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The Remorse of Kalashnikov

A reader sends this:

The inventor of the Kalashnikov assault rifle apparently wrote to the head of the Russian Orthodox Church before he died expressing fears he was morally responsible for the people it killed.

Mikhail Kalashnikov, who died last month aged 94, wrote a long emotional letter to Patriarch Kirill in May 2012, church officials say.

He said he was suffering “spiritual pain” over the many deaths it caused.

Kalashnikov had previously refused to accept responsibility for those killed.

The letter published by Izvestia provides a fascinating insight into the mind of the man who created Russia’s most famous weapon.

Mikhail Kalashnikov spent his career designing and perfecting assault rifles. More than 100 million Kalashnikovs have been sold worldwide. The gun brought Kalashnikov fame and a string of awards.

But his letter to the Patriarch suggests that, towards the end of his life, Kalashnikov felt a degree of guilt – or “spiritual pain” as he puts it – for having invented a killing machine.

It’s unclear, though, how much of this he wrote himself. Izvestia quotes Kalashnikov’s daughter, Elena, as saying she believes a priest helped her father compose the letter.

But in a letter, published in Russia’s pro-Kremlin newspaper Izvestia, he wrote: “My spiritual pain is unbearable.

“I keep having the same unsolved question: if my rifle claimed people’s lives, then can it be that I… a Christian and an Orthodox believer, was to blame for their deaths?” he asked.

“The longer I live,” he continued, “the more this question drills itself into my brain and the more I wonder why the Lord allowed man to have the devilish desires of envy, greed and aggression”.

I think this letter, and the reflection that prompted it, was to the good, and for Kalashnikov’s foundation. However I don’t believe that serious guilt can be imputed to him for the bad use to which his creation was put.

Nevertheless, it’s calls to mind a worthwhile reflection on what it means to be morally responsible for one’s creation. I was thinking about this last night as I finished up my piece on the Divine Comedy. Very early in his pilgrimage, Dante visits Limbo, where the virtuous pagans dwell in peace, deprived of nothing but intimate knowledge of God. They aren’t punished, exactly, but having gone as far in goodness as unaided Reason can take one, God has made for them a pleasant garden in which to dwell.

Then he enters the “real” hell, and the circle of the Lustful. After asking to speak to one of the damned there, Dante encounters Paolo and Francesca, who had been real-life lovers caught by Francesca’s husband, and murdered. They are yoked together forever now, but only Francesca speaks. She tells the pilgrim that on earth, the pair had read romantic literature together, and allowed themselves to be carried away by the narrative, and seduced into playing the parts of the adulterous Lancelot and Guinevere. In Francesca’s account, given the natural laws of Love, she and Paolo couldn’t help themselves:

The pilgrim reacts:

While the one spirit said this

The other wept, so that for pity

I swooned as if in death.

And down I fell as a dead body falls.

On a human level, it’s understandable that an Italian man who had been a poet of love would be wiped out by pity here. What neither Dante nor the reader yet understands is that even though all the damned concede that they belong in Hell, they all refuse blame for their downfall. As the pilgrim and his guide move through Hell, Dante must learn not to fall for the self-justifying sob stories of the condemned, because to do so is to minimize in his own understanding the seriousness of sin. Francesca’s explanation of her fate is self-serving, and self-deceiving.

For me as a writer, this canto had particular bite. In the previous one, the pilgrim found himself in Limbo, among the company of the Virtuous Pagans, including the great poets of antiquity, who count him as one of their own. He leaves feeling good about his status as a writer – until meeting Francesca, whose damnation came about in part through reading the vernacular love poetry of her day. “One of the poets whose words her words echo is Dante himself,” writes the Dante scholar Prue Shaw. “He is implicated in her fate. Small wonder that he faints dead away as she finishes her story.”

The moral point here is not that poetry is wicked, but that the poet cannot divorce himself entirely from the social consequences of his art. To create is a sacred gift, and it must not be abused. One’s writing, Dante teaches, must be done with a higher sense of responsibility. Words have consequences.

And not just words, as Kalashnikov’s remorse shows. The Russian Church’s judgment is wise, I think; it responded that Kalashnikov created his weapon to defend his country against the Nazi invaders. It is hard to see where he bears real fault for the subsequent misuse of it. Similarly, you can’t really blame Dante or any other poet for Francesca and Paolo’s adultery and eventual murder by her jealous husband (Paolo’s brother). But to be held morally responsible for someone else’s sin is not the same thing as to be implicated in that sin. We are implicated in some of the sins of others; to deny that is to deny reality.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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