Behold a Baikal Izh-54, made in USSR, that in 2018 sold at the Rock Island Auction for $9,775, with the estimate of $4,000-7,000 (link). Read on to learn more not only about this particular shotgun, but also about various Izhevsk engravers, their artistic style, and a small linguistic investigation.
Provenance, probably, explains a large part of the price. The gun is, allegedly, a gift from Leonid Brezhnev, the Secretary General of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and the de-facto Czar of the USSR, to Georges Pompidou, the President of France. The gift is dated to Brezhnev’s state visit to France im 1971, and probably commemorates a military alliance agreement signed by the two countries in 1891. This is suggested by the plaque, which is not genuine, but the gun is a real example of Izhevsk gunmakers’ skills.
A lot of people (but not the faithful readers of this blog) will be surprised that Baikal of all companies could produce a weapon with such embellishment level. The faithful readers of this blog will perhaps also notice that it differs in style from Leonard Vassev’s guns I posted earlier. So did I. In fact, this gun differs so much from typical Izh presentation guns that I even questioned its authenticity at first.
It is not only about the decor. In 1970-1971 a presentation gun by IzhMech would be an Izh-26, or the “Sport” grade Izh-54, and would have a scalloped action back or side plates. Here we can see a regular custom grade receiver. The letter B is not, however, listed as used for custom grade guns between 1958 and 1968. Beavertail fore-ends and Monte-Carlo stocks are uncommon for Baikals from that era (notice also how long the fore-end is, reaching almost to the sling swivels). Finally, while Soviet gift-givers loved such plaques, these were usually smaller and fitted next to the toe of the stock (cf the genuine plaque from the gun Khrushchev gave to Eisenhower).
Almost convinced something was fishy, I turned to literature to substantiate my doubts, but instead found convincing evidence that the gun is genuine.
Shumilov’s “Art of Izhevsk Gunmakers” (Е. Ф. Шумилов. 1987. “Искусство ижевских оружейников” (in Russian), Izhevsk, Udmurtia), the only book that covers the subject in detail, claims that this style of gold-on-black decoration was borrowed from Zlatoust, where there’s a long tradition of using it to decorate bladed weapons, and was “experimented with” in the late 1950s.
If you don’t look closely, you could swear it’s the same gun!
Back then the Izhevsk Mechanical Plant employed many engravers who rivaled Leonard Vassev in talent and skill. Valentin Beloborodov, Vladimiv Galanov, Avel Lekomtsev, are only a few artisans discussed in Shumilov’s book. It’s hard to say which of them, or one of their students, did the work on this piece. A. Peredvigin, an engraver at the School of Gunmaking Excellence, whose opinion was quoted in a discussion of this gun on Igor Karklinsh’s Facebook page, attributes the butt-plate to Avel Lekomtsev, and it would be natural to assume the rest of the gun was engraved by Lekomtsev as well.
Artistic style, however, suggests another candidate. Shumilov writes that rising pheasants were a favorite image of V. K. Galanov, who also liked to engrave predation scenes, in what you may call a Circle of Life philosophy. One of Galanov’s guns features, for example, a lynx in the act of catching a roebuck on one side, and the same lynx being hunted by a human on the other.According to Shumilov, even Vassev occasionally used this technique, as testified by the gun pictured below. Peredvigin says the technique was based on electrochemical metal loss and filling, and was part of a quest to create a perfect machine-engraved gun. Back to the gun from the Rock Island Auction. Whatever the name and the goal of the artisan, the end result is a beautiful and rare weapon, appropriate as a gift to a President, and deserving attention from a modern collector.
The barrels aren’t monobloc, meaning it was made before 1963. The two other guns finished in this style are dated 1957 (the start of gunmaking in Izhevsk dates back to 1807) and “in the fifties”. The “Brezhnev-Pompidou” gun was probably finished at about the same time, and quite likely made on a pre-1958 action, explaining the inconsistency in serial numbers. For the information of the lucky owner, the year of manufacture ought to be stamped on the barrel flats.
The gap between production and presentation is nothing out of the ordinary. Both gunmakers and the official bodies such as Ministry of Foreign Affairs had small stocks of guns and other artifacts that could be used if a present was needed at short notice. The gun, apparently, was one of them.
Now that you’ve read the part that is most interesting for you, allow me to get boring and long on a subject that’s most interesting for me, for it allows me to make use of my linguistic background: the plaque.
Contrary to the claim of the auction house, the inscription is not done in Russian, nor in any other language that uses Cyrillic alphabet. I’ve checked. If it were in Russian, it would run:
CCCР / Франция
Леонид Ильич Брежнев / Жорж Помпиду
The letter shapes, and the letter count, are different enough; the plaque couldn’t possibly result from mistakes in copying or restoring a Russian original. Actually, before it was corrupted in this manner, this text was in French.
1891 / 1971
URSS / France
Léonid Ilyich Brejnev / Georges Pompidou
The French origin is confirmed by the é in Léonid, and the sequence of letters in the URSS – the French grammar (and in fact the grammars of many other Romanic languages) requires the républiques to stand before socialistes soviétiques. However, for some reasons, certain characters were replaced with similar-looking Cyrillic characters. The text uses Я for the capital R; г for small r, Ф for the capital I, ч and for y, and Ц for U. You also got inverted б for d, inverted ц for n, upside-down б for small g, upside-down л for v, and upside-down Б for big G.
Note that all Latin characters are used in their proper positions, and all Cyrillic characters are used incorrectly: without regard to their phonetic equivalents (Я relates to [ja], not [r], etc.), and half of them are inverted.
You can see similar things happening when a person whose native language uses a totally different writing system (Arabic, Chinese, etc) tries to recreate an inscription in a European language they don’t speak. But in this case an error in the use of a Cyrillic character would be as probable as the error in the use of a Latin character, and we see that this is not the case.
Equally improbable is the hypothesis that it was done by someone from a country that uses Cyrillic alphabet trying to copy a French inscription, and replacing some symbols with Cyrillic shapes that look kinda similar. However, Russians are well familiar with Latin characters, from inscriptions on imported products, cultural artifacts (movies, record covers), and mandatory foreign language classes at school. In addition, there are Cyrillic characters that would be much better choices to replace Latin characters than those that the creator of the plaque used. П, turned upside down, or, in the low case, и in the italics (и), would do the job for U much better than ц. The same italic u, if you turn it upside down, makes a great n. And, finally, why not use у for y?
The most probable explanation, in my opinion, is that the text on the plaque was created by someone who was trying to recreate a partly illegible original, assuming it was in Russian. It could be a damaged original plaque, or they were working from a crap photo. The person was competent in the use of Latin letters, but had zero knowledge of Cyrillic alphabet, and had no idea what a genuine Russian text should look like. All they had was a set of Cyrillic letters.
So, when the letter on the original was Latin beyond a shadow of a doubt, they used the Latin shape. In all other cases they used a Cyrillic letter, attempting to make the text look as Russian as possible. I can see no other reason why anyone would use a ч in lieu of y, even though there’s a letter у in Cyrillic alphabet. If you have a better explanation, I’d like to hear it.
What it means from the linguistic perspective is that somewhere, in the past, there was a text in French that ran “1891 / 1971 URSS / France Léonid Ilyich Brejnev / Georges Pompidou”, and it accompanied this gun. You simply can’t make this up. A forger would come up with something more convincing than a random set of misused letters. What you shouldn’t doubt, in any case, is that the Izhevsk Mechanical Plant, a.k.a. Baykal, could produce presentation grade guns of this class. They could do even better!