5 September 2016

The FSU Camera Myth

Having done a fair amount of research into the history of the photo - optical industry of the FSU and after having collected FSU manufactured cameras for some time, I have found that there is more urban legend and folklore accepted as fact when it comes to the manufacture of cameras in the FSU than the real facts.  One such misconception is that, after World War II, the Soviet Union manufactured Zeiss Contax cameras and lenses under license.  The Soviets never built anything "under licence".  The fact is that the Soviet camera manufacturing industry was limited to a small selection of fairly unsophisticated cameras before the 2nd world war.  At the end of the 2nd world war the Soviets had a great windfall - they discovered that the Zeiss manufacturing plant at Dresden was in their zone of control and promptly claimed it as reparations,  packed up all of the manufacturing plant and equipment, as well as all of the design drawings and parts stock and shipped it off to a railroad yard in the Ukraine, where it languished for some time before being unpacked and installed in the Kiyev Zavod Arsenal in Kiev.   This can in no way be described as "manufacturing under licence" as that implies the goodwill and co-operation of the original manufacturer. 

A Zavod Arsenal "Kiev 4a" copy of the Zeiss Contax IIa of 1974 production.

The Soviet authorities at the time had no idea about the quality of the  of the Zeiss Contax camera and the extreme precision required in the manufacture of it's parts and in it's assembly, calibration and testing.  The Zeiss operation at Dresden could have been compared to a Swiss wristwatch factory.  The Soviets "conscripted" local untrained labourer and expected them to do the same job as highly trained assembly workers in Dresden.  After all, they were only making a camera!  Initially, the Soviet occupation force, the SMAD (Soviet Military Administration of Germany),  ordered the Contax camera assembly line in Dresden to be restored at the same time as the manufacturing facility in the USSR was constructed with the equipment already shipped from Germany.  The Soviets demanded the assistance of the Zeiss management and engineers at Jena, which was in the American Zone and where the Americans had re-located the top engineers from Dresden, before the Soviets arrived there.  It is not clear how much of the original manufacturing equipment was restored at Dresden and how much remained in the USSR, to be assembled at the Zavod Arsenal factory in Kiev.  Initially, in 1947, a quantity of approximately 5000 Contax II cameras were assembled at the Kiev factory from original Zeiss parts and materials originally appropriated from the Dresden plant.

A Kiev IIa manufactured in the Zeiss Jena factory in 1947. 

These cameras had no name branding on the faceplate above the lens, but if the plate is removed the "ghost" of the word "Contax" can be seen from the rear.  These cameras are now highly collectable.  The original design of the Contax II was modified by the Soviets to make it less costly and easier to assemble.  Materials were substituted, for example some of the stainless steel parts became brass and some of the machined parts were stamp formed.  The original Zeiss camera was fitted with Zeiss lenses from the Jena factory, where a production facility had also been created from virtually nothing for the manufacture of the Contax camera.  Eventually this facility was also shipped to the Ukraine and installed in the Kiev factory.  The Zeiss lenses were copied and manufactured in the Ukraine.  These optics were made to a high standard as the Soviets had some experience with optical manufacture.

It seems to me that, as fate would have it, the soviets found that they had, in the Zeiss Contax,  appropriated a camera with one of the most complex shutter designs possible, requiring extreme precision of manufacture and assembly to operate correctly and reliably.  I refer to the Zeiss Contax vertical travel roller blind shutter.  It is to the Soviet’s credit that they did not opt to replace this shutter mechanism with one of simpler design, such as a cloth blind, but persevered in the manufacture of the original Zeiss design, which is to be found in all Kiev copies of the Contax.

The factory had to strictly adhere to a quota system, regardless of quality.  Cameras were tested after final assembly, and those that didn't obviously work were simply scrapped, but they were never deducted from the production quota total but if the quota had not been reached, these rejected cameras were included in the factory production.

A Kiev 4AM camera of 1964 production - this model was equipped with an exposure meter as was the original Zeiss Contax III

Depending on the luck of the draw, a camera could be of sufficiently close tolerances to be of good quality and would be very reliable.  The opposite was also true.  Production quality slowly deteriorated until, in 1981, a delegation from the Soviet industrial authority arrived at the Arsenal factory and condemned the entire production of the last two months, which was scrapped.

Peter Henning, the Zeiss historian, reports:  " In the Soviet Union a network of specialised workshops was developed in order to handle problems of this kind. First you bought your camera at a low socialistic price. Then you realised that the camera did not function fully - you had to visit the specialised workshop. After paying this part of the affair as well, the total cost was about the same as a similar type of camera in the west." 

Production of the Kiev / Contax derivatives was finally halted in 1986.

Fed cameras were  a reverse engineered copy of the original Leica camera. Named after the founder of the Soviet Secret Police, Felix Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky, the Fed I appeared in 1934 and was a copy of the Leica II 35mm rangefinder film camera, fitted with a FED f/3.5, 50mm uncoated lens.   The factory used indigent children or orphaned children for the assembly labour force and fell under the direct control of the "Cheka" or secret police.   Vast numbers of FED cameras were produced between 1937 and 1997.  They are of "agricultural" quality, very robust and a good one will last a lifetime.  Again, no formal agreement was ever entered into with Ernst Leitz A.G. and the FED was simply a reverse engineered copy of the Leica, simplified to allow economic production quotas to be met.  Apart from the similar shape of the body and layout of the controls, a FED does not feel like, or perform like a real Leica camera.

Other cameras were also produced in the FSU, such as the Kiev copy of the Hasselblad and the Zenit made copy of the Pentacon 35mm SLR but generally the story is the same - poor quality designed for simple assembly to meet the production quota.  Of them all, the Zenit probably has the best quality control due to the requirements of it's West German distributors.  The Zenit is a very reliable camera and while it does not have the fine finish and quality feel of a Pentacon or Praktica, many were sold into the UK market when importation of more expensive cameras was restricted in the 1950's and 1960's. 

There was a recent report in the camera press to the effect that the Krasnogorsky Zavod optical factory in Kiev, where the original Zenith camera was manufactured, is to be brought back to life to manufacture a high-end rangefinder camera under the Zenith brand, to rival the Leica.  Whether this new camera will be digital or film is not stated, but the original press release could be just another oligarch’s dream.

Her are some of my FSU cameras:

The Zenit E with Moscow Olympics logo, with M42 mount Helios 44-2 58mm f2, un-coated  preset lens.  Because of the Olympics logo, this camera was presumably made sometime just before 1980, although production started sometime before 1965.  The lens is a Helios 44-2, the “2” designating a resolving power capability of only 38/20 LP/mm.

The Zenit EM with Helios 44M-4 58mm f2 un-coated lens in M42 semi-auto mount.  Production started in 1972 and ended in 1984.  This example has the Moscow Olympics 1980 logo. The lens was made at the Valdai optical factory, about 250 miles NW of Moscow.  Very little is known about this plant which produced lenses for KMZ and Zenit BelOMO under the Helios label.  The “4” indicates a resolving power of 38/19 LP/mm.  That's marginally not as good at the edge as the 44-2.  I wonder why?  maybe one factor could be the fact that the diaphragm blades are shiny metal and are not blackened to prevent internal reflections.  Strange but true.

The Zenit 11 in black paint finish with Helios 58mm f2 uncoated lens in M42 semi-auto mount.  The lens was made in the KMZ plant, not Valdai.  It has no resolving power designation.  The camera was made between 1981 and 1990 at KMZ/BelOMO.  Production total was 1,500,000 units. 

The „ФЭД-2“ or Fed 2(b) Typ PE0395.  

This is a copy of the Leica II design, made in the F.E. Dzerzhinsky Labor Commune which was established after WW2 as a work orphanage for children whose parents had been killed or had disappeared during the hostilities.  This example was produced between 1956 and 1958 for a total of 239,000 units.  This one is shown fitted with a Fed branded 53mm f2.8 lens but was delivered from the factory with an Industar 26M 50mm f2.8 lens in M39 mount.

The Zorki - 4.  
A rangefinder camera made in the Krasnogorsk Mekanicheski Zavod or KMZ factory (as was the Zenit) for the export market.  This model was produced between 1968 and 1969.  The branding is silk screened on to the front plate, not engraved, and has “Made in USSR” on the back below the KMZ logo.  This is the older version with the larger viewfinder window and no strap lugs.  Mine is shown here fitted with a Fed 53mm f2.8 lens.

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