MOSCOW (Reuters) - The designer of the Kalashnikov, sometimes called the world's most lethal weapon, was named a "Hero of Russia" on Tuesday by President Dmitry Medvedev who lauded him for creating "the brand every Russian is proud of."
"In our country, such phenomena do not happen every day," Medvedev told Mikhail Kalashnikov after decorating him with a gold medal at a lavish Kremlin reception dedicated to the assault rifle's creator's 90th birthday.
"I mean not only the Kalashnikov rifle but also the national brand created by you, which makes every Russian proud, makes him feel he is part of history and inspires him to work for the future."
"Hero of Russia" is the nation's highest honorary title.
Dressed in a general's parade uniform decorated with two Soviet-era "Hero of Socialist Labour" gold stars, a frail-looking Kalashnikov clinked champagne glasses with Medvedev.
Created in 1947, the Kalashnikov, also known as the AK-47, is known for its reliability and simple design. It is officially in service in 55 countries and adorns several national emblems.
But many of the world's estimated 100 million Kalashnikovs are also used as the weapon of choice by paramilitaries and rebels as well as gangsters and drug traffickers.
Millions of counterfeit versions are thought to exist around the world and the rifle is so widespread that it is often said to have killed more people than any other weapon.
"This is not my fault that this weapon is not used where it should," Kalashnikov, his voice trembling, said at the Kremlin ceremony. "This is the fault of politicians, not designers. I made it to defend the borders of the fatherland."
As a sergeant in World War Two, Kalashnikov was badly injured and pulled from a burning tank.
He never finished school or went to university. Kalashnikov said in his memoirs that while inventing the rifle he was driven by complaints from other wounded soldiers that the Nazi Germans' firearms were often better.
Russians, many of whom still mourn the Soviet Union's sudden demise, often swell with pride at what they see as the Kalashnikov's superiority over its Cold War rival, the M-16, although more modern versions of the U.S.-made rifle have appeared since then.
"I am waiting to see who will make a better weapon, and I will be the first to shake his hand," an upbeat Kalashnikov said in a documentary on Russian television on Tuesday, which also marked 60 years of the rifle's service in the Russian army.
In the West his invention would have made him a millionaire. In Russia, he lives in a modest Soviet-era apartment in the town of Izhevsk, east of Moscow.
After meeting M-16 designer Eugene Stoner in the 1990s, Kalashnikov said his rich American colleague was flying his own plane, while the Russian could hardly afford a flight to Moscow.
Medvedev recalled that Kalashnikov had once said that if such a weapon had been created abroad, "the state would have paid much better for this work."
The president said: "But you must not regret that you served our country, and the love of the whole nation is the assessment of your work."
(Reporting by Dmitry Solovyov; editing by Robin Pomeroy)