A brief introduction to the Soviet lens ‘business’

Pekka Buttler, 07/2023


You may or may not like Soviet lenses, but if you’re at all interested in the history and development of the optical/camera industries, then you must feel some interest towards the history of Soviet optics – if for no other reason than because that history is odd and diverges from what you’re likely used to.

There are many good and detailed online accounts detailing the histories of Soviet industrial policy (the macrolevel) to accounts of how a specific camera came to be (the micro). See links at the end.

This article aims to give an overview of the key drivers and development of the Soviet photo industry, to help readers understand the peculiarities that impinge on the Soviet lenses that we love or hate.

Related articles:
Soviet Lenses
Soviet Serial numbers.
A Soviet Nikon?

History 1-2-3

Pre-revolution (->1917)

Technically Russian Empire (not Soviet) era, but it lays the groundwork of what is to come in two respects: Firstly, the Russian Empire had practically no indigenous camera/optics industry. This means that the Soviet regime inherited neither factories nor expertise. This also means that whatever cameras/optics were available in pre-revolutionary times were imports, were expensive, and were exclusively used by the elites. A camera was either a professional’s tool or a symbol of status.

Pre-war Soviet (1917–1940)

After the Bolshevik revolution, the new Soviet Union (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) was first embroiled in a bloody civil war and after that resolved in victory for the Soviets/Bolsheviks, the Soviet Union became an international pariah state, forced to trade internationally on very unfavourable terms. Unsurprisingly, Soviet economic policy focused on developing an autarkic economy, independent of imports. The Soviet Union was already bestowed by immense natural resources, what was needed was the industrial capability to refine and turn those resources into goods – primarily capital goods and armaments, but – in the long run – also into consumer goods.

The first steps in this direction were taken in the first five-year plan of the Soviet Union (1928–1932), which practically decreed that the Soviet Union should start producing cameras. Cameras were at this stage not only envisioned as a consumer good, but also as a key tool for the new regime to spread its gospel. Hence, from zero produced cameras in 1928, the number had reached comfortable five-figure (yearly) numbers by the end of the five-year plan (and millions had been produced before the outbreak of the war).

These camera enterprises relied largely on copying and mass-manufacturing successful western cameras. Moreover, the earlier of these were comparatively outdated designs (e.g. the Fotokor-1 was heavily inspired by German plate folding cameras), but as the Soviet industry got some footing, so too the appetite grew, and by 1932 the Soviet camera industry was manufacturing remakes of early Leicas. The Soviet photo industry was born, but far from competitive. Only a die-hard Soviet patriot would have chosen a Soviet-manufactured camera over a German one.

AI-generated (DALL-E) illustration using prompt “A painting in the tradition of soviet realism in which a factory worker is proudly holding a camera.”

Post-war Soviet (1945–1991)

The Second World War temporarily ended the Soviet Union’s international isolation, and the Soviet Union exited the war not only as a victor, but also as an ascendant power. The indigenous Soviet camera industry that had started with an autarchy-derived role (no matter how outdated, as long as importing can be avoided) suddenly became part of the Soviet Union’s effort of international persuasion. The nation that had tamed Siberia and was running headlong into the nuclear age, also needed a camera industry worthy of admiration.

Unlike the Japanese optical industry, where companies had been able to use the war to hone their skills at Opto-mechanical design and manufacture, the Soviet military had fought a relatively different war, that had not produced a Bonanza for the Soviet optics industry. On the other hand, while the Japanese optical industry got a heady boost from its post-war free access to the German patent portfolio, the Soviet optical industry was blessed not only with access to German intellectual property, but also by access to German plants.

With the bulk of the German camera & optics industry residing in the state of Saxony, and – hence – in the Soviet occupation zone, entire factories were dismantled, packaged and shipped eastwards. The most classic example is the dismantling of Zeiss plants in Saxony (those that had not been destroyed by bombs), that were shipped wholesale – including stocks of parts and lens elements – to Kiev where these ‘reparations’ would act as the injection that started the Kiev/Arsenal marques.

By 1960 – 15 years after the end of the Second World War, the pecking order of camera/optics manufacturing countries had thoroughly changed. From a pre-war constellation with Germany the undeniable world leader and the rest of the industrialised western countries all having their say, Japan was now the world’s largest manufacturer of cameras and lenses, and the Soviet Union a clear number two, followed – most years – by the East German camera industry in third place. West Germany still manufactured cameras, but most of the other western, industrialised countries had entirely dropped out of the race.

But whereas the Japanese camera/optics industry followed a model instinctively understandable to the modern consumers – one dominated by private, profit-seeking companies in constant competition – the Soviet model differed significantly, and one can hardly understand the result without some insight into the system that created it.

The Soviet ‘business model’ – a brief introduction

Central planning and quotas

Unlike market economies, Soviet-style economies did not allow markets to decide what the people’s factories should produce (that might lead to people preferring something frivolous such as comfortable clothes over something important such as parachutes for the military). Instead, to somewhat simplify, the state planning committee (Gosplan) would come up with
a) definitions of what should be produced in the economy
b) where that production should take place
c) what price the result should be sold at (if at all).

While the most important tool of Gosplan was the vaunted five-year-plan, one should not assume that changes would not be implemented mid-plan. However, to say that this method of central planning would be nimble, or – indeed – agile, would be unduly generous.

An important difference here is, that whereas a western manufacturing enterprise might draw some conclusions if their product was outdated or had low quality and hence did not find traction on the market, the same did not happen in the Soviet Union. Firstly, if a factory produced the planned number of units, those units would be shipped to the various regional distributors as per plan, whether the public would want them or not. Hence, the factory never saw any stock pile up. Moreover, as consumer goods were in constant short supply (and the proletariat had roubles, but little to buy) a consumer good needed to be absolutely dismal to not be snapped up by households. There was no stick.

But no carrot either, as factory managers were primarily rated based on how well they filled their quota. Any attempt to modernise a product or improve a product’s quality could jeopardise the smooth running of the production, lead to missed quotas, and to the abrupt end of a promising career. In combination with a paranoid state police always on the lookout for ‘counter-revolutionaries’ only a few examples of innovating sabotaging factory managers were needed to make everyone avoid risks.

Factories, not companies.

Dear reader, if you’re from a western market economy, you probably think of companies and brands as ceaselessly competing entities. Nikon does what Nikon does because they’re reacting to what Canon did and so on… Most westerners are so inundated by this thinking that we might instinctively view Soviet lenses the same way: as a competition between the Jupiters, the Helioses, the Mirs and so on. Allow me to exemplify why that approach is unfruitful.

The Helios-44 [data sheet] is very likely the most mass-manufactured interchangeable lens in photographic history to date. It is also quite famous. Not only is the Helios-44 the descendant of the Carl Zeiss Jena Biotar 58 mm f/2 [data sheet], but it is also well loved, especially for its tendency to produce swirly bokeh. But Helios is neither a company nor a brand. Instead ‘Helios’ is the designation of a collection of designs. The ‘original’ duo (Helios-40 and Helios-44) of Helios lenses were remakes of the Carl Zeiss Jena Biotar and subsequent Helios lenses (Japanese Helios’ exempted) were typically further developments of these and similar designs. There is a nice article on lensbeam.com that goes into the naming practice used in the Soviet Union, which I hope you’ll have a look at if you’re interested in digging deeper.

Importantly, the various Soviet lenses carrying the name Helios did not all come from the same design bureau, nor were they manufactured at the same factory. The Helios-44 is a case in point as it was – at various times – manufactured at most of the Soviet optics factories (KMZ, MMZ/BelOMO, Valdai/Jupiter). And why would they not be, considering that all factories in the Soviet Union were part of the same organisation: the state.

While it would be incorrect to say that factories did not compete, because they competed for attention and investment from Gosplan, but they did not really compete in the marketplace (deliveries were based on quota), they did not compete on price (prices were set by Gosplan), and they did not compete through investments in product innovation as in most industries factories did not do RnD…

Design bureaus

In an economic system where production was centrally planned and directed, and the factories and kombinates did the actual production, RnD was a largely separate function, conducted in OKBs (опытно-конструкторское бюро” – ‘experiment and design bureau’) or ‘design bureaus’. Quite often design bureaus would be tasked with coming up with a design for something Gosplan thought should be produced, and once the design was approved, Gosplan would task a factory with mass production.

Interestingly, some design bureaus were entirely independent, while others might be colocated with manufacturing facilities, with others still being integrated into factories and kombinates. While some of these design bureaus became world-famous (e.g. OKB-51 Sukhoi, OKB-155 Mikoyan) most design bureaus remained obscure. Moreover, with the Soviet ethos, such design bureaus tended to obscure the individual effort – at least until it was time to proclaim an engineer or designer ‘hero of the Soviet Union’.

With regards to cameras and lenses, this has two implications: first, it means that two lenses manufactured side by side at one factory could have entirely different design teams. Second, it means that we typically have a very hard time identifying the design bureaus (never mind the actual designers) behind the designs.

Mass production and efficiency through remakes

Innovations tend to be divided into product innovations (new products that are more effective) and process innovations (new ways to more efficiently produce products and products that are more efficient to produce). I think it would be fair to characterise the Soviet optical industry as heavily weighted towards process innovation.

New models were brought in – first from the West, later from the East – stripped apart, analysed, reverse-engineered and simplified. While one might think that the original Leica and its Soviet remake; that the original Contax and its Soviet remake are practically indistinguishable (logos and engravings notwithstanding), the innards were typically not 1:1 copies. Just as the Soviet industry might not have been willing to aim for the same precision manufacture as the originals, Soviet design teams also systematically tried to simplify the originals – mainly in order to make manufacture more efficient.

The same process of production rationalisation was at work in lens manufacturing. While the product evolution pace of Soviet lenses might (to the westerner) seem glacial, factories had to evolve, adjust and improvise in order to meet their quota. Even when they were not always supplied with the materials that they had – according to the five-year-plan – been promised.

Considering that the Soviet industry had four decades to play with, and an undeniably huge manufacturing capacity to work with, it is evident that product innovation was not a priority. One could say that any of the biggest Japanese camera manufacturers alone achieved more product innovation in the 1970s, than the entire Soviet camera industry in its entire existence. That said, one should not conclude that the Soviet camera/lens industry was entirely without original innovation. Some points to the contrary are the Sporta serious contender for the title of being the first 35 mm film SLR

A wartime economy

The Soviet Union was born through revolution, attacked from all directions in a bloody civil war, the resolution of which only led to decades of being an outcast and seen as a threat by non-communist countries the world over. This only changed in 1941 as Nazi Germany invaded. The end of WW2 in an Allied victory directly led to the Cold War, which only ended in the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

In short, for the entire lifespan of the Soviet Union, the Soviet economy was practically on a war footing: with limited access to imports (and constrained opportunities for exports), with hostile or actively belligerent neighbours, and with a threat of annihilation always on the horizon. As the Soviet Union furthermore entered the race with a lot of catching up to do, it is no wonder that producing state-of-the-art consumer gadgets was never at the top of the list of priorities in any five-year-plan. With one exception (that we will address next), the aim of the Soviet, civilian-oriented camera and lens industry was always to offer cameras for the masses, as an extension of the ‘bread and circuses’ logic of appeasing the plebes.

A bringer of hard currency

Even though the Soviet Union had an abundance of practically any natural resource available outside the tropics (resources like caoutchouc were always a sore point), and even though the Soviets managed to electrify the entire county in record time, hence setting the stage for rapid industrialisation, and even though autarchy had been a core policy goal from the dawn of the Soviet Union, there were things that the Soviet Union had trouble producing themselves and had to import.

In good years the Soviet Union’s top imports were electronics, advanced machine tools and tropical agricultural produce; in bad years the Soviet Union had to import even wheat. Because the Soviet Union was not integrated in the world financial system, all the Soviet Union’s foreign trade had to be conducted either as barter (always an iffy proposition) or through hard currency – mainly Dollars, Pounds, Deutschmarks or Yen. Hence, even though the Politburo would have liked the Capitalist West to take a hike, the Soviet Union was forced to deal with the West: sell stuff in the West in order to be able to buy stuff they needed.

While the Soviet Union’s main exports were based on oil, minerals and metals, there were many markets that took a dim view of trading with the Soviet Union in what easily could be considered strategic resources. However, even in such markets, buying Soviet-made household items or consumer goods was seen as small fry and mostly harmless. Because cameras and optics was an industry where Soviet products were somewhat competitive (as long as the price was right), these were seen as an important tool in the Soviet Union’s constant quest for hard currency.

Interestingly, while quality was clearly a secondary concern with regards to production for the domestic market, Soviet decision makers were well aware that consumers who were willing to use hard currency to buy a camera were unlikely to have a good impression of Soviet goods (or the entire Union for that matter) if the camera turned out to be substandard. Hence, only a part of the range of cameras and lenses produced in the Soviet Union were ever exported, and those products and batches that were slated for export were always subjected to stricter quality controls than those intended for domestic distribution. Therefore, while an item intended for domestic distribution is not automatically a substandard item, items intended for exports were always more likely to hold up to an inspection (export-oriented products typically were labeled in Latin lettering, instead of Cyrillic)

Final words.

The Soviet Union was a deeply troubled state. It was born out of the Russian empire (which was not a balanced society to begin with – just read Tolstoy, Dostojevski or other Russian classics), through an agonising process of war, chaos, revolution and civil war that left a lasting national trauma, only to be further traumatised by Stalin’s purges and Hitler’s armies. It was troubled by a flawed economic system (I will not comment on whether the approach itself was irredeemably flawed or whether the main culprit was the Marxist-Leninist implementation) exacerbated significantly by a geopolitical divide that limited the nation’s choices and anchored a deep belief of ‘us and our puppets versus the rest of the world’. It was also troubled with a national leadership that was at times inept, at times corrupt, most often paranoid, seldom caring, and always cruel. Sadly, many of these aspects still affect the Russia of today.

Against that backdrop, I find myself looking at Soviet cameras and optics as very possibly the best things to remember the Soviet Union by.

Read more/sources:

Alfred’s camera pages
Alte kameras (in German)
• Beevor, Antony: Russia: Revolution and Civil War 1917-1921
FED cameras on camerapedia.com
Five-year-plans (wikipedia)
Fotokor-1 on Camerapedia.com
• Fricke, Oscar: The Dzerzhinsky Commune: Birth of the Soviet 35mm Camera Industry
Gosplan (wikipedia)
OKB (wikipedia)
Photohistory.ru (entire site, in Russian)
Read this before you buy a Soviet camera (on Kosmofoto.com)
Soviet Lenses. Names and Optical Design (lensbeam.com)
Sovietcams.com (entire site)
Sport (SLR) on camerapedia.com
USSRcameras.ru (entire site, in Russian)
Which factory was my lens made at? (Soviet factory logos on camerapedia.com)
Zenit Camera – archives (in Russian)

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