But by 2011, the sto­ried gun­maker was ap­prox­i­mately $30 mil­lion in the red, and the fol­low­ing year, in an em­bar­rass­ing episode that seemed to sum up the com­pany’s ills, 79 Kalash­nikovs meant for de­mo­li­tion ac­ci­den­tally wound up in the hands of a vil­lager buy­ing old crates for fire­wood. Mean­while, 20 Izh­mash-owned com­pa­nies went bank­rupt.

Then things re­ally got bad: That same year, the Rus­sian de­fense min­istry an­nounced it al­ready had enough Kalash­nikovs and would await the de­vel­op­ment of a bet­ter weapon be­fore plac­ing ad­di­tional or­ders.

That’s when Vladimir Putin’s deputy prime min­is­ter, Dmitry Ro­gozin, stepped in. He spear­headed the ref­or­ma­tion of Izh­mash un­der a new name, the Kalash­nikov Con­cern, and over­saw the sale of a 49 per­cent stake to two busi­ness­men who promised to turn the com­pany around. Engi­neers got to work de­vel­op­ing a new Kalash­nikov, and the stodgy weapons pro­ducer sought a sea­soned pub­lic re­la­tions pro­fes­sional to give the com­pany a bit of mar­ket­ing pol­ish.

They found their cham­pion in Tina Kan­de­laki, a fa­mous so­cialite and for­mer tele­vi­sion host who had ap­peared on the cov­ers of the Rus­sian ver­sions of Play­boy, In­style, and Maxim.

Kan­de­laki ar­gues that the seem­ingly odd com­bi­na­tion—one of Rus­sia’s most glam­orous women mar­ket­ing the fa­mously rugged au­to­matic ri­fle—is to­tally nat­u­ral, point­ing out that she tried her hand at shoot­ing the mo­ment she got the com­mis­sion.

“I have a heavy hand,” she says with a grin, sit­ting be­neath a huge glass chan­de­lier in her gleam­ing white of­fice in cen­tral Moscow. At the mo­ment, that hand is adorned with a gold-and-di­a­mond Parmi­giani Fleurier watch and a gi­ant amethyst ring that matches the pur­ple spots on her pale yel­low leop­ard-print blouse. “I don’t have such a man­i­cure that I can’t pull the trig­ger,” she adds.

With the help of Kan­de­laki and her team, the newly re­named en­ter­prise hatched a plan to di­ver­sify—cre­at­ing sep­a­rate lines for the com­pany’s mil­i­tary arms, hunt­ing ri­fles, and biathlon guns. In 2014, it launched a re­brand­ing ef­fort built around a catchy new slo­gan: “Pro­tect­ing peace.”

To some ob­servers, the tagline seemed a stretch. Af­ter all, the AK-47 and its de­riv­a­tives are the weapon of choice for ter­ror­ists, pi­rates, and child sol­diers. Once the stan­dard-is­sue ri­fle of the Soviet Army, ver­sions of the gun fill the ar­se­nals of au­thor­i­tar­ian regimes like North Korea and the ware­houses of failed states like the Cen­tral African Repub­lic. Most re­cently, the AK has been fielded by the Rus­sia-backed rebels fight­ing in eastern Ukraine.

But as Kan­de­laki well knows, chang­ing pub­lic per­cep­tion is not a game of small mea­sures. Bold­ness—her de­fault set­ting—was re­quired. Born in Tb­lisi, Ge­or­gia, to an econ­o­mist and an ad­dic­tion spe­cial­ist, Kan­de­laki stud­ied jour­nal­ism in col­lege and be­gan her ca­reer in ra­dio. Af­ter mov­ing to Moscow in 1995, she quickly found renown as the host of nu­mer­ous en­ter­tain­ment and po­lit­i­cal pro­grams on Rus­sian ra­dio and TV. In 2006, she was voted Rus­sia’s sex­i­est tele­vi­sion host.

Rus­sia’s tabloid press avidly chron­i­cled her out­fits, ru­mored love in­ter­ests, and col­or­ful ex­ploits, like the time she un­ex­pect­edly kissed fel­low so­cialite Kse­nia Sobchak at an awards show. None­the­less, Kan­de­laki in­sists she has a low-key so­cial life, spend­ing most nights at home with her mother and two teenage chil­dren. (She says she won’t re­veal who she’s dat­ing un­til she gets mar­ried again.)

As be­fits a celebrity, Kan­de­laki has ex­pen­sive tastes. Last year, she mod­eled the sea­son’s hottest looks in a shoot for Tatler fea­tur­ing an ex­ten­sive col­lec­tion of Herve Leger dresses and di­a­mond jew­elry. An­other pas­sion of hers: high­oc­tane cars. She owns a BMW 7se­ries, an Audi A8, and a Lam­borgh­ini Gal­lardo. A Reiki heal­ing sym­bol tat­tooed on the back of her left hand cov­ers a burn mark she re­port­edly suf­fered in 2006, when oli­garch Suleiman Ke­r­i­mov lost con­trol of his Fer­rari Enzo

while giv­ing her a ride down the Prom­e­nade des Anglais in Nice, wrap­ping the car around a tree.

Nat­u­rally, she is a prom­i­nent fig­ure on so­cial me­dia. Af­ter our in­ter­view, she up­loaded a pho­to­graph of the two of us for her 800,000 In­sta­gram fol­low­ers with a teas­ing cap­tion that in­cluded the hash­tags “#in­ter­view #jour­nal­ism #mag­a­zine #me.” The next day, I was blasted with 200 new fol­lower re­quests and con­grat­u­la­tions on my new­found fame.

But Kan­de­laki also has an im­pres­sive his­tory in busi­ness. Bored with tele­vi­sion, she joined the com­mu­ni­ca­tions agency Apos­tol in 2009, buy­ing a stake in the com­pany and be­com­ing di­rec­tor in 2013. Her touch has been ap­par­ent: Last year, Apos­tol was the lead­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tions agency in Rus­sia, due in part to var­i­ous state con­tracts. It doesn’t hurt that while Kan­de­laki oc­ca­sion­ally crit­i­cizes govern­ment pol­icy, she is a strong sup­porter of Vladimir Putin. Her col­leagues even gave her a mala­chite statue of the pres­i­dent as a New Year’s present.

That said, be­cause of Kalash­nikov’s ap­peal to mil­i­tants who might not present the ideal image to the world at large—for in­stance, AKS played a prom­i­nent role in the re­cent Char­lie Hebdo mas­sacre—cham­pi­oning the com­pany poses a unique chal­lenge to even the most clever mar­ket­ing ex­pert. Not that Kan­de­laki ever shies away from a chal­lenge.

“Yes, there are these stereo­types,” she ad­mits. “I be­lieve that the Kalash­nikov is tied to the image of Rus­sia, and Rus­sia to­day is seen in very dif­fer­ent ways around the world. There are very wide-rang­ing views, and most of­ten it’s not seen as it re­ally is.”

THE ORIG­I­NAL AK-47 was de­vel­oped be­tween 1946 and 1949 by Mikhail Kalash­nikov, a WWII tank com­man­der from Siberia. While by a team of spe­cial­ists con­trib­uted to the fi­nal prod­uct, the Soviet pro­pa­ganda ma­chine feted Kalash­nikov as the gun’s vi­sion­ary in­ven­tor, hold­ing him up as a na­tional hero. The story of his jour­ney from an im­pov­er­ished child­hood on the Al­tai steppe to tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tor made him the Ho­ra­tio Al­ger story of the Soviet era.

And the AK-47 was in­deed rev­o­lu­tion­ary, com­bin­ing the rate of fire of a sub­ma­chine gun with the longer range of a ri­fle. Made up of big, loosely fit­ting com­po­nents, it’s easy to man­u­fac­ture and main­tain, and it func­tions well in snowy, sandy, muddy, or hu­mid con­flict zones. Kalash­nikov of­ten said he made the gun for un­e­d­u­cated peas­ant boys like him­self, since “sol­diers don’t fin­ish school.”

Though it lacks the ac­cu­racy of the United States’ M16 and is harder to wield, the Kalash­nikov—which has been pro­duced since 1949 with only two ma­jor up­dates, the AKM in 1959 and the AK-74 in 1974— en­joys a well-earned rep­u­ta­tion for near in­de­struc­tibil­ity.

Dur­ing the Cold War, the USSR be­gan ship­ping AKS around the world and li­censed for­eign pro­duc­tion in var­i­ous friendly na­tions. To­day, some es­ti­mates put the num­ber of such weapons in cir­cu­la­tion at 100 mil­lion. Based on the mil­lions who’ve lost their

lives at the wrong end of the gun, it’s con­sid­ered the most lethal weapon in his­tory—prized as a

sta­tus sym­bol in many parts of the world and im­mor­tal­ized in the em­blems of mil­i­tant groups and even sev­eral na­tional flags. While its cre­ator, for most of his life, blamed politi­cians for the havoc wreaked by his hand­i­work,

Rus­sia’s tabloid press has avidly chron­i­cled her ru­mored love in­ter­ests and col­or­ful ex­ploits.

Kalash­nikov once ad­mit­ted wish­ing he’d pi­o­neered a more peace­ful in­ven­tion, “for ex­am­ple, a lawn mower.” Be­fore his death in 2013, he re­vealed in a let­ter to the Rus­sian Ortho­dox pa­tri­arch that he was suf­fer­ing “spir­i­tual pain” over his legacy.

Its ubiq­uity and dura­bil­ity ar­guably make the Kalash­nikov one of the most rec­og­niz­able prod­ucts in the world, but these same traits have been a curse for the com­pany, cut­ting into its later sales. With tens of mil­lions of AKMS and AK-74S in its ar­se­nals, the Rus­sian mil­i­tary is more than ad­e­quately armed, and for­eign mar­kets are flooded. The gun­maker has re­sponded to slump­ing de­mand by de­vel­op­ing the AK-12, the first ma­jor up­date to the weapon since Soviet times—and hir­ing Tina Kan­de­laki to help sell it.

ON A GRAY WIN­TER MORN­ING in Izhevsk, the dreary moun­tain town that has pro­duced arms for the Rus­sian govern­ment since the be­gin­ning of the 19th cen­tury, I meet Vladimir Onokoy, a for­mer pri­vate se­cu­rity con­trac­tor who once guarded tankers from So­mali pi­rates. Now em­ployed by the Kalash­nikov Con­cern mar­ket­ing depart­ment, he wants me to ex­pe­ri­ence the new weapon for my­self.

In­ter­rupted oc­ca­sion­ally by what sounds like a pile of bricks be­ing dropped off the top of a build­ing—an air­craft can­non be­ing tested— Onokoy lays out the de­sign en­hance­ments of the AK-12, in­clud­ing an ad­justable stock, univer­sal rail mounts along the top and bot­tom to al­low for scopes, grips, and lights, and a muz­zle break that mit­i­gates re­coil.

To un­der­line these im­prove­ments, he starts me off with an AK-47 made in 1955. Shiver­ing on the un­heated range, I can barely switch the older weapon’s heavy safety lever over to the first set­ting, full au­to­matic. (Semi­au­to­matic is the sec­ond set­ting, since Rus­sian sol­diers have tra­di­tion­ally lived by the prin­ci­ple “spray and pray,” Onokoy says.) With a deep breath, I squeeze the trig­ger, the gun be­gins shoot­ing, and the muz­zle starts climb­ing in­ex­orably up­ward. “Watch out; you’re shoot­ing into the ceil­ing!” Onokoy yells.

The lighter AK-12 feels bet­ter in my hands im­me­di­ately, and it fires with ease. It shoots a smaller round, the re­coil is min­i­mal, and there’s al­most no muz­zle climb when fir­ing on au­to­matic. Fir­ing it feels like get­ting be­hind the wheel of a sedan af­ter driv­ing a school bus.

Given the un­cer­tainty over mil­i­tary pur­chases, Kalash­nikov has also been de­vel­op­ing its civil­ian weapon lines, most of which are sold abroad due to Rus­sia’s strin­gent gun-own­er­ship laws. That’s where Kan­de­laki’s re­brand­ing ef­forts are aimed.

The com­pany even brought in Steven Sea­gal, a friend of both Putin and de­fense czar Ro­gozin, to be a brand am­bas­sador, but that part­ner­ship “ended be­fore it be­gan,” ac­cord­ing to Alexei Krivoruchko, part-owner and gen­eral di­rec­tor of Kalash­nikov Con­cern. Kan­de­laki’s star power, and the re­brand­ing her Apos­tol agency de­vised, would have to do.

The main task of the makeover was to re­or­ga­nize the com­pany’s of­fer­ings. “Our ad­van­tage over other com­pa­nies is that we have a full range of weapons: pneu­matic, hunt­ing, and mil­i­tary,” Krivoruchko says.

Apos­tol de­cided to sep­a­rate these into three dis­tinct prod­uct lines. Kalash­nikov re­mained the brand for the mil­i­tary weapons, al­beit with a spiffy new red logo fea­tur­ing the AK’S sig­na­ture ba­nana clip. Shot­guns and hunt­ing ri­fles are mar­keted un­der the name Baikal. And the highly en­gi­neered guns used for biathlons and other shoot­ing sports are be­ing branded as Izh­mash.

Kan­de­laki and her team ham­mered out the var­i­ous con­cepts in the com­pany’s wood-pan­eled con­fer­ence room, of­ten to

the mu­sic of pop­u­lar Rus­sian artists like Alexan­der Rozen­baum, who sings in an amped-up folk genre cel­e­brat­ing the comedic and tragic ex­ploits of crim­i­nals. The goal was to tap into “al­pha en­ergy that is in the Rus­sian man to­day,” she ex­plains. They also com­mis­sioned a se­ries of pho­to­graphs of Rus­sian men tot­ing Kalash­nikovs to help them imag­ine “what would have to hap­pen in the lives of these or­di­nary peo­ple for them to take up arms,” she adds.

Apos­tol’s most con­tro­ver­sial in­no­va­tion, its new slo­gan, was un­veiled at a De­cem­ber mar­ket­ing event in Moscow, dur­ing which army gen­er­als, busi­ness­men, and bu­reau­crats en­joyed a pro­mo­tional video of spe­cial forces with AK-12S hunt­ing down Is­lamic in­sur­gents in the Cau­ca­sus. Near the en­trance, girls in red lip­stick and tight dresses handed out ba­nana clips em­bla­zoned with the new logo.

It was an im­pres­sive spec­ta­cle, but by then Kalash­nikov’s for­tunes had al­ready suf­fered a con­sid­er­able set­back due to the un­rest in Ukraine. Af­ter Putin an­nexed Crimea and sent arms and troops to bol­ster rebels in the coun­try’s east, the United States in­sti­tuted sanc­tions that ef­fec­tively cut off Kalash­nikov’s pri­mary civil­ian ex­port mar­ket.

Of the 90,000 guns that Kalash­nikov planned to sell to buy­ers in the States, only 34,000 were de­liv­ered. Ac­cord­ing to Krivoruchko, the com­pany was still able to sell the re­main­der, turn­ing a profit in 2014 for the first time in years.

Even so, gun in­dus­try in­sid­ers ex­press skep­ti­cism about the com­pany’s fu­ture. “I read that Kalash­nikov is re­ori­ent­ing to Asia,” says Erik Mustafin, who ex­ports Vepr-brand ri­fles to the United States. “But who will buy? China? They make un­li­censed Kalash­nikovs,” he notes, “and there’s not the weapons cult that there is in Amer­ica.”

Mil­i­tant groups that ea­gerly want AKS of­ten lack “pur­chas­ing power,” adds Pavel Fel­gen­hauer, a Moscow-based mil­i­tary an­a­lyst, who points out sev­eral other hur­dles: “The Euro­peans don’t buy Kalash­nikovs to keep in the house. The Amer­i­cans do, but they’re out of reach now. Kalash­nikov’s busi­ness fu­ture seems to lie with the Rus­sian se­cu­rity ser­vices, but the de­fense min­istry won’t want to spend that money when they al­ready have mil­lions of them ly­ing around.”

C.J. Chivers, the author of The Gun, the de­fin­i­tive his­tory of the Kalash­nikov ri­fle, re­calls that when he first vis­ited Izh­mash in 2004, the com­pany was also in the mid­dle of a mar­ket­ing cam­paign to pro­mote their prod­ucts in the United States and other Western mar­kets. “Izh­mash’s mar­keters spoke of grand vi­sions un­der which this ‘new’—ac­tu­ally very ma­ture and com­pet­i­tive—mar­ket was go­ing to save the com­pany,” Chivers says. “It didn’t work. The lat­est re­boot prob­a­bly will not work ei­ther, be­yond hav­ing its me­dia mo­ment, as all the pre­vi­ous dif­fi­cul­ties are still in place and the new sanc­tions cast the whole en­ter­prise in even greater doubt.”

But what­ever the chal­lenges, he adds, the Rus­sian govern­ment is un­likely to let the state-owned com­pany be­hind the na­tion’s sin­gle most rec­og­niz­able ex­port go out of busi­ness.

In­deed, a plan to in­vest 4.5 bil­lion rubles ($67 mil­lion) to dou­ble the en­ter­prise’s man­u­fac­tur­ing ca­pac­ity and ex­pand to new mar­kets by 2020 is mov­ing for­ward. Kan­de­laki in­sists that the Kalash­nikov brand, like Rus­sia, will over­come the odds to reemerge on the world scene.

There are pa­tri­otic over­tones in her voice as she makes the pitch. “For the Amer­i­can cit­i­zen, it’s an old story: When there is in­jus­tice in the world, the Amer­i­can sol­dier goes and pro­tects the weak and de­fense­less,” Kan­de­laki says. “This is a pe­riod when we shout to the world with our brand that we’re ready to go and pro­tect our own, and we’re ready to give the pos­si­bil­ity to oth­ers to pro­tect those val­ues that are com­mon across the world.”

Lock and load. ■

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