75 years of a symbol of Decolonization and the Cold War

The Cold War period is remembered not only for the international tension and the sense of an imminent World War III, but also for some cultural symbols of the period. Movies, landmark sporting events, the hammer and sickle and the Berlin Wall are some of these examples, but perhaps the best known is an assault rifle with an unmistakable silhouette, the Soviet AK-47, which “has a seventy-fiveth birthday” on July 6, 2022, the day of the beginning of its production.

The name AK-47 stands for Avtomat Kalashnikova in Russian, “automatic Kalashnikov”, named for its designer, engineer Mikhail Kalashnikov, more the year of its production, introduced into service the following year. In the following decades, it became the most used assault rifle in the world. Adding all its variants, with millions of units produced in countries of the former Warsaw Pact, it is the most produced firearm in History, with more than one hundred million units.

The Cold War was a period of intense arms races, in all possible vectors. New planes, new radars, more capable submarines, millions of armored fighting vehicles produced and, of course, thousands of manufactured nuclear warheads. Each one more powerful than the other, including the invention of the hydrogen bomb, popularly called the “H-bomb”, and the biggest test of a nuclear bomb in history, the Soviet Tsar Bomba, with a power of 50 megatons.


Which explains, then, that in the midst of a technological race like this it was a simple assault rifle that gained an aura of a symbol of the period? The answer lies, not ironically, in the word “simple”. The AK-47 is a cheap production weapon compared to its contemporaries, and can be made with simple materials. The rifle is easy to use and, because of its simple design, it is reliable in different geographical or climatic conditions, from the jungle in Vietnam to the Sahara desert.

In addition to being a period of arms races, the Cold War was a period of a new international order, the bipolar world between the US and the USSR. As a result, Europe, and its former colonial empires, is weakened, still recovering from the destruction of World War II. War that collaborated for the emancipation of diverse populations of these same empires, forming movements of national liberation in places that became battlefields.

For example, in Indochina, French colony, and in Indonesia, Dutch colony, both occupied by Japanese forces, guerrillas fought first the Japanese and then the Europeans, who tried to restore their rule in these territories. Along with the new world order, the UN Charter is signed, which guarantees the right to self-determination of peoples, making European imperialism contradictory, since the metropolises, such as London and Paris, signed the same document.

New countries around the world

Of course, this is a very brief contextualization of the Decolonization process that took place during the Cold War. In three distinct waves, several countries gained their independence. Some through negotiation, others through force of arms, such as the wars of independence in Indochina, Algeria and the former Portuguese empire. Wars fought by small national liberation movements in virtually every corner of the globe. Making a weapon like the AK ideal and essential 47.

This generated an unprecedented demand for an armament. The rifle was produced not only in the Warsaw Pact, but also in Israel, China, Vietnam and other Asian and African countries. Tens of millions of units were exported or donated to independence movements and other guerrillas. In addition to the wars of independence, a new State will go through crises and internal disputes, whether between national groups or political and economic differences.

These normal internal differences of a new State ended up being potentiated during the War Cold, with the old European metropolises, the USA and the USSR seeking to expand their influence, with separatist wars or civil wars. In Angola and Mozambique, for example, each side in the civil war was supported by one of the two superpowers. The example of Mozambique is not trivial. The victory of the socialist FRELIMO yielded a national flag that features the silhouette of an AK-47.

Armament was also in the coat of arms of Burkina Faso and is in East Timor. While no person died from a nuclear bomb during the Cold War, the number of casualties from personal firearms in all wars of the period is in the millions. Regardless of the cause or the context, whether considered legitimate or not, one cannot forget that the cultural importance of a firearm is, in essence, for a much darker reason.

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