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An AK 47 can hit a target 2,000 feet away in one second. It weighs no more than 10 pounds. It is 14 inches long. It can be cleaned without hassle. It disassembles easily. It never jams. It is effective, light, portable, reliable – and no military expertise is required to use it (AK47). This gun can be fired by any man, woman, or child. And in third world revolutions across the world, it has been fired. Type “AK 47” into a library database and books on almost every revolution from the late 20th century will appear. This weapon has been in the hands of men, women, and children in Serbia, Sudan, Iraq, Nigeria, India, and Iran. It has been hand crafted in Pakistan and mass produced in Russia. It has killed those who opposed the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the Taliban in Afghanistan. It is the focal point of a museum in Izhevsk, Russia. It is the centerpiece of artwork in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Unable to defend Russia on the battlefield during World War II, an injured Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov set out to serve his country off the battlefield: he started experimenting with a prototype sub-machine gun in the 1940s. His goal was to build the most effective weapon of his time: one that was cheap to produce and easy to use. In 1947, he succeeded. He and a team of engineers came up with the Avtomat Kalashnikova or AK 47 (Gra 287). Though it would be refined to an even more inexpensive, precise machine over the next ten years, this first type was what Kalashnikov had intended: it could be mass produced at a minimal cost and used by anyone regardless of military training. The Soviet Union began equipping their soldiers with the AK 47 in 1949 (Gra 287). However, it did not become popular until the Cold War.
During the early 1950s, the United States began supplying nations who were a part of NATO (North Atlantic Trade Organization) with a weapon similar to the AK 47, the M16 (Gra 300). Because of this, the Soviet Union began equipping nations who were a part of the Warsaw Pact with AK 47 (Gra 300). However, unlike the M16, the AK 47 was cheaper to produce, easier to use, and more reliable in muddy, wet, or sandy conditions. Any country who supported communistic ideals was soon given the AK 47 without charge in mass quantities. Therefore, the AK 47 came to represent the manifestation of communism and a threat to democracy in Western eyes. But this gun leaked into other nations. Recognizing its demand in developing countries, the former Soviet Union marketed this weapon to any country that would pay (Gra 299). The AK 47 ended up in the hands of soldiers and civilians alike. Soon, the black market was stocked with the AK 47, and it was no longer being sold exclusively to governments. The AK 47 was sold to guerilla armies, drug cartels, insurgents and revolutionists in developing countries worldwide (Gra 301). When the United States sought to occupy Nicaragua, they were met by the revolutionist Sandinistas. In the hands of these revolutionists was the same weapon the Soviets and other communist countries had used, the AK 47 (AK47). When Great Britain granted the Sudanese their independence and sought to ease tensions between north and south Sudan, they were confronted by the Anya-Nya guerilla army, who was carrying the AK 47 (AK47). When the United States began its War on Terrorism, it was confronted by the Taliban in Afghanistan, wielding the AK 47 (AK47). In this part of the world, the AK 47 represents warfare.
However, in its birthplace the AK 47 does not represent warfare. In the western part of the Ural Mountains just north of the Ural River is the small manufacturing town of Izhevsk. This town began manufacturing metal weaponry in 1807 by order of Tsar Alexander I (Izh). Since then, the name Izhevsk has been associated with numerous metalworking factories. Here, the AK 47 was born (Chi 1). A small museum stands in its honor. Through winding hallways and large glass showcases, one can view the AK 47. In great detail, one can see the intricacies of each part of this weapon. One can see the iron that has been pressed and compacted into a durable, hollow barrel for the gun. Behind this sleek barrel sits the gas tube and hand guard crafted out of wood. In line with the hand guard is the top receiver and stock made of the same durable and sleek iron. Jutting out from below the stock in a banana shape is the magazine where ammunition sits ready and waiting. At the very back of the gun, jutting out below the stock but behind the magazine, sits a wooden pistol grip textured for friction. Between the pistol grip and magazine sits the trigger poised for a human finger. But in the museum, the gun is no weapon. This efficient killing machine has been stripped of its ammunition, its soldier, its deadly connotations. The AK 47 is presented instead “with civic pride and a revived sense of national confidence” (Chi 2). The director of the museum, Nadezhda Vechtomova, states that the museum is “trying to separate the weapon as a weapon of murder from the people who are producing it and to tell its history in [Russia]” (Chi 2). Here, Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov is a hard working man determined to serve his country, not a man out to supply the developing world with dangerous weaponry. Here, the gun is a sense of pride in workmanship, not an object to fear. Here, the AK 47 is a piece of great workmanship.
In Phnom Penh, Cambodia, it is neither a weapon nor a piece of history. Cambodia’s streets are lined with palm trees and beautiful tropical flowers; however, some streets are lined with pieces of a darker time. (Cam) Cambodia was torn apart in the late 1970s when approximately 1 million citizens were killed by the Khmer Rouge Political Party, wielding the AK 47. Now, in the more desolate regions of Cambodia, the remnants of these darker times, automatic weapons, lie strewn about the streets. However, it did not seem fit to simply clean up the past, so instead of picking up these weapons and throwing them out, art students in Phnom Penh, Cambodia are turning the AK 47 into art (Cro 1). The project began in 2004 and is meant to “educate the general public to stop violence” (Cro 1). Touun Tourneakea, one of the artists, has worked hard to turn the AK 47 into elephants, birds and horses (Cro 2). Here, this deadly assault rifle, this piece of history, is also an art form. Having been placed in the hands of art students, the AK 47 has been curved into the elegant trunk of an elephant, bent into the many petals of a flower and spread into the feathers of a peacock. The AK 47 is art.
The AK 47 is a weapon, a piece of history, a work of art, and most importantly, an assemblage of iron and wood. The hands of a guerilla use this as a weapon. The hands of a patriotic Russian turn this weapon into a sense of nationalistic pride. The hands of a young sculptor create the AK 47 to be an art medium. What can be learned from the AK 47 is that man creates meaning for an object. Once touched by human hands, an object becomes purposeful. Therefore, an assemblage of iron and wood can kill, reflect pride, or even serve as an art medium. The AK 47 is whatever man makes it.
- Rachel Durkee, December 2009
Graves-Brown, Paul. "Avtomat Kalashnikova." Journal of Material Culture. 12.285 (2007).
Chivers, C.J. "AK-47 Museum: Homage to the Gun That Won the East." New York Times 18 Feb 2007, Late.
Cropley, Ed. "Guns to Galleries for Young Cambodian Sculptors." Washington Post 23 Feb. 2004.
"AK 47." Wikipedia. Web. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AK-47>.
“Cambodia.” Wikipedia. Web. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/cambodia>
“Khemer Rouger.” Wikipedia. Web. <http://wikipedia.org/wiki/khemerrouge>
“Izhevsk.” Wikipedia. Web. <http://wikipedia.org/wiki/izhevsk>