A roundabout introduction
I’ve never been that much into Soviet cameras and lenses. Sure, as someone who has a high two-digit number of cameras and a medium three-digit number of lenses, I also have some Soviet cameras and lenses lying around. On average I find that they are better than people give typically give them credit for.
I know that this might be a case of that my expectations have been sufficiently depressed by others’ complaints to actually be positively surprised by my first-hand experiences. Similarly, it might also be a case of sampling bias1 – that all that photo gear that gave the Soviet photographic industry its deserved (?) reputation of shoddy quality control have long since ended up at the bottom of a lake, thrown there by a frustrated photographer, leading to that only the semi-decent and better samples survived the first cull. I can also say that whenever I’ve encountered a piece of non-working Soviet Photo gear, it has been blatantly obvious that we’re not talking about an especially well-kept sample. Cameras are like people. We suffer when neglected.
So you could say I have never been particularly drawn to Soviet gear, but also not especially repelled by it.
In the summer of 2023 I came to the conclusion that I knew too little about Soviet lenses to be comfortable in writing data sheets for the Soviet lenses that I had. So I started reading up a bit. During that reading I found myself often thinking to myself something along the line of “curiouser and curiouser”. It took me a while to realise I had fallen down into a rabbit hole into a land of wonders (many of them quite terrible).
That “reading up” turned into something more deserving of the term “research”. And while I am still not finished, this adventure has already led to a number of articles, including:
• Soviet Lenses (a rundown of all relevant Soviet-era interchangeable lenses for 35 mm and medium format)
• A brief introduction to the Soviet lens ‘business’ (Explaining some underlying differences between the Soviet system and western economic systems; and how those differences impacted the photo industry)
• Soviet Serial Numbers (A short description of a lens archaeologist’s tools)
• A Soviet Nikon ? (The background story of why there are Soviet lenses with the Nikon F mount)
However, one more thing that I realised while wandering in wonderland was that maybe the Soviet photo industry’s biggest problem was not in the quality of the gear they produced, but in the quality of the gear they did not produce. Let me try to explain.
The photo industry and the Soviet era
The short, short version:
You’re welcome to read the JAPB article on the Soviet lens business, which summarises the development of the Russian and early Soviet (until 1945) camera industry, but suffice it to say that the Soviet Photo industry from 1917 to 1945 existed only so that Soviet photographers would not be dependent on imports. The early Soviet фотоаппарат’s were exceedingly crude affairs, that would never have existed, were it not for the early Soviet Union’s international isolation.
This all changed after 1945. Not only was the Soviet Union no longer an outcast in the European hinterlands, instead it was an undeniable victor of the second World War and its influence ranged over half the globe (from UTC+1 to the international dateline). More importantly, the Soviet optics industry got a heady boost through its ability to appropriate the factories, tooling and intellectual property of those German optics companies that resided in what became what later became the German Democratic Republic. 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. This ‘inherited’ technology was instrumental in enabling the leap which saw the Soviet Photo industry make in the 1945–1960 era.
But sudden windfalls can swing two ways. One thing that can happen is that a bonanza of inherited technology simply shifts an industry to a new level, and whatever RnD that previously was mucking around with previous generation technology fluently shifts to explore as before, but from a new starting level. This is what essentially happened in the Soviet rocketry industry that quickly integrated the knowledge they gained and went on to develop the Sputnik, the Sojuz program, as well as a spate of altogether deadlier missiles.
The other potential outcome is that – to adopt the lingo used in discussions about corporate innovation – the recipient of that bonanza focuses entirely on exploiting the technology they’ve received, and do not use it as a basis for further exploration. This would essentially seem to be the fate of the Soviet optics industry.
The big sellers of the Soviet camera industry from 1945 to 1960 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.
This is not to say that the Soviet Union did not have their own inventors and innovators. People like M. M. Rusinov and D. S. Volosov are not the only ones who would have designed stellar lenses even without a windfall. But looking at the products produced by the Soviet Photo industry post-1960, it almost seems as if they stopped innovating. Did they?
While we can easily see that the Soviet Photo industry stagnated (they kept endlessly churning out the same-old, for example, the Kiev-4, a remake of the German 1939 Contax III was still being manufactured in the late 80s), we do not see what happened in the background. We’re blinded by looking at the salients, and we do not see the raw data.
The ‘raw data’ was, in the case of my research, those sites2 that have actually gone through archives and scanned old Soviet-era patents and presented their findings in such a way as that I (with some help from Google Translate) can gain some insights, and that raw data indicates that there was a lot more going on.
While During the entire Soviet era there was not a single mass-produced 50 mm f/1.4 SLR lens, it is astonishing how many such lenses were designed, patented and prototyped. The same goes for 50 mm f/1.2 lenses, 35 mm f/1.4 lenses, 85 mm f/1.4 lenses and a lot of those types of lenses that we would consider hallmarks of an ambitious lineup for the 1980s. We have learned that the Soviet Union did not do zooms, but surprisingly not for the lack of trying.
The list of plans and patents that show a vibrant, ambitious optics design scene – even towards the end of the Soviet era – was not something I could have expected from looking at the prevalence of el cheapo nifty fifties and endless Zeiss-remakes. In general, it would seem that (especially after ca. 1965) there is an inverse relationship between the ambitiousness of a design and its manufacturing numbers. And with all those designs – whether they be lenses or cameras – that would have had a chance to reach parity with their western or eastern competitors, it is a rule (almost without exception) that they never progressed from the planning stage.
Even more astonishing is that many of these plans were at such an advanced stage that mass production was planned, factory space allocated and brochures printed and distributed (!) only for the lens or camera to never show up, or show up in so small numbers that they became collector’s items on day one.
This is not an uncommon occurrence. It even has a name: Vapourware. Vapourware is a product that is announced to the general public but is late, never actually manufactured, or officially cancelled.
The fact that we can call all these ambitious plans vapourware just raises the question: Why?
• Why was none of the various 50 mm f/1.4 designs never serially manufactured?
• Why was the MIR-46 (35 mm f/1.4) mass production first decided, then cancelled?
• Why were there export brochures for the Kiev-18 SLR (including pictures of its motor drives and other add-ons), but the camera was never made (except maybe a few copies)?
• What was the reason for why the 1970s-80s Soviet Photo industry seem to be so extraordinarily burdened by vapourware? I have my suspicions, but I’m quite sure most of them are wrong. I’d love to hear informed comments and first-hand accounts.
And What the f*** is the story behind the Almaz?
This last one – the Almaz – is a real mind-bender and I hope to soon be able to write companion piece to my “A Soviet Nikon ?” article, because…
It turns out that in the 70s the Soviet Union set out to produce not one Soviet Nikon, but two, and that while the Kiev 17/19 series of cameras ended up using the Nikon F mount (but were otherwise not especially ambitious), the Almaz (Diamond) series of cameras took the Nikon F2 as their benchmark and precedent, and actually produced a seriously F2esque looking SLR body, but stuck a Pentax K mount on it. 🤯
- In statistics, sampling bias is a bias in which a sample is collected in such a way that some members of the intended population have a lower or higher sampling probability than others. It results in a biased sample of a population (or non-human factors) in which all individuals, or instances, were not equally likely to have been selected. If this is not accounted for, results can be erroneously attributed to the phenomenon under study rather than to the method of sampling. Source: Wikipedia) ↩︎
- First and foremost among them: http://www.photohistory.ru ↩︎