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Yaroslavl Museum of Small Arms and Cold Steel – a part of the world history of weapons

“The World War IV will start in a cave with an axe and a stone, so right now, today, while we still have weapons on our planet, we have to take good care of the world,” says Joseph Mikhailovich Boterashvili, founder and owner of the Museum of Small Arms and Cold Steel in Yaroslavl. The museum was created to preserve the historical memory and the culture of small arms and cold steel in Russia and abroad. It opened in January 2020 and has already welcomed more than five thousand visitors. Its collection has been 20 years in the making. Before opening the exhibition, the collector has visited several dozen museums in the USA, Great Britain, France, Italy,  Czechoslovakia, Spain, and other countries. In the museum, you can not only see but also touch about 500 firearms and more than 300 cold weapons, including rare and unique models. All weapons were previously or are now in service with armies across the world. They have been deactivated but they look exactly the same. Many items have trademarks from the times of the Great Patriotic War. The museum also displays the full collection of assault rifles and machine guns by the famous designer Mikhail Kalashnikov, the museum owner’s friend of many years.

“Joseph Mikailovich, it’s a common belief that a museum is a place to exhibit rare artworks, but it is possible to view weapons as art objects? How did you come up with the idea in the first place?”

“Yaroslavl is the capital of the Golden Ring of Russia, there are probably more museums here than there are shopping malls, and we shall oblige”, he explains to me. “I have always been interested in weaponry, so when in 2000 the law passed allowing to collect models of small arms, I started the collection.  I had firsthand experience with weapons from age 15, my grandfather had fought on the front line, besides, I am a former Suvorov soldier, I graduated from the Moscow Suvorov Military School and later majored in history at Yaroslavl University. I was interested not so much in the weapon itself, but in the history around it, I was so fascinated that I also started to collect literature – books and subscriptions on weaponry. I realized that it was a huge part of the history, and I got so carried away that this madness had been going on for twenty years.”

“Joseph Mikhailovich, you have been to many countries, and as far as I know you even got to visit the Museum of the US Military Academy, better known as West Point in New York. Things are very heated in the world today, in some places cold conflicts are breaking out, in others the real war is on. In the news, they often point out directly who provokes those wars. What do the Americans think of the Russian weapons?”

“The Americans hold it in high esteem. Politics is one thing, culture and work with the youth is another.”

“Joseph Mikhailovich, thanks to your hobby you have met many fascinating people. Which encounter had the most impact on your life, in your opinion?”

“While pursuing my hobby I got to know Mikhail Timofeevich Kalashnikov, we met at the end of 2007. I felt that I had the moral right to meet the great designer since I owned the full model range of his guns. When Kalashnikov found out about that, he said a brilliant phrase: “A man from Yaroslavl, a city with no tradition of gun ownership got the full collection of my works, but I had to rent it from the Udmurt Technological University in order to open the Kalashnikov Memorial Museum in Izhevsk.” I’m very grateful for this acquaintance. On my trips abroad, to the US, France, or Belgium, when I told people that I knew Mikhail Timofeevich Kalashnikov, they looked at me as if I were an alien.”

“Joseph Mikhailovich, I have noticed four silver guns in your collection. As far as I understand these are also Kalashnikov rifles, obviously they are not working weapons, but more likely souvenir replicas. Can you tell us how you’ve got them?”

“I once asked Mikhail Timofeevich if he could use his reputation to get me into the workshop where Kalashnikov rifles were assembled. He asked me in return, why would you want to go there, haven’t you seen assault rifles before? But I explained, it was the very fact that was important to me, I would later tell my grandkids that I had been in the legendary workshop… He made a call to the director of the Izhevsk Machine-Building Plant – Izhmash, and when I got to the plant, by the way, it was a top-secret enterprise, they got me to wear a blue robe as if I were a technician, and first of all I was surprised by the fact that it was women who assembled Kalashnikov rifles.I just stood there and couldn’t believe my luck.

Those assault rifles finished in chrome are a gift from Vladimir Pavlocivh Gorodetsky, former director of Izhmash. They were real guns initially, but were later turned into souvenirs.”

“Joseph Mikhailovich, I heard that you called Kalashnikov your adoptive grandfather, why was that?”

“My grandfather was a front line soldier, but I have never seen him in my life. My real grandfather Joseph Davydovich Chikvashvili volunteered to join the army in 1941 and in November 1942, went missing somewhere near Kerch. When I first met Kalashnikov, I told him, “Mikhail TImofeevich, I built my collection in honor of my grandfather, I found his photo in the Archive of the Armed Forces of the USSR, he must have been just like you…” And then I asked him whether I could consider him my adoptive granddad. People make all sorts of requests, Kalashnikov answered, but I’ve never heard anything like that before. He accepted me as his grandson and has always introduced me as one. Despite the fact that he was 45 years older than me, we became good friends.”

“Joseph Mikhailovich, can we get back to the discussion of the weapons of this legendary designer and get to know the exhibits a bit closer. You have a so-called Green Kalashnikov in your collection. I know its story, but I ask you to tell it once more, it raises honest patriotic feelings in me. Is it true that it was the Green Kalashnikov that once led to a funny story when you had almost sold…the Fatherland?”

“In 2010, an American collector who had about 15 thousand items in his small arms collection, and that’s an area of ten hangars or a football field, offered to buy this gun from me for 50 thousand US dollars. At first, I refused but after a while, the price had risen to a million, and I agreed. However, I had one condition: I asked to sell me the Declaration of Independence in return, the one from the Liberty Bell Museum in Philadelphia. I was willing to pay 10 million for it. Of course, the American collector did not accept that offer. So I said no. After all, the Fatherland is not for sale! The thing is, there are only five such guns left in the world. And, thank God, all of them are in Russia. Only two out of five green guns are stored in private collections.”

“Joseph Mikhailovich, you have in your collection a Desert Eagle, the largest pistol in the world, the one that the American actor Arnold Schwarzenegger carried in all his films. What other models from your collection are known all over the world? Why do you choose to mention them in particular?”

“I own a Mannlicher–Carcano rifle, the same model that Lee Harvey Oswald used to assassinate the US President John Kennedy in 1963. Another interesting model is the San Cristóbal submachine gun designed in the Dominican Republic. It was famously used by Cuban revolutionaries including Ernesto Che Guevara. Speaking about interesting facts related to Russian history, I would like to mention a small German pistol – Walther (Walther PPK, Polizeipistole Kriminal modell, that is German for police pistol, criminal model).

It was Stalin’s favorite gun. Once they brought Stalin 40 models of guns for him to choose from, he chose a small Walther and carried it until the beginning of the war.”

“Joseph Mikhailovich, on September 19, the Gunsmith Day, your museum received a long-awaited addition to the collection featuring almost 300 new exhibits. I believe that’s quite impressive, but the collection is still not complete, is it?”

“You might say, it’s almost complete now. 60 flare guns that were used by armies in many countries during the WWI and WWII are on display for the first time.”

“Joseph Mikhailovich, you once mentioned a project “House of Museums”, that you planned to implement in Yaroslavl. What’s the current status of the project? Are you waiting for somebody’s help? What do you have to offer yourself?”

“There are plenty of collectors in Yaroslavl, many interesting people including the collectors of different subjects and interests, are currently staying in the background, I want to bring them out of the shadows. So I proposed to create a “House of Museums”, an unprecedented project in Russia, and asked the Yaroslavl authorities to sell me or give me an empty building to exhibit other private collections in it. But the Yaroslavl government has not yet responded.”

“Joseph Mikhailovich, in addition to small arms, your collection has cold arms such as swords, bayonets, and daggers. Each weapon has written its page in world history. One of the main challenges that museums have nowadays is the competition for visitors: you need to encourage people to spend their weekends in a museum rather than in a shopping mall. A modern museum is an educational and informational center. What experiences other than the exhibition itself your museum provides?”

“I’ve been thinking about that, and I want to engage young people, invite them to the museum and tell them about the weapons, the traditions, and deeds of the Russian people. I also want to work with veteran’s organizations and other public institutions. In our museum you can not only see, but also touch the exhibits. Filming and photography are allowed, you can book a guided tour for free if you wish, just give us a call in advance. By the way, the museum’s phone number is unique in the sense that its digits 47-74-47 reflect the essence of weapons. At first, Rostelecom wanted to sell us this number for about 50 thousand rubles, but later the President of Rostelecom gave us this number for free. It is clear for those who have served in the military and those interested in guns, that it represents Kalashnikov rifles AK-47, AK-74, and AKS-47. Our museum is located at Building 56/35, Svobody st., Yaroslavl. We are open daily, all visitors are welcome.”

“Joseph Mikhailovich, thank you so much for the interview.”