child soldiers_ak-47
Last month Mikhail Kalashnikov passed away at the age of 94. The legacy he leaves behind centers around the Avtomat Kalashnikov 1947, better known by its abbreviation, AK-47.

On multiple occasions, Kalashnikov has been asked whether he lamented the destruction his weapon has caused throughout the decades. Time and time again he stated that he is not to blame for the death and destruction surrounding the AK-47, but rather it is the failure of politicians to reach peaceful solutions that should be held as culpable.

But, recently, a letter, Kalashnikov wrote shortly before his death, shows that he felt partly responsible for the millions of people killed by the AK-47. The letter was addressed to the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, asking if blood was on his hands.

“If my assault rifle took people’s lives, it means that I, Mikhail Kalashnikov,…am responsible for people’s deaths,” he wrote.

The Church responded, telling him that if the purpose behind the weapon’s creation was to protect the Motherland then it praises its creator and the soldiers that wield it.

The AK-47 has become more than just a weapon; it has reached cult-like status across the world. From child soldiers living in conflict ridden Africa to American action moviegoers, millions of individuals recognize the weapon but few have stopped to contemplate its destructive legacy.

Part of the reason for its prevalence among rebels and insurgents is the gun’s uncanny ability to function in almost any environment; from desert sands to humid jungles. The gun’s minimalist design seems to be its biggest strength, allowing for durability and ease of use.

Its price also allows it to reach the hands of millions in poorer nations. In many cases it can be purchased for less than the price of a live chicken. Some estimates place the death toll caused by the AK-47 to be 250,000 per year — and rising.

If there’s a nation in conflict one would not have to look far to see AK’s being wielded by rebel factions and terrorist groups.

Part of the reason for its ubiquity has been linked to the former Soviet Union’s push to mass produce the weapon. It gave free licenses for production to “fraternal countries” such as Bulgaria, China, East Germany, Hungary, North Korea, Poland and Yugoslavia.

Unfortunately, once the Soviet Union collapsed many former bloc countries auctioned off their stockpiles. Many African countries jumped at the opportunity and purchased thousands of AKs. For the Middle East, many AK-47s were brought into the country by the invading Soviet forces in 1979. To counteract the Soviets, the CIA funneled hundreds of thousands of Chinese AKs to the mujaheddin rebels.

Finally, when the Soviets left Afghanistan, the arms stockpiles built up during the war did not. Furthermore, It did not take long for the “Kalashnikov culture” developed during the war to spill over into other neighboring nations.

Now, the weapon seems synonymous with western ideas concerning the Middle East. As such, Osama Bin Laden or Saddam Hussein wielding their AKs in front of supporters is the likely image many conjure.

Whether or not Mikhail Kalashnikov is responsible for the millions of deaths caused by his invention is a question that will linger for many. Created by a young engineer desiring to develop an efficient weapon to protect the men he served with, the destruction caused by the AK-47 can be typified by an old proverb: the path to hell is paved with good intentions.

Zack Lindberg

Sources: Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post
Photo: School of Public Health

5 Ways to Be an Effective Cultural Tourist in Mexico
Cultural tourism is a slippery slope for travelers. Some think that tourism is an industry that contributes greatly to poverty reduction and economic stability in developing nations. Not everyone agrees, however, as many attest that tourism in more rural, traditional areas are catering to tourists, reducing the authenticity of the culture and exploiting locals and their traditions in the process.

One of the most popular tourist destinations is Mexico; tourists flock here from all over the world every year. While Mexico often gets unfairly stereotyped, different areas within the country provide a much different experience. Two of the most popular tourist destinations are Mexico City, one of the largest cities in the world, and the state of Chiapas, where 70% of its people live below the poverty line. Deciding where to visit is a challenging decision, but tourists’ responsibility doesn’t end once they arrive at their destination: it continues until they return home.

When visiting any country — especially a country like Mexico, which changes on a dime depending on the area — there are certain tips to follow in order to be an effective cultural tourist and help support the local economies.

  1. Eat local. Yes, there is a McDonalds almost anywhere you go in Mexico City, but why eat at a place you can go to every day back in the States? Being in another country gives you the opportunity to experience new things; local cuisine is both delicious and cheap. Try some of the local taco stands. Most are fresh, quite delicious and will be a good economic contribution in the end.
  2. Learn proper bargaining. While much of what is for sale in Mexico is at a fairly responsible price, it is still a common practice to bargain and is done daily among locals as well. However, don’t haggle too far below the asking price. Tourists should remember that while they want to get the best value for their money, those working in the markets and shops do this for a living and need to provide for their families back home.
  3. Respect the culture (especially in rural areas). In states such as Chiapas, most of the population is indigenous (ethnic minorities who have been marginalized as their historical territories became part of the state) and have a different way of doing things. Behavior that might be commonplace in the States might not always be accepted as openly by those who are not used to the American way of life. Make sure you ask before you take any pictures of the locals or their children. Many feel that this is disrespectful and inconsiderate. Cameras are also not allowed in church and locals will become very aggressive and demand payment for disrupting their ceremonies.
  4. Buy goods from local vendors. Although some tourists think that visiting rural areas and buying from locals exploits their culture and dilutes their traditional way of life, the reality is that tourists make contributions that are appreciated greatly. Take time to speak to the locals, especially in lower-income areas like Chiapas. Visitors will often find themselves engaging with people who love what they do. Often the locals work more than one job, selling items on the street while holding down another position in a bigger city to help make ends meet.
  5. Be careful about the environment: Locals in rural areas appreciate their traditional way of life. Try not to leave articles of yours behind and clean up after yourself. The environment is also very important in rural areas, so to reduce your carbon footprint walk through towns instead of taking a taxi or bus.

Traveling to a country like Mexico is a wonderful experience, one that should be had by anyone who has the chance. In tough economic times, tourists should maximize their time and tight budgets, but also respect the land, culture and environment that they are visiting. These tips should come in handy for the traveler and help stimulate the local economy.

– Taylor Rae Schaefer

Sources: Imagine Mexico, World Nomads
Photo: History Martinez