection clears and his pain is bearable, he requests Federov’s books on weapons, volumes I and II, from the hospital library, as well as Blagonarov’s opus, whole pages of which Mikhail Timofeyevich will memorize.
He will say he invented his gun to protect his country’s borders. Everything I’ve done belongs to Russia, he says near the end of his life.
Have you seen a child who’s been smacked by another child? Bitten or shoved? He wants only to retaliate, hit back—and harder. It is instinctual, natural. Call it base, if you wish, but you cannot deny its power and primacy. There was that urge for him, too. He alone survived from his tank. He saw terrible things in battle and then later trying to get to safety, to the hospital—bodies riddled with bullets, blood-soaked, tossed on the ground as if thrown from a great height. Such images linger, you can be sure. It seems to him—then and later—that he had no choice but to make his gun.
And there is also this: When he is thinking of his gun, he isn’t thinking about the dead.
As a boy, he’d enjoyed making things. From birch wood, he fashioned lidded boxes for storage, carved figurines for his younger brothers. He liked, too, to disassemble things, to see the individual parts and how they functioned. He could always—at least eventually—reassemble them. “Our Misha will be a builder one day,” his father said. He didn’t care if his tools were used or his traps pulled apart as long as everything was returned to working order. His son’s little inventions were handy, too. The birch boxes kept mice from the flour and barley. The younger boys were entertained by their carved toys—bears, windmills, even a boat that floated.
Then as now, there is pleasure in the considering, the puzzling, the thinking through. Mikhail Timofeyevich lies in bed, imagining all the parts of a gun laid out on a table. He did this with a Degtyarev rifle while in training. He knows what parts tend to cause problems, what is too bulky, too complicated. Everything else falls away as he thinks; there is only this conundrum that must be wrestled to the ground. Sometimes, he is lucky; the ideas come so fast he must jot them down to keep track.
He is methodical, his script boxy and clear. He makes a chart of the different automatic weapons, their design history, their technical and tactical characteristics.
There are obstacles along the way. His lack of drawing skills and technological knowledge. He stopped school at thirteen. In the hospital, there is no German gun to examine. There are the limits of his own imagination. It is true what they say, the unsolved problem is a thorn in the heart!
The injured parachutist in the cot beside him asks about his notebooks, his reading. It turns out the fellow was trained at Moscow Technologic. He understands physics and is able to clarify, to name the theories and formulas that Mikhail Timofeyevich has intuited, but only vaguely; he was a man in the dark, feeling his way along unfamiliar corridors. Now, though, he will find his way. The naming, the indisputable equations bolster him.
When Mikhail Timofeyevich is discharged, he is not well enough to go back to the Front as he has expected. He is sent home for additional rest and recuperation. The problem is, he has listed home as K– — though that is not exactly true. He hasn’t lived there in years, not since he was a boy and his family was disgraced, called “enemies of the people,” and sent East for reprogramming. He has kept this shameful information to himself, omitted some details in his discussions with the army officials and his fellow soldiers. And he doesn’t now see any reason to confess or elaborate. No, that is the past, and he is interested in the future, in progress. From an article in the military newspaper, Mikhail Timofeyevich has learned of a government-sponsored contest to create the next Soviet gun, and he plans to win.
Standing in the train compartment crammed with soldiers, Mikhail Timofeyevich’s shoulder flares with pain from the jostling. He feels woozy. The vodka he is passed helps only slightly. It’s hot in the compartment, and the windows have steamed up with the men’s breath. Outside, everything is snow and ice. A blinded soldier plays mournful, repetitive songs on his harmonica until someone tells him to give it a rest, for fuck’s sake.
Who can say why—the crowded car, the throbbing shoulder, his desire to get to work immediately—but at the M—- station, Mikhail Timofeyevich grabs his duffle and jumps off the train. There’s no time to say farewell to the others, to wish them good health. The train huffs for a minute before taking off again, but he has already entered the depot.
It turns out that the depot manager shares his surname, Kalashnikov, and they become friends on the spot. “My brother!” they say to one another, lifting glasses of vodka in the depot’s main office. “To our reunion!” It is very hard to say no to a wounded soldier in these times, even one who does not share your name, so Mikhail Timoveyevich is permitted to use a room at the depot for lodging and a workshop. He sets his notebooks on a small table by his pallet for sleeping. He tacks his charts to the wall. He has rations from the army, so he needn’t worry about food or warmth. A Mosin rifle is obtained from a military chief in the region. He sets to work immediately. Even when he is doing something else—bathing, drinking, walking by the river—he is thinking of his gun. His brain whirs and seeks, swoops in on solutions, a hawk intent on a field mouse. Months pass like this.
When it is finished, he and his new brother test out the prototype in the woods beyond the depot, aiming at the bottles he has set up as targets. He hits every last one. They toast his success, the Germans’ demise, a swift Soviet victory!
While he doesn’t win, he attracts the attention of the judges. He has potential, they decide, and send him off for training at the Polygon. There are, Mikhail Timofeyevich believes, three necessary conditions for perfecting his gun—autonomy, an excellent workshop, and access to his predecessor’s ideas in weapon development. At the Polygon, all three are met. Even better, here there is a particularly talented draftswoman, Ekaterina Viktoronova Moiseyeva, who helps with his sketches. She renders his ideas precisely, with clean lines. Sometimes, she makes suggestions, offers a crucial simplification. “Perhaps a smaller lever?” Katya says. “What if the grip were textured slightly?” They work late into the night after her other work is completed. He has only one tea cup in his workshop, so they share it, though he is embarrassed by this lack, this necessary intimacy. Katya doesn’t seem to care. She drinks her tea as his mother did, a sugar cube between her front teeth.
Even after the drawings are complete, Katya continues to come to his workshop in the evenings. She watches as he works, encourages him when he is stuck. She learns the signs: pacing, sighing, swearing. “You mustn’t give up,” she says. “We’re very close.” She has brought another tea cup from her mother’s house and the whole of her sugar ration in a tin box.
After Katya leaves for home, he continues to work. He falls asleep thinking of his gun. One morning, he wakes to this thought: what if the pieces were assembled loosely? What if they floated somehow? This would allow grit or snow—or sand, for that matter—to fall away rather than jam things up. Yes, the parts must float, a word that calls to mind lily pads on a sun-dappled pond, clouds, or angels.
When the new prototype is done, Katya embraces him. He feels her warm bosom against his chest. She smells of wood smoke and tea, of home. When he pulls back, he notices for the first time her lovely gray eyes, the thick lashes. She draws him near again and kisses him.
“Oh, Misha,” she says, “for a smart man, you are a little bit dumb.”
Under her clothes, those many bulky layers of wool and canvas, she is surprisingly beautiful—long-legged and curvy, her skin golden as if lit from inside. It is a generous body, he decides—or perhaps it is that she is so generous with it.
This prototype is like their child, something they made together with love. Don’t laugh. This is how it felt to them. Even after their real children come along—Yelena and then Natasha—they think of the gun as their first.
Mikhail Timofeyevich leaves to Katya the other work of their lives—the children and their education, the house, marketing, cooking. He would forget to eat, she often says, if his food did not appear before him. Each evening, he returns home only after the children are in bed, the house quiet, Katya in a pool of light reading or knitting as she waits for him. His dinner is kept warm in the oven. When he comes in, carrying the smells of the factory with him, she rises and warms the kettle for tea. She listens while he reports on struggles with suppliers or frustrations with the assembly. She tells him about the girls—Yelena got high marks in maths, Natasha needs new boots—and that she herself found a good deal on a bushel of cucumbers, and they will have pickles all year. Just little bits she tells him, so as not to distract him from his important work.
In the years that follow, he is rewarded for his single-mindedness with promotions in rank, with awards and medals: Order of the Red Star, Order of Lenin, Hammer and Sickle medal, Order of Saint Andrew, Hero of Socialist Labour, and the Stalin Prize, which will, under Khrushchev, be renamed the State Prize. He is provided a cozy cottage in the country for relaxation with his family. He has been to America, been interviewed and fêted there. The whole world knows his gun.
If it weren’t for the tremors in his hands, Mikhail Timofeyevich would never stop working. For a long time, he has tried to ignore the shaking, to steady his hands with his will. Neither that nor the medicine his doctor provides do any good. He is forced to face facts.
In honor of this retirement, a parade and party have been arranged. He rides in a tank down the main street of I—-. It is Spring, which comes only in June to this part of the world, and the air is perfumed with lilac and mock orange. His tank is followed by military bands, floats with beauties from Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan. There are dancers and gymnasts with hoops turning flips. Overhead, bombers in formation swoop and dive—mean, elegant birds. From the sidewalks, crowds cheer and wave. It could go to your head—and indeed, it does. He feels dizzy when he steps out of the tank at the factory and needs to take the hand of the soldier who helps him out.
At the party, he is seated at a big table with his daughters, his grandson, several government officials, and the new director of the factory. It’s been years since her death, but he wishes that Katya were here to see this fuss made in his honor, to share it with him. Wine is poured, and vodka. There is caviar. Speeches are made and toasts, and then it is his turn to stand at the podium. He rises and makes his way to the stage. He has considered revealing in these remarks certain truths about his past. So much time has passed and times have changed. Now he might clear things up at last. His family did not, as the informers reported to Party officials, live in the lap of luxury. He might talk of the sledge that came in the dark of night to take them away from their little farm. He remembers still the sound of the ewes bleating as they were herded up and then shot, the long ride in the cattle car, and his father stepping from it in A—- an old man—bent and hoary, though he was not yet fifty. He plans to end with a poem by Lomonosov: “Come, my friend, your feet are bare, your body in need of washing, your clothes tattered on your back. Do not be ashamed: For many, the path to glory begins as such.”
But even thinking of that time, he feels itchy with shame. Here’s the thing: his secret is in danger of being blurted, exposed. At first, keeping it was difficult. You must be vigilant as you learn the perimeters of your life, the invention of your new self. He found that out long ago. Later, though, the truth became hard to reveal. Why is that? The lie hasn’t gone away. If anything, it has expanded and swelled, become heavier, bulkier. But you have grown accustomed to the lie. Not comfortable exactly, but familiar. A habit it is hard to give up even if it no longer pleases.
In the end, he decides against this confession, and instead reads one of his own poems, which was long ago awarded a prize and published in the army magazine. As he reaches the final stanza, his favorite, his heart speeds up, his voice hitches. These words stir him still. He takes a sip from his glass and continues: “Is it any wonder that everything is louder and more beautiful now? The great free people sing of our victory, of our soldiers and our strength.”
The guests stand. The applause goes on for a long time. It has been a good night, a success.
Back at the table, the very blonde wife of the new director congratulates him. “What will you do with your new free time?” she asks.
His hands shake as he reaches for his glass, reminding him of all he cannot do. A curtain unfurls. Darkness. What will he do? Initially, he thought he would return to his poetry, but the shaking prevents him from writing and reading.
“Family,” his daughter Natasha says. “We look forward to spending time together.”
“Yes,” he says.
Later, he will say he had a premonition, but it is quite possible he just didn’t want Natasha to leave him, for his routine to be disrupted. She has always been there when he wakes and there when he returns at night, as her mother had been. He has come to rely on her gentleness and calm, her dulcet voice singing along to the radio while she cooks or neatens the apartment.
The winter was a particularly bitter one. Unrelenting snow and cold. Natasha, though, insists on going to Moscow. She has tickets to the theater. Twice already her flight to Moscow has been cancelled because of storms. He hopes she’ll decide to throw in the towel and stay at home. She can go to Moscow in May. “It’s much nicer in the spring,” he tells her. “The trees will be beginning to blossom. Perhaps, we will go together?”
“Papa,” she says, buckling her satchel. “It’s only a short trip. I’ll be back before you know it.” Natasha lifts her bag from the bed, looks around the room a final time, and kisses him goodbye. From the front door of their apartment, he watches her walk to the elevator, her high-heeled boots clicking as she goes. She looks like a big city girl, not his Tasha. Those boots won’t keep her warm enough. He’s about to offer this, but he remembers her sister Yelena’s admonishment the day before. “Let her have a little holiday. It’s not like you’ll go hungry.” It’s true that Natasha has stocked his refrigerator with all his favorites, made and frozen pirozhki for his suppers.
Then came the call: an accident, her cab driver lost control on the icy road, his car spun into the wrong lane and was struck by a bus. Natasha is gone. When Mikhail Timofeyevich has to identify her at the morgue, he takes one look at the gray body under the sheet before collapsing. His legs slide out from under him, as if they’ve forgotten their purpose.
His days are long without Natasha or his work, his house too quiet. For a while now there has been an argument in his head. It goes more or less like this:
“Your gun kills 250,000 people each year. Do you not bear some responsibility for those deaths?”
“No, I designed my gun to protect the Motherland!” Memories come back to him from the war—bodies blown to pulp, smoke rising from burning flesh, searing pain in his shoulder, the smell of his own vomit down his front. “It is the fault of the Germans. Take it up with them.”
“Yes, but how does it feel to see your gun in the hands of terrorists?”
“You must think of the good the gun has accomplished. The liberation of Mozambique, for instance. After, soldiers named their boys Kalash, so grateful were they to my gun. It’s on their flag, too, that distinctive profile leaving no doubt.”
“Yes, and it is plain as day on the Hezbollah flag, too, is it not?”
“Is it the fault of the designer if the politicians cannot work out these conflicts peacefully? What do you think? The terrorists are not stupid. They too want the best gun.”
“So, you have no regrets?”
“I would like to point out that I’ve made not one kopek on my design.”
“Does that excuse you?”
“If it wasn’t my gun, it would’ve been someone else’s: Degtyarev’s, Balkin’s, Rukavishnikov’s.”
“Think of the parents who lost their children to your gun. Think how they must suffer, as you suffer now without Natasha.”
“No, I cannot. You’re being unfair.”
“And what if—”
“Stop. That’s enough.”
For much of his life, Mikhail Timofeyevich has wanted this one thing— to make his gun and then to improve it. So, it is strange to find himself late in life wanting something else. What is it? He is an old man now, nearly twice as old as his father when he died. At first he believes what he wants is his beloved Tasha, her death prevented, her loving presence restored to him. He has lost many loved ones by this point. He misses Katya, of course he does, but with a spouse it is a given that one will outlive the other. That is the natural order of things, but it is all wrong to lose a child. He is a man who likes order, has depended on it. And now he feels robbed of his daughter, his favorite, as well as his conviction. He is again the little boy, crammed into a cattle car with his family, hurtling farther and farther east, away from everything he’s known.
One night, after another long day, he dreams he is walking with Natasha. He is pleased to see her again, but there isn’t time to make a fuss or to inquire about why she has come back. They are in a hurry to get somewhere for a celebration, of what, he is not sure. But certainly, the mood is festive. At some point, a storm comes in from the Ural mountains, a swirling mass of white that seems to come at them horizontally. He can’t see the path in front of them or anything off to the side. “It’s okay, Papa,” Natasha says, “you’re doing fine.” She beams at him. They keep walking because there is no other choice, nowhere to stop and take shelter. He is happy to note his hands are steady on his walking stick, his tremors are gone. Sometimes, he and Tasha falter on the icy path, but always they are able to right themselves and continue their trek. He awakes before learning of their destination.
In his advanced age, he no longer drives. He has a driver, Sergi. When he is not driving, Sergi is looking after the car, washing it, buffing away the street grime and grit. Inside, too, the car is very clean and emits a citrus smell. Sometimes, Mikhail Timofeyevich requests a ride though he has no particular destination in mind. It is pleasant to be out and about in Sergi’s good hands. He takes turns smoothly, rolls to gentle stops. He has a knack for finding convenient parking.
Today, though, he has an appointment with a vodka manufacturer who hopes Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov will lend his famous name to a new vodka. There is a traffic jam, and the streets are backed up with cars and trucks and plenty of honking. Sergi is calm; he doesn’t shout or swear at the other drivers, as Mikhail Timofeyevich would if he were behind the wheel. He hates rude drivers, this excruciating crawl. He wants to move. Indeed, that is the whole reason for this outing.
“Let me out here, Sergi,” he says. “I’ll walk the rest of the way.”
“Of course, sir, but it is far still.”
“Nonsense. I can see the gate from here,” he says. “I’ll wait for you there.”
Mikhail Timofeyevich has already pushed open his door and disembarked. Once he is on the sidewalk, he sees he isn’t where he thought he was. The stone wall isn’t that of the office building; it surrounds a school for girls. Just past that, surely, he will find his destination. He turns to wave on Sergi, but the knot of traffic has untangled and he cannot spot the black sedan.
Beyond the school, there are shops, restaurants, and a church, its thick wooden doors flung open. He will go in and ask for directions. Inside, it is dim and hushed. The only light comes through jewel-colored windows. It is calm in here away from the honking and shouting. Harassed: That is what he felt before. When his eyes have adjusted to the darkness, he watches a young mother lead her little boy up to the altar. She has a kerchief over her light hair. They each hold a small amber colored candle. They tip the candles to light them from the flames of others already burning there, then set them in place and make the sign of the cross, then stand silently to watch their candles. It’s as graceful as a dance.
The quiet here feels auspicious, radiant and glowing like the candles. From above him, saints with golden halos and softly draped robes— crimson and azure—gaze down. There, behind a counter just beyond some mosaic arches, is the attendant. What did he want to ask her? She is a stout woman, unsmiling, her dark braids wrapped around her head in an old-fashioned style. Her look does not invite conversation, but he moves towards her anyway, taking coins from his pocket for his own candles. He inhales deeply: incense and beeswax.
What can be said about moments such as this? We don’t change much, not really, not even when we seem to. What is within him now has always been there: an indeterminate ache, a disdain for idleness, an abiding belief in solutions. If he began lighting candles now for all those killed by his gun, he could not finish in a hundred years. But Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov has never been one deterred by obstacles.
In the beginning, there is a boy newly fatherless and hungry. His older brother is less enterprising than he; his younger brothers too young. His mother wrings her chapped hands and weeps in their clay-floored cottage. The boy knows where the rifle is kept. He has watched his father take it from the shelf and clean it before setting out. He knows the various parts—the trigger, the barrel, the safety. His father had promised to teach him to shoot when he is older. Everyone says he has an aptitude for such things—also a way with words. He wants to be a poet when he grows up. The boy takes down the gun, the bullets. In his warmest clothes, he heads out into the deep snow, blue in the early morning light. The world is quiet except for the wind and the crunch of snow beneath his feet. He walks and watches, crouches behind snow drifts from time to time. His eyes water from the cold, and the tears freeze in streaks on his face. After a while, he sees movement in the distance. He waits. It’s a hare, its big ears pressed back by the wind. The boy aims and shoots. The rifle slams into his chest. The wind carries off his cry, swallows it. He trundles over the snow to reach the hare, his chest smarting.
This might have gone another way. Injury or accident, the grieving family struck again, but it doesn’t. There will be more loss, more tragedy, but not just now. Now, there is rabbit for dinner. Mikhail Timofeyevich squats to inspect his bounty. The hare’s tawny fur ruffles in the wind.