When the average news consumer reads the word "Kalashnikov," what is the first thing that comes to mind?
That would, of course, be an image of the AK-47 -- one of the world's most famous combat weapons, used in countless wars and, yes, acts of terrorism.
But what if the creator of that famous weapon was a devout religious believer -- an Eastern Orthodox Christian, in this case -- who late in life expressed, in writing, a deep sense of shame and remorse about many of the deeds committed with the weapon bearing his name? Would this be an interesting angle to include in a New York Times feature story about his legacy and Russian rites to honor him (in this case with a large public monument)?
Of course, I think that the answer is "yes." However, I am an Eastern Orthodox layman, so I am a bit biased about things like that. This is the kind of information that I am talking about:
... Kalashnikov did not have a simple life. In his old age, he was deeply tortured by the knowledge that his rifle was used to do evil, even though he knew his weapons were also used to destroy evil and defend the Motherland.
In an attempt to find peace, like Nobel and Oppenheimer, this old weapons designer also turned his eyes to a quiet life in the hopes of seeing a silver lining. Seeking redemption, he wrote a letter to Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Church, saying:
“My soul ache is unbearable and has one irresolvable question: if my rifle took lives, does it mean that I, Mikhail Kalashnikov, aged 93, a peasant woman’s son, an Orthodox Christian in faith, am guilty of those people’s deaths, even if they were enemies?"
Though he was told, reportedly, that he was not condemned for this, his sadness continued.
With that in mind, it's interesting to note the role that religion played in this recent Times feature: "Giant Monument to Kalashnikov, Creator of AK-47, Is Unveiled in Moscow."
MOSCOW -- A towering monument to Lt. Gen. Mikhail T. Kalashnikov, designer of the AK-47, the Soviet rifle that has become the world’s most widespread assault weapon, was unveiled ... in the middle of one of central Moscow’s busiest thoroughfares.
The ceremony took place to the sounds of Russian military folk music, the Soviet anthem, Orthodox prayers and words about how his creation had ensured Russia’s safety and peace in the world.
The bronze statue depicts General Kalashnikov, who died in 2013 at age 94, looking into the distance and cradling one of his automatics in his arms “like a violin,” according to Russian state television. The statue is about 16 feet tall, and on a pedestal about 13 feet tall. The ceremony contained no mention of the untold millions of people who have been killed or maimed by the weapon since its creation in 1947.
The construction of the statue, naturally enough, was promoted by Russian minister of culture, Vladimir Medinsky, and the Russian Military-Historical Society, which the Times team identifies as a "nationalist organization that promotes patriotism -- of both czarist and Soviet stripes." As you would expect, there are all kinds of demons connected with that information.
It is also not surprising to learn that the monument was financed by the state-owned Rostec corporation -- which now includes, the Times notes, the "Kalashnikov Concern, the weapons manufacturer in Izhevsk where General Kalashnikov worked for decades (and which was renamed for him in 2013)."
All of that is basic, essential information. Then there is this material linked to Orthodoxy:
General Kalashnikov’s legacy was also cast in religious terms, in line with the Russian government’s depiction of itself as a protector of the Orthodox Church and of Christianity more broadly. The monument was unveiled on Weapons Maker Day, a holiday promoted by General Kalashnikov and signed into law in 2011. It coincides with a feast day of the Archangel Michael, the patron saint of Russia’s weapons industry.
A priest from the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department for Cooperation With the Armed Forces and Law Enforcement Agencies read the Lord’s Prayer and blessed the monument with holy water.
The monument is paired with another sculpture, of the dragon-slaying Archangel Michael astride a globe that includes a decorative relief with Kalashnikov rifle parts and an inscription attributed to General Kalashnikov: “I created a weapon to defend the Fatherland.”
Now, I would assume that the "Department for Cooperation With the Armed Forces and Law Enforcement Agencies" is basically the same thing as the military chaplains offices that exist in the United States and in other nations. I don't find it strange that Russia has military chaplains and that one took part in a rite of this kind. I would imagine that the priest said quite a few prayers, during a rite of this kind. The Orthodox have 2,000 years worth of prayers and frequently use lots of them. What else was said, on this occasion?
Also, it helps to know that the Archangel Michael serves as the patron of warriors and police just about everywhere, at least among the world's largest Christian communions (as in Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and Anglicanism). Thus, there is nothing particularly unusual -- or threatening -- for this public rite to be linked to this feast day.
Here is my basic point: Rather than simplistically portraying Kalashnikov's faith as a kind of quick bow to the Russian state, would it have hurt things -- journalistically speaking -- to have added some moral complexity to this story?
Apparently, this man was an unusually devout and pious Orthodox believer and his fears about the moral implications of his work were real. This information is easy to find online. I would also assume that there were Orthodox people at the ceremony (the Times piece has a Moscow dateline) who could have discussed this side of Kalashnikov's life and even the details of the famous letter to Patriarch Kirill.
Yes, I realize that this kind of information complicates current trends in coverage of Russian life and, especially, Orthodoxy.
However, life is often complex and it's OK for journalists to include that kind of information in their work. #JournalismMatters