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I'm Pleased to Introduce...

7 March 2011

We've had some contractors working in the shop for the past few days, working on cleaning 30 years of general gunk off our once-white cement walls. It's a difficult job, to be sure, and can't possibly be a pleasant one. They're up on ladders spraying degreaser at the wall, then scrubbing it with what are basically brooms. I would feel sorry for them if they were doing a better job than they actually are, but I have to confess, I sort of don't.

And one in particular I definitely don't feel sorry for after today.

He happened to stop by my bench and comment on the disassembled rifle that lay on it. I bought this rifle on Friday, after having saved for a while for it, and had brought it into work to clean off the preserving grease that the thing had been caked in for probably the past fifty years. He asked what kind it was, and I told him: a Mosin-Nagant M91/30, made in 1932 at the Tula Arsenal in Russia and refurbished at Izhevsk, probably during the second World War. At the time, the 91/30 was the standard issue infantry rifle of the Red Army.

He seemed to find it interesting, gave a sort of "Huh," and moved along. He was the only one of the contractors who had commented, and after the fact, I noticed a little more about him. A blond buzz-cut tells you virtually nothing about a young man, until you combine it with a black shirt bearing a huge Iron Cross and with the words "Arbeit Macht Frei" emblazoned boldly on the back without a trace of irony.

(If you're not familiar with this phrase and its history, click here.)

I mentioned this to the machinist who works at the lathe next to mine, a smart, irreverent, tattooed fellow with no patience for ignorance. I thought it was comical, in a not-entirely-funny kind of way, that this guy of all of them would be the one to inquire about my Russian rifle. My friend saw the irony, and, being the sort of guy he is, pressed it a bit.

My friend talked to the fellow a little, and asked him if he knew what the phrase on the back of his shirt actually meant. The contractor said that he did, and that the shirt was from his friend's motorcycle shop.

"So, are Jews welcome at your buddy's shop?" my friend asked him, only half-joking.

"Nope. Neither are black people," was the reply, except that this guy didn't use the term black people. And he wasn't at all joking. And that was the end of that conversation.

When my friend relayed that exchange to me later in the day, I was suddenly very happy that I had had the opportunity to introduce this young man to one of the very rifles that stopped people like him from taking over the world. It's a morbid thought, I know, to wonder how many lives that weapon may have taken. But when context and circumstance are given their due, the picture changes a little.

I had wanted a Mosin-Nagant for several reasons: they're relatively inexpensive, easy to find, powerful, and accurate. In short, they make a decent long-range target gun. But mostly, I'd wanted one for its historical significance. This was the rifle that stopped the Wehrmacht at the Volga. This is the rifle that drove the Nazis from Stalingrad all the way back to Berlin.

And after this little encounter today, this rifle means even more to me than it did the day I bought it. It is a symbol to me of all the men and women who, when things were at their worst, said to people like this stocky young man No. No, you won't take the helm. No, we do not consent. And no matter how many lives they had to lay down, no matter how many towns they had to burn behind them they stuck by their no. This piece of lacquered wood and blued steel is a testament to the fact that we can have hope in humanity, that despite everything we see today, there are those, and enough of them, who will not see evil go unchallenged. That the wicked still have a mighty throng willing to oppose them, who will fight to the last breath if they have to, for the hope of a tomorrow without fear.

The price of the Allied victory in World War Two was, of course, enormous. And no nation of the world paid more dearly with the lives of its sons and its daughters than the Soviet Union, with some twenty-four million dead. We may talk about Stalin's atrocities, and atrocious they were. But the kids who ran screaming into a hail of German bullets, either with Mosin-Nagant in hand or waiting for one to fall from the hands of one their friends, were not fighting for Comrade Stalin. They were fighting to stop Hitler.

And though it was at a terrible cost, stop him they did. And there was hope once more.

I couldn't help but notice the significance in the fact that this young man in his Iron Cross shirt was, after all, up on a ladder scrubbing the crud off our walls. "Fate, it would seem, is not without a sense of irony."

It's not the slightest bit unusual for one to attach a name to a favourite firearm. Jayne from Firefly named his rifle Vera. I've named this one Nadezhda. It's Russian for "hope".

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