AK-47 (Mikhail Kalashnikov)
From the curators: The AK-47 (Avtomat Kalashnikova) was designed by Soviet military engineer Mikhail Kalashnikov and debuted in 1947. Building on previous assault rifle technologies, he developed it to be lightweight, easy to handle, durable, and cheap to produce. The AK-47 became standard issue for the Soviet Union’s military in the late 1940s and redefined modern warfare in the latter half of the 20th century. The rifle allows its operator to alternate between single-shot and fully automatic modes with ease. This feature—when combined with the industrial production of the AK-47 in countries outside of (now) Russia—has facilitated mass killing at a scale and rapidity unmatched by any other weapon. Prior to his death in 2013, Kalashnikov reflected on this legacy and his design intentions, stating that, “This is a weapon of defense…. It is not a weapon for offense.” Today, the AK-47 has moved from a tool of state control to the tool of choice for insurgents seeking to destabilize governments and institutions. It is estimated that there are currently between 75 and 100 million AK-47s worldwide, many of them ersatz.
Late May 2014. Excerpt from an e-mail from the MoMA Design and Violence team to China Keitetsi: We would like to begin the dialogue by saying that we understand you will only answer the questions you feel comfortable doing so, and so we’ve sent them to you in advance of our conversation. While we are genuinely interested in understanding the lived experiences surrounding the AK-47 in order to add to the public understanding of the relationship between design and violence—we understand design as an integral part of even the most difficult circumstances in society—we do not want to provoke memories that are disturbing to you.
The following conversation took place June 27, 2014, via phone.
Design and Violence team: How are you? Thank you for taking time to speak with us.
China Keitetsi: I’m well, thank you. I am happy to be talking about this subject with you for this project, but it’s not easy to be reminded of your past, you know? I live in Denmark now. I think about how lucky I am because I don’t see a gun everyday on the streets of Denmark. I feel like I was given another chance—like I was dead, and in hell, but now I am back, alive.
So, we’ve explained a little about the Design and Violence project in advance of this conversation. One of the designs we’re including in the project is a gun, the AK-47. You wrote a book about your experiences as a child soldier, and the illustration on the cover shows a small child holding an AK-47. How central was this weapon to your experiences and memories of being a child soldier?
When I was there, it meant a lot in my life. It was like my mother. It became a part of me, and me a part of it. It was my identity, like my passport. Like, they ask you at the airport for your passport—at that time, if they had asked me who I was, I would have shown them my gun. It became my mother, it was my friend, my protector, and yet I still felt fear every day [as a child soldier].
Yes—you wrote really powerfully about this in your memoir [Child Soldier: Fighting for my Life, “We were told our guns were our mothers, our friends, our whole world, and we must rather lose ourselves than our guns.”]. Can you expand on your feelings toward the AK-47 during your time as a child soldier?
You got so frightened. You had to take care of it. You dream and you think you don’t have the gun. If I woke up and the gun wasn’t there, we would become crazy because we knew we would be punished. In Europe now, when the girls go out, or when a woman goes out, most of the time they make sure not to forget their purse. And so, it was to us like that. You could forget to wear clothes but you could not forget your gun.… Today, when I talk or think about it, when I see others [in the media] carrying guns, I look down on them and I feel shame that I carried one, too. I look at women I see around me today, perhaps drinking margaritas or pink drinks. Fine hands, fine fingers, fine nails. You look back and you realize how different you were. I try to distance myself as much as I can from the gun, because that weapon, it makes me feel that I am not a woman.
The weapon’s designer, Mikhail Kalashnikov, said it was designed to protect his homeland, not to be used “by terrorists or thugs.” What are your feelings toward the AK-47 today?
The gun can be easily carried by any child, even by children as young as the age of six. When we carried them, it made a mark on the ground as we walked because we were too short [to hold the butt of the weapon up off the ground]. He [Kalashnikov] should have changed the design. If this man cared—make it heavier to carry so that only an adult man can lift it.
How does the AK-47 (or memory of the weapon) continue to affect you in the present, despite your being removed in time and space from it?
I knew my weapon more than I did my parents, I was more with my gun than my family. The experience of carrying it leaves you with a fate that is not sealed. It leaves you desperate for love. And most of the time, you don’t even know where you will have that love from. I lost my parents, and I lost my sisters in the Rwandan genocide. I work hard every day to find something to smile about, to be happy about, but you are never the same again after that experience. It is not only the gun. You can be apart from the weapon, but the abuse and humiliation—also weapons—are harder to move away from. I don’t know if that’s part of your project, but it’s important.
One woman—a psychologist—told me at a conference that once you are a child soldier, you never recover. And my answer to her was: I think that if you are left in the place where you did all the bad things with that gun, it takes longer to recover because every time you look at the gun, the places you used it, your mind travels back. But I am in Denmark. Here, I don’t see AK-47s every day.
As you said, you now live in Denmark with your family. How has your experience influenced your hopes for your children and for the future?
For the first time in my life, I have someone who loves me without conditions. I have a five-year-old girl, and two twin boys who are a year old.
Congratulations! That’s wonderful.
Thank you, yes. It gives me hope. After holding an AK-47, I looked down on myself. You judge yourself. Always, you will be different to others. But having your own children and family means you get some pride back. It is the first real peace for me. It has made me grateful for life. I feel lucky to bring them up and I feel it as a privilege. I don’t think I can thank God enough that they will never have to know what I left behind, what it is like to live in fear. They will always have freedom.