When we look back upon the great cameras of history we can see the grand old legacies established by engineers from Japan (Asahi Pentax, Olympus, Contax, Nikon, Canon, Ricoh, Mamiya, Konica, Minolta, Bronica), Germany (Leica, Rollei, Agfa, Plaubel, Ihagee, Zeiss Ikon), and the United States (Kodak, Argus, Polaroid).
But we often forget the cameras from one country—Russia—that many photographers remember fondly for their quirky qualities and relative affordability.
Not to mention that recently, a certain Russian camera brand announced that they are planning a big, misguided revival in this digital age.
Forged from blood and iron…and theft
Before the formation of the Soviet Union in 1922, Russians had relied solely on foreign imported cameras. In fact, what was to become the first camera factory in the entire USSR originally began as an orphanage in Kharkov, Ukraine.
It only resembled anything capable of building machinery in December 1927, when it was renovated and renamed after Felix E. Dzerzhinsky, founder of the NKVD (which preceded the KGB).
This rather elongated name eventually led to the factory being referred to by its initials FED, or ФЭД in cyrillic. In the beginning, it was just tasked with producing electric drills.
At this point you might start to recognise a few details. FED made the very first camera in Russia, and many models are still widely available on Ebay today. But how did FED go from making simple drills to creating Russia’s first rangefinder?
Quite easily actually. They simply decided to steal the design.
In 1932 a revoltion swept the camera world in the form of the Leica II, the first rangefinder with a built-in viewfinder from the illustrious German company. Soviet leaders were so taken aback by the astounding elegance and mechanical excellence of the camera that they immediately halted the import of photographic gear, and demanded that FED make their own version of the Leica II.
The resulting camera was the FED 1, an exact clone of the Leica II, albeit more crudely constructed—sort of like a Frankensteinian amalgamation with Russian Industars instead of German Elmar lenses, and various other discrepancies that with time are now seen as charming unique traits.
FED mass-produced the FED 1 from 1932 until 1941, when German forces destroyed the factory in a rather primitive interpretation of international copyright law.
After the factory was rebuilt in 1946, FED continued to make variants of its rangefinders until 1996, and you’ll see dozens of their models online.
Krasnogorsky Mechanicheskiy Zavod (1942-2004…2016-?)
Krasnogorsky Mechanicheskiy Zavod is a Russian optical factory better known by its abbreviation KMZ. Or rather (since even that name isn’t very popular), photographers might at least recognise the brands Zorki, Zenit, Moskva, or Horizon.
KMZ built all of the cameras under those brands, and were the main producer of both cameras and lenses in the Soviet Union.
Their cameras are largely recognised as the quintessential Russian classics, although the first models from three of those four brands were essentially copies of masterpieces by Leica, Zeiss Ikon, and Panon Widelux (respectively Zorki, Mosvka, and Horizon).
Zorki rangefinders were initially just copies of the FED 1 and the Leica II, although subsequent versions evolved quite distinctively as shown above in the 4K. Production lasted from 1948 to 1978.
Zenit is probably the most popular camera brand from Russia, and they mostly made SLRs. In fact, the first Zenit camera in 1952 (eponymously named Zenit) was simply a converted Zorki. The designers removed the rangefinder housing and replaced it with a ground-glass screen and prism. Then they added a mirror below and pushed the M39 thread mount a little forward to make space for the mirror.
These were the most exported Russian cameras, and the cameras themselves went through frequent redesign. The latter Zenits were definitely not just copies of other SLRs, and many have gone on to be considered relatively iconic.
The Zenit-EM for example is a beautifully crafted camera, while the Zenit-122K saw the Russian brand ditch M42 and go for the Pentax K-mount.
Many of the more eccentric Zenit SLRs are rather Space Age-y, like the Zenit-KM Plus. This was the final Zenit ever made in the Krasnogorsk factory, although after more than a decade production will be resumed for the new digital Zenit. Presumably this new “luxury” DSLR will be made in much lower quantities and sold at a much higher price…especially if laughably it is intended to compete with Leica.
Moskva cameras were a series of 6×9 medium-format folding rangefinders that largely copied the German-made Zeiss Ikon Ikonta and Zeiss Ikon Super Ikonta.
Horizon as mentioned above were initially based on the Panon Widelux and were 35mm film panoramic cameras. They were built solely by KMZ until 2003, with the final model being the Horizon S3 Pro.
But wait! Why do we see Horizon cameras in every design store nowadays around the world? Blame (or thank) LOMO. They partnered with KMZ to put the Horizon back into production in 2005 with the Horizon Perfekt and Horizon Kompakt.
The Arsenal Factory in Kiev, Ukraine is one of the most famous factories in the former USSR. As the name suggests, they made a multitude of weapons and supplied the army with heavy artillery. But they also made a cult Hasselblad clone under the brand Kiev, or КИЕВ in cyrillic. I understand Kiev is in Ukraine and therefore isn’t Russian, but for most of their history they were considered…let’s say a Soviet brand.
Often nicknamed the Hasselbladski, the original Kiev 88 medium-format camera was based off the Hasselblad 1600F and called “Salyut”. Mass production began in 1957, and even though it was a copy of the 1600F, it was definitely a bit roughly designed.
Film backs and lenses between the two systems were not 100% compatible, and didn’t exactly fit. So don’t expect to buy a cheaper Kiev 88 body online today and slap on a new Carl Zeiss 80mm f/2.8 without any issues.
This is especially the case since Kiev later decided to switch to the Pentacon Six mount around 1999 with their upgraded model: the Kiev 88CM.
With the Pentacon Six mount, Kiev cameras suddenly became a lot more useful abroad, and many can be found on Ebay and second-hand camera stores.
Kiev also made quite a few 35mm SLRs, but their speciality was definitely in roll film cameras. The Kiev 60 was introduced in 1984 as a clone of the original Pentacon Six, which was a medium-format camera in SLR form. It proved to be pretty popular, and was manufactured until 1999.
Around 10 years ago when I was in the market for a medium-format camera I was tempted by a Russian brand called Arax, who took over production of the Kiev cameras in the early 2000’s and upgraded them all. Arax cameras are generally considered to be much higher quality versions of the original Kiev designs, and when coupled with vintage Carl Zeiss Jena glass (made for the Pentacon Six mount), can make beautiful photographs.
Sadly in November 2009, Gevorg Vartanyan of Arax told customers that the Arsenal factory was closing after 245 years of operation, although Arax still had some stock left.
And finally, we come to LOMO…the much derided brand that still persists and even thrives in this nostalgia-hungry period.
LOMO is short for the Leningrad Optical Mechanical Association, and has an obscenely long name in cyrillic. The factory started off as a French-Russian collaboration in 1914, and briefly made gun sights during the war before resuming camera production in 1925.
In the 30’s they followed the same path as Zorki and FED by making another Leica II clone called the VOOMP 1.
So in a way, the Leica II is the inspiration for the entire Russian camera industry, which is quite a remarkable feat.
LOMO are the largest optical manufacturers currently in Russia, and make a ton of stuff; their camera gear is actually only a tiny bit of their production. So it’s kind of like the behemoth organisations of Japan, who make cameras almost for fun sometimes while earning big bucks from other industries.
Lomography as we know it, representative of the cross-processed scourge that used to dominate our social media feeds, is actually basically just a distribution company. The Lomographic Society International was founded in 1992 by a travelling group of Viennese students after they discovered the LCA in Russia. They appreciated the distinctive lens, vignetting, and aesthetics of the famed point-and-shoot, and the rest is pretty much history.
They’ve since revived multiple other old Russian brands like the Lubitel and the Horizon, and even partnered with Zenit to bring back the Petzval lens for Nikon F and Canon EF in 2013. But they aren’t LOMO; they just serve as the sole distributor for the Russian optical company’s gear.
While Lomography has long been criticised for charging high prices on what is essentially plastic, they’ve also been credited for bringing back a love of film and keeping the format alive for enthusiasts. But again, don’t blame or thank LOMO—they just make the gear.
So while of course I haven’t managed to cover every fantastic Russian camera, hopefully this summary will remind photographers of any Russian cameras they might have once owned or still own. Dig them out, put in a few rolls and pray the light leaks aren’t too bad.
And if you don’t have one? Take a gander on Ebay and for less than the price of a new DSLR lens you can probably buy a whole Zenit system.