MOSCOW — If the Kremlin had a court sculptor, Salavat Scherbakov would be it.
The 62-year-old artist has spent the past decade erecting homages to various heroes of Russia's political elite, including a 78-foot statue to Prince Vladimir of Kiev in the shadow of the Kremlin and another to the czarist-era prime minister Pyotr Stolypin, an icon of Russian President Vladimir Putin's.
In an interview in his basement workshop in Moscow, Scherbakov portrayed himself as a mere executor of government commissions riding a wave of patriotic interest in historic Russian figures.
"These statues don't exist because a sculptor thought them up," he said. "They come from a deeper place. The people, the government, historians. This idea emerges, for instance, among the people that we need a statue to Patriarch Hermogenes of Moscow. My goal is to get involved and then execute it at a high level."
Take a walk along Moscow's eight-lane ring road, by the spruced-up office towers and restaurants, and you'll find Scherbakov's latest statue, perhaps the most controversial of his career: a middle-aged Mikhail Kalashnikov in workmen's clothing cradling the assault rifle that bears his name, the AK-47.
It's no secret that Russia is on something of a statue spree — and one that favors conservative heroes. Last year, the city of Oryol, south of Moscow, unveiled the country's first statue to Ivan the Terrible. Soviet-era statues, like one to the writer Maxim Gorky, have reappeared in the capital following its latest makeover. And last week, a bust of Joseph Stalin was unveiled in a Moscow park honoring Russia's past leaders.
But a statue to the creator of the world's most prevalent assault rifle really touched a nerve. To some, elements of the sculpture — including the Archangel Michael slaying a dragon with a spear equipped with a Kalashnikov rifle sight — are emblematic of a new government militarism.
At the 25-foot bronze statue's unveiling on Sept. 19, Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky described the AK-47 as "a true cultural brand of Russia." Medinsky heads the Russian Military Historical Society, which regularly grants commissions to Scherbakov and was responsible for the Kalashnikov assignment.
"I am always amazed at how those close to our government always turn out to be such vulgar and talentless figures," Marat Gelman, a liberal gallery owner who used to work in the leadership of a Russian state television channel, wrote in an online post. "I think the answer is that Scherbakov is a simple executor, and no artist. He did what the government wanted. . . . The author is Medinsky."
Scherbakov's work often nods at current events and the bristling relationships between Russia and its neighbors. In 2010, he erected in Moscow a statue called the Memorial of Military Glory to replace a similar statue demolished by the government in Georgia (the two countries fought a war in 2008). The 2015 statue to Prince Vladimir laid claim to a figure that Russia shares with Ukraine, even as the two countries were mired in conflict over Moscow's annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine.
In the interview, he defended the statue of Kalashnikov, which he said he originally envisioned without the rifle before realizing people wouldn't know who it was.
"Among people, Kalashnikov is a positive figure," he said. "The gun is made for the defense of the motherland, and everybody, in every country, loves their motherland. We didn't see it as some homage to militarism. We just wanted a positive statue."
As we spoke, Scherbakov fielded nearly a dozen phone calls. A blogger had earlier discovered that a bas-relief on the statue depicted not a Soviet AK-47 but part of another gun, a Sturmgewehr 44 assault rifle used by Nazi troops. The news that the statue showed a weapon developed by a Nazi gunsmith (and particularly a model that possibly inspired the AK-47) had created a scandal. And Scherbakov, who had admitted the mistake and pledged to correct the statue, was still battling to contain it.
Scherbakov said he believes the opposition to the sculpture is politically motivated.
"Those with aggressive feeling toward this statue are driven because they're unhappy with this country's larger political plan. And we know how society is split here," he said in his office. "But we believe that the president has set the right course for this country, and as he was elected by the absolute majority, it isn't quite right ethically to force your views on others."
Scherbakov was born a decade after the end of World War II into a family of artists. His grandfather, he boasts, studied under the Russian sculptor Sergey Volnukhin. When Scherbakov was 7, his grandmother sent him to study sculpture at a Moscow youth center called the Pioneers Palace. Later, he studied sculpture in college and then joined a factory. In the 1990s, he said, there were few government commissions and he made a living largely as a private artist. "I've been doing this, covered in clay, my entire life," he said.
His workshop is filled with the religious and historical figures beloved by Russia's establishment. In one corner sits a likeness of Vasili Oshchepkov, the martial arts expert who brought judo to Russia. (Putin is a black belt.) In another, there's Saint Tikhon, Patriarch of Moscow, who was repressed under Vladimir Lenin.
Scherbakov said he has met Putin four or five times at unveilings of his statues, including those to Stolypin and Prince Vladimir and one called "The Wings," a reflection on the price of victory in World War II, in the Israeli coastal city of Netanya.
"He's pretty busy, and you don't really get a chance to talk to him for a long time," he said. "He's very careful talking about the work. Of course he has his opinion, but he has specialists and he listens to you, too."
He denies that he has any special connections to the organizations doling out grant money, including the Russian Military Historical Society, which has commissioned more work by him than by any other sculptor. Some of those projects are considerable: The statue of Prince Vladimir cost more than $2.5 million.
"There are no secrets here," he said. "We win competitions. This is honest work."
Scherbakov keeps a bust of Boris Yeltsin on his desk, unusual for a time when the former leader — Russia's first president — is under a cloud among Russian patriots. Several times during
the interview, he repeated the dictum "Leaders reflect their people."
"He was the right president for the moment when we had to come out of communism," Scherbakov said. "Gorbachev was the right president for his time, he carried out his role. And Yeltsin was right to pass it all on to Putin."