The Soviet lens business was never into trying to make lenses for other manufacturers’ cameras (unlike many Japanese optics companies) and the simple explanation for all those Soviet Nikon F-mount lenses is that there also was a Soviet camera that used the Nikon F mount.
No, JAPB is not morphing into a camera-history site. But the arcane story told here has always fascinated me. The actual article is fairly short, but for those with a similar penchant, I’ve added a lot of background in the footnotes.
• The Soviet lens ‘business’
• Soviet Lenses
• Soviet Serial numbers.
The short story
In the early 1970s, the Soviet Union’s central planners knew that they were falling behind in the development SLRs2 – a segment of cameras that was widely seen as the pinnacle of camera technology. Hence, and in preparation for the 1980 Moscow Olympics (and the flocks of foreign photographers coming to visit the workers’ paradise), a new line3 of high-end cameras was commissioned4. The first camera of this new line was the Kiev-17 and it was introduced in 1977.
Compared to existing Soviet SLRs, the new Kiev-17 offered some interesting additions: Firstly, it contained a metal blade vertical-travel focal plane shutter. This was in stark contrast to the focal plane shutters of all other Soviet фотоаппарат’s to date, which either used cloth shutters or the fan-blade contraption in the Kiev-10/15. Second, the Kiev-17’s shutter offered a full range of shutter speeds from 1/1000 second to 1 second (+ Bulb) – also not usual.
The second interesting addition was that this new camera neither used a pre-war thread mount (like M42, LTM or Z39) or a mount appropriated as ‘reparations’5 (such as the Contax/Kiev mount), but instead settled on using the Nikon F mount6 – a mount that was (at that time) still at its peak.
It seems clear that original intention was for the new Kiev-line of SLR cameras to become a premium offering, to try to catch up with Japanese and German cameras. In a classic incarnation of the goldilocks strategy, Kiev SLRs were ment to be the ‘best’ offering (to Zenit’s ‘better’ and LOMO’s ‘good’). The Nikon F mount was chosen precisely because it promised a shortcut to producing a camera platform that would satisfy the demanding Soviet photographer (hence lessening the need for using hard currency7 on importing Canons, Nikons and Rolleis)
Like many other Soviet cameras and lenses, the Kiev SLRs were not so much straight copies of existing hardware, but ‘remakes’8 in that they took inspiration from existing hardware, and then tried to find a more economical way to produce their own alternative. Importantly, that ‘economical’ has to be seen in light of the Soviet economic system9, which in turn led to some idiosyncrasies. Typically the biggest of these was the relatively weak state of Soviet electronics (outside of the aerospace industry), leading to preferring manual and mechanical solutions while the rest of the world was rushing headlong into using electronics in cameras.
The next paragraphs will detail those Kiev SLRs that were intended for 35 mm film and used a Nikon F lens mount (Names in this article are latinised. In Cyrillic, Kiev reads Киев. Export versions had latin text.)
While the Kiev-17 was introduced in 1977, it seems ramping up production took some time. Moreover, the Kiev-17 was a decidedly barebones affair. Its most blatant lack was that it had no meter whatsoever. Whether the lack of metering was due to problems in getting the electronics sorted or due to other reasons, I do not know. That said,
Kiev 17M (Kiev-20)
The Kiev-17’s lack of any sort of meter was addressed by the Kiev-17M (which also goes by the name Kiev-20) introduced in 1978. This camera featured a TTL metering system, but no exposure automation. By all accounts, its approach was very much like that of the Nikon FM (showing under/over/correct exposure with a triplet of LEDs). While it is easy to believe that the Kiev-17M was what the designers had in mind when they started planning for a new high-end SLR, the resulting camera was financially out of reach for most soviet citizens, suffered low demand and did not stay in production long.
The Kiev-18 was intended to be the top of the range camera with both exposure automation (aperture priority), a motor drive and a lot of bells and whistles. There are some prototypes circulating, and it seems that the development project was kept alive for a decade (1978–1988). Furthermore, there seems to have at one point been some real belief in that mass production would start, because brochures were made and circulated. Whether the camera was scrapped because of production issues (considering the electronics needed, quite likely) or whether it was shelved because it would have been unaffordable (very likely) is unclear.
Opinions differ whether the Kiev-19 (introduced 1984) is a simplified Kiev-17-M (no self-timer, no open-aperture metering, no 1/1000 shutter speed) or an improved Kiev-17 (added TTL stop-down metering, no 1/1000 shutter speed). Either way, it had metering and it sold for a third of the price of the 17-M, so it was (relatively) successful.
A radically redesigned version of the Kiev-19 (introduced 1988) with a polycarbonate body and open-aperture metering. This model was fairly successful, remained in production beyond the demise of the Soviet Union and was even rebranded for sale in some developing countries.
I generally do not subscribe to the mantra that the Soviet Union sucked at manufacturing or at quality control. Quality (in manufacturing) does not mean that everything works and nothing breaks, simply that the [product] is of a quality that is in line with market conditions. Quality control is not an activity aiming to achieve the highest quality, but instead a process aiming to make sure that the samples produced are of the intended quality. And in a production system where meeting your quota was given great emphasis, one could say that quality was roughly on the level where it was intended to be.
In the case of the Soviet photo industry this meant that the bulk of the production was directed towards domestic consumption (the Soviet consumer was less worried about the quality of consumer products and more worried by empty shelves), meaning a very low requirement on reliably working products. In general, almost everything was snapped up. Samples that cleared quality testing without a hitch got an export-oriented label slapped on to them and were shipped abroad (where there was competition).
So off course there were duds and lemons (samples) among Soviet cameras and lenses, and I’m willing to wager that the share of lemons was higher than almost anywhere else, but with even the youngest Soviet lens being past its 30th birthday, we have to take two more aspects into consideration: ruggedness and service.
If we compare the average West German and Soviet camera from 1970, we can likely assume that – of all the cameras that come off the conveyor belt, West German cameras were more likely to pass any and all quality inspection with flying colours. But if we look at those 50+ year old cameras side by side today, it might well be that the Soviet camera still works while the German is a paperweight, because the German industry had a tendency to do things very intricately, whereas the Soviet industry favoured ruggedness. This is also connected to the next point: service.
Because I am sure that we can safely say that Soviet cameras have – on average – suffered more than their fair share of neglect; both before and after the fall of the Soviet Union. Thing is, one thing that most planned economies suck at is after sales support, especially when we’re not talking about contraptions that fall under the rubric ‘national defense’. Quite often, consumer goods had no professional service organisation to speak of (but a lot of handy Soviet citizens did service work on the side), leading to that many Soviet cameras encountered an unnecessarily early death.
Problematically, things did not change for the better with the demise of Soviet Communism, as – for the next 20 years – everything the average former Soviet citizen could think of was get their hands on some Western/Japanese goods (leaving many Soviet cameras languishing10).
However, this means that if you today encounter a Kiev–17 or 19, it is quite likely that it will not work as originally intended.
Soviet Nikon Lenses
While many of the Kiev cameras to be found today are a mere shadow of their earlier efficacy, luckily, the lenses have stood the test of time better (not that there would not have been maltreated samples there too).
Somewhat surprisingly (considering the disappointing production numbers of the Kiev 17/19 bodies) The Soviet lens industry developed a rather impressive set of lenses for the Nikon F mount. Problematically, many of these were manufactured in so few copies that they might as well not exist.
The table below summarises several sources to try to offer a complete list of Soviet lenses for the Nikon F mount, as well as a rough estimate of the availability of each lens (***=easily found on eBay; *=practically unobtanium). Further, some of these lenses have been in production beyond the death of the Soviet Union (some in Russia, some in Ukraine, the Peleng in Byelorussia)
|8 mm f/3.5
|16 mm f/2.8
|20 mm f/2.5
|20 mm f/2.8
|20 mm f/3.5
|35 mm f/2
|35 mm f/2.8
|50 mm f/2
|The basic kit lens.
|50 mm f/1.4
|50 mm f/1.4
|50 mm f/1.2
|28–85 mm f/2.8–3.5
|100 mm f/2.8
|200 mm f/3.5
|80-200 mm f/4.5
|300 mm f/2.8
Was the Soviet Nikon pre-Ai or Ai?
For those who know the Nikon F mount, the 1977 introduction of Automatic indexing (Ai) was a watershed moment, and many earlier lenses are incompatible with later bodies (without modification). Hence, an understandable question is whether these Soviet Nikons (bodies and lenses) were pre-Ai or Ai. (Those who do not understand the relevance, look here)
The simple fact is that only two Kiev models had open-aperture metering (the Kiev-17M/20 and Kiev-19M), and that these bodies are the only ones that are Ai-spec in the sense that they can detect the lens’ aperture ring position.
The other cameras (Kiev-17 and Kiev-19) are technically neither Ai nor pre-Ai because they have no way to detect the aperture ring position. I’ve not tested it, but I’ve read that they gladly accept both pre-Ai and Ai lenses (and stop-down metering will work independent of lens generation).
The short answer is that all Soviet lenses designed for the Nikon F-mount that I have encountered are fully Ai-compatible (but not Ai-s). It seems that even though the earlier bodies were not able to meter, the lenses were designed to be future-proof.
- Actually, for some time the Soviet Union also manufactured lenses using the Pentax K mount, but that’s another story (for an upcoming article) ↩︎
- While some try to argue that the Soviets had invented the SLR (the 1935 ’Sport’ competes with the Kine Exakta for the title of the first SLR.), the Germans had certainly taken a rough concept and made it working photographic tool, and now the Japanese were ironing out the wrinkles and churning them out in the millions.
- Important to note the phrase “new line”, because there already was a line of Kiev SLRs. These were the Kiev-10 (1965–1974) and Kiev-15Tee (1973–1980) (The Kiev15-TTL would follow in 1980). The Kiev-10 was (at the time of its introduction) a rather revolutionary affair, as it combined a fan-blade shutter with shutter priority auto exposure. Moreover, it would seem that both features were Soviet-developed. Just to point out the level of achievement the Kiev-10 signified, it is unclear whether the title for “first interchangeable lens SLR camera with focal plane shutter and exposure automation” should go to the Kiev-10 or the Konica Autoreflex. (We can however agree that the Konica’s approach was more advanced as it was based on through-the-lens metering whereas the Kiev-10 utilised a humongous selenium cell mounted on the front of the prism housing.)
- As you’ve probably realised if you’ve read the JAPB article on the Soviet lens business, the Soviet industry did not follow the same logic as the Western or Japanese counterparts. According to Soviet logic, competition is not how better products are made, but a way to drain the people’s economy’s resources. In the West, if you spotted a niche (or even a gaping hole) in the market and took initiative and filled it, you were a capitalist hero. In the Soviet system, if you took initiative to fill an unfulfilled need, you were facing a world of trouble, and using the people’s property for an unsanctioned deviation from the five-year plan was among the least of the charges.
- The Soviet optics industry got a heady boost through its appropriation of the factories, tooling and intellectual property of those German optics companies that resided in what later became the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). Considering that this encompassed both Dresden, Jena, Görlitz and most of Berlin, this meant that the lion’s share of the German optics industry had fallen under Soviet control.
During 1950–70 the big sellers of the Soviet camera industry were fundamentally remakes of prewar German gear. The early Kiev rangefinder is a prewar Zeiss Ikon Contax (many of them made from parts stock salvaged from the ruins of Dresden), while most later Kiev rangefinders are remakes of the postwar German Contax rangefinders. The Zorki rangefinders are similarly remakes of early Leicas; etc. The same applies to many of the lenses these cameras feature: remakes of earlier Zeiss and Leica optics.
- I have found no indication that the Soviet Union would have had any agreement with Nikon about the use of the F-mount. However, with a full mechanical and well-documented mount, that is of little consequence.
- From the mid 60s, it was quite apparent that the Soviet cameras no longer had any competitive strengths – not even within the East Block itself. Enthusiast and professional photographers in the Soviet bloc were becoming increasingly aware of the superiority of both western (mostly German) and eastern (meaning Japanese) photographic gear. Consequently, they wanted to get their hands on these capitalist marvels.
Such situations were troublesome, especially for the Soviet (hard currency) trade balance. The Soviet Union would have liked to use its hard currency (which it got only from managing to sell stuff to the same western powers that very much wanted to avoid having to buy anything from the Eastern bloc) on investment goods that it dearly needed (such as oil drilling equipment) as well as foodstuffs (the Soviet food industry was chronically underperforming). But whenever there was a category of goods that the Soviet Union failed to produce domestically, this increased the pressure on the Soviet Union to either import these goods outright (to sell to their populace), condone Soviet citizens’ shopping trips into the west, or accept that a black market was sure to spring up.
- It important to not mistake ‘remake’ for copy, because making 1:1 copies was never really the goal. The Soviet industry was (at least outside of the armaments industry) always focused on rationalization: elaborate mechanics using rare alloys were replaced with more rugged designs using more commonplace materials. This is especially obvious in the field of lenses were many Soviet remakes were fantastic feats of engineering: recomputations of old designs so that they would retain as much as possible of their performance even when using only relatively mundane glass types. For the early postwar decades this approach served the Soviet photography industry well.
- Even though the Soviet system saw the ‘markets’ as a bourgeois concept and saw central planning as the only effective way to determine resource allocation, the Soviet system did respect concepts such as parallelization and redundancy: Critical industries were rarely forced to merge into a mega-conglomerates, simply because it was too risky: the proverbial ‘all eggs in one basket’.
Therefore, it would be typical for most Soviet industries that there would be several ‘organisations’ offering similar products – everything from washing machines to turbojet engines and cameras. Importantly, while these organisations did not compete on the market, they did compete on the political level for both access to resources and for commissions (remember, organisations did not make what they were not asked to make).
In the case of the photographic industry, this meant that it was beneficial for the Soviet Union to have a number of organisations focused on developing and manufacturing photographic equipment. Most importantly, that means that while KMZ (Krasnogorsky zavod) was an undoubtable Soviet industrial powerhouse and was moreover situated in Krasnogorsk, right next to the heart of the Soviet Empire, KMZ did have a counterweight in the form of Arsenal plant in Kiev (the capital of the Soviet Union’s second most populous state). Further, there were several other optical organisations that manufactured everything from lenses to camera parts (such as viewfinders).
- I have an ex-colleague who travelled a lot in Russia in the early 2000s, and showed me a picture he had taken of an elder gentleman’s bed (somewhere in the Urals). The gentleman had decided to raise his bed by two inches by putting a Helios-44 under each of the bed’s legs. ↩︎