Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang

Can the AK-47 be rebranded as an instrument of peace? Russia’s most glamorous marketing ace is giving it her best shot.

In its Soviet-era heyday, the Izhmash factory in the city of Izhevsk, in the western Ural mountains, used to crank out nearly 100 Kalashnikov automatic  rifles an hour. 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.

(Look by Prada; Bag: Prada; Watch: Cartier; Bracelet: Geoma Jewelry)

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.

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

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: high-octane cars. She owns a BMW 7-series, 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 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, 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. 

(Tina’s stylist: Hanna Yatsko; makeup by Dolce & Gabbana. Fashion credits for top image: Shirt: Michael Kors; skirt: Dsquared2; shoes: Gucci; earrings: Axenoff Jewellery; ring and bracelet: Geoma Jewelry)

Photos by Photographed by Vladimir Vasilchikov