Coming back from holiday through Stansted airport the other day I noticed, as I often do, a sign warning people approaching customs that it's forbidden to bring guns and other "unlicensed" weapons into the United Kingdom. You'd kind of hope so. There's also a helpful illustration showing a revolver and one or two other things, including various kinds of nasty-looking knives.
But no ... Kalashnikovs. Stansted isn't warning against bringing in assault rifles because, well, one supposes that's already implicit. Yet the recent announcement from the Russian government-owned Kalashnikov arms company that it's now selling replicas of its famous AK-47 weapon at Moscow's Sheremetyevo International Airport rather suggests that the Stansted sign-makers might need to think about an update ...
No, OK, the Sheremetyevo gift shop guns aren't the real thing. They're made of plastic. An airport official has been quoted as saying that the Sheremetyevo AK-47s are clearly imitations and wouldn't pose security problems. (You can see some of them in this video. I have to say, they do look pretty realistic. Meanwhile, the accompanying "I love AK-47s" t-shirts and full-body camouflage suits are ... well, slightly different to the usual Burberry scarves or Boggi ties). Kalashnikov's head of marketing Vladimir Dmitriev is (as marketing people often are) very upbeat about it all:
"Kalashnikov is one of the most popular brands that come to mind for most people in the world when they hear about Russia. So we are pleased to provide the opportunity for everyone to take away from Russia a souvenir with our company brand."
Assault rifle as souvenir, a weapons manufacturer as a brand. Welcome to Sheremetyevo and welcome to a 21st-century which sees almost everything as a sales opportunity.
Allowing passengers to cram a plane's overhead lockers with large imitation AK-47s seems an odd thing to permit in these days of heightened airport security (where every 100ml-plus container of moisturiser is banned and travellers are ordered to remove their shoes at the er, drop of a hat), but there you go ... Except, isn't the manufacture, sale and importation of replica weapons banned in many countries, including in the UK? Seems to me that Kalashnikov's little marketing stunt is not only in questionable taste but possibly an infringement of various countries' laws on replica or "realistic imitation firearms".
Meanwhile, with the international arms trade treaty being discussed in Geneva this week, it's a strange time for Kalashnikov to be touting its weaponised souvenirs. AK-47s, the workhorse weapon of the post-war Red Army and the armament used by countless insurgent groups, has in all probability been responsible for the deaths of more civilians around the world than any other weapon since its introduction in 1947. The AK-47's inventor Mikhail Kalashnikov, lauded by the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation, approached the end of his long life with growing doubts about what he'd done in creating his eponymous weapon.
In his later years Mr Kalashnikov also supported the introduction of proper international controls over the exports of small arms like AK-47s. Though he wasn't averse to lending his name to spin-off products like vodka, I wonder if he'd really want a Moscow airport shop flogging plastic replicas of his weapons to passengers looking for that certain gift with ... a difference.
Meanwhile, international arms trade treaty or no international arms trade treaty, countries like the UK blithely go on selling billions of pounds' worth of arms to Saudi Arabia despite the horrendous civilian death toll from the Saudi-led bombing raids in Yemen. The arms trade treaty that Mikhail Kalashnikov championed a decade ago is now being outrageously flouted by a country that (rightly) wouldn't allow one of those plastic AK-47s to be brought into somewhere like Stansted airport.
The UK: sometimes good on the little things; often very bad on the big ones.