"Please accept my deepest condolences on the death of Mikhail Timofeevich Kalashnikov, the outstanding designer, sincere patriot, and worthy son of our Fatherland," Kirill began. "Kalashnikov's name is forever inscribed in the history of our country, for he devoted his entire life to the service of our Motherland. Mikhail Timofeevich knew firsthand what the war years were like: He was a veteran of the Great Patriotic War (the Second World War), and it was his military experience that later helped him in his creative quests and engineering developments. The deceased was a principled and consistent man, humble and honest, who to his last days stayed faithful to his calling and duty."
Despite the notable restraint — no reference is made to what it was that the great designer designed — it was a striking message from the most important bishop in all of Orthodoxy.
The Russian Orthodox Church was brutalized during the communist period, and emerged at once both heroic and compromised. Vladimir Putin has been inclined to emphasize Orthodoxy as an essential part of being Russian, but a supporting hand from Putin is always more of a chokehold than a handshake. In that context, the patriarch's praise for the assault rifle's designer seemed rather a step too far in the identification of the Church with the nation, and the nation with military force, including those numerous proxy wars in which the AK47 was the weapon of choice.
In a 94-year life, Kalashnikov obviously did more than design the world's most popular and effective assault rifle. Whatever else he did though, he would not have warranted patriarchal condolences save for the fact that Kalashnikov was famous because of what Kalashnikov rifles have done. Those who therefore raised an eyebrow at Kirill's fulsome praise for the father of the AK-47 would have been pleased to hear the news this week from Kalashnikov's family, who released a letter he wrote last spring to the patriarch himself.
"The pain in my soul is unbearable," he wrote. "I keep asking myself the same unsolvable question: If my assault rifle took people's lives that means that I, Mikhail Kalashnikov ... am responsible for people's deaths. The longer I live, the more often that question gets into my brain, the deeper I go in my thoughts and guesses about why the Almighty allowed humans to have devilish desires of envy, greed and aggression."
The latter is the great question of human freedom. Why did God permit us to be free, knowing that we would fall into sin? Because only free persons can love, and to create the possibility of love is to take the great risk that we will fall short of love.
It is easy to see the gun in a man's hand, rather more difficult to read what might be in his heart.
As to Kalashnikov's responsibility, he knew that we are moral agents, and our choices — including whether we design assault rifles — are moral choices. Our moral choices then shape us. The good man becomes good by making good choices, and vice versa.
We are not privy to the patriarch's response, but Kirill's spokesman said that he praised Kalashnikov as a patriot and noted that the designer of the gun is not responsible for all of its uses. There are just causes to defend, and weapons are required for them.
"If the weapon is used to defend the Motherland, the Church supports both its creators and the servicemen using it," the spokesman was reported to have said.
Yes, and one understands offering comfort to a dying man. Yet Kalashnikov knew that whatever noble causes the AK-47 may have been put to, it was largely an instrument of violent destruction in the service of greater or lesser evils. That's a heavy burden of conscience, and it speaks well of Kalashnikov that he felt it and feared his judgment. It ennobled his memory that his family released his letter, and it might encourage other designers of death to repent of the destruction they wrought.
The AK-47 sent many to their judgments, less prepared than Kalashnikov was for his. Judgment for him now belongs to the merciful God who alone can judge rightly.
Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.
Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Convivium and a Cardus senior fellow, in addition to writing for the National Post and The Catholic Register. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.
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