This page is no longer actively maintained. (Pardon?)
This article tries to act as an introduction to the climate in which Soviet-Russian cameras were produced, and to explain how some of their commonly known traits, such as their ruggedness, simplicity and old-fashioned engineering, were a product of the system in which they were produced. I want to provide a backdrop against which to judge them, and maybe also show why I find them fascinating to collect. My view of the Soviet-Russian economical system is very much based on the simplified form in which I learnt it in high school, and also by the popular view of the Soviet-Russian economy, which probably isn't very accurate in the details. Perhaps this article also isn't very true to the details, but I hope it gets the main idea across.
After the Revolution of November 1917, one of the projects the Communist government undertook in Russia was collectivisation. Another was industrialisation. Both aimed to form Russia from a feudal state into a modern country that could compete with other developed nations. A new economic principle was also introduced, that of the 'plan market'. It's this principle that governed a lot of everyday life in the Soviet Union and also a lot of characteristics of Soviet cameras. Basically an alternative to the free market system of the west, it prescribed a top-down economy.
In western countries, the approach was bottom-up: in a free-market arena set up and controlled by the government, manufacturers competed for the customer's favor. The strength of the free market system is that it encourages competition and natural selection: cricital consumers winnow out those manufacturers that produce inferior or overpriced goods, and reward those that innovate. The theoretical result is cheap and superior products. In practice the 'superior' part is not always as true, and the system tends to lead to overproduction and -consumption.
In the Soviet Union however, there was no arena for customer-manufacturer interaction: the state kept tight control over production facilities and the internal market. It did this by tuning production to perceived need, to ensure that everyone got his share and all available raw materials were used as wisely as possible. The institution that synchronized all this was the Moscow-based GOSPLAN, a giant bureaucratic organisation otherwise known as the Plan Bureau. Ideally it was assumed to be omniscient: to do its job, it had to be aware of all the needs and wishes of every individual person. Of course, this was principle. In practice, things went a bit more... pragmatically. The Soviet Union was infamous for its many factories that would receive a monthly order from the Plan Bureau, slack off in producing the order during the first few weeks of the month (because there wasn't really any incentive to working harder than anyone else, because you weren't rewarded for it anyway), and then panic during the last week or so and churn out loads of partly defective products, just to meet the requirements. This was so blatant that the Russian population even learnt how to distinguish, from the serial numbers, products made in the last weeks of a month and ignore them for better ones. Also, there are many accounts of one product being overly abundant when not needed, and some other, usually more essential, product being very scarce.
Lots of properties of Soviet-Russian cameras can be explained by eccentricities of the Plan Economy. The foremost argument against a planned economy is that it lulls the industry to sleep. Since it has no competition to fear, and since all the labourers are guaranteed a job and payment by the government anyway, there is no goal to which to strive. That tended to make most Soviet factories conservative and passive in the introduction of new technology. If it works, why fix it? You clearly see this philosophy in the design of Soviet-Russian cameras. Usually the base technology was age old, often coming from the Leicas of the 1930's, or it was taken from some tried and tested foreign camera, and on top of that were cumulative but comparatively small improvements. It's all evolution, never revolution. Take the Zenit series for instance: it started off with a Zorki, which was itself a Leica copy, that got a reflex cage. Then it got slow shutter speeds. Then all the speeds went on one dial. Then they modernized the looks. Then they added a light meter. Then they added a better one. Then some plastic bits. And a new matte glass. And so on. The result was that even in the 1980's, the Zenit camera series essentially used the same technology as 1930's Leicas, only patched and extended to fit some new technologies! Never was the system totally redesigned, because why bother when what you have is tried and tested?
Another argument against a planned economy is that it encourages a 'quantity above quality' approach on the factories' part. Quantity of products is measurable while quality is more nebulous; also, it's better to give two hundred workers a simple but functional camera than to give fifty of them a really good one, because that would only foster inequality. And if all the Plan Bureau cares about is production numbers, then why risk everything by taking chances on new technology when you have old tooling? Competition isn't an incentive like under capitalism. Also, why care about quality when all that counts is the number of boxes out the door? All this led to the disastrous reputation of Soviet-Russian cameras in the West: they were seen as shoddily assembled pieces of overly simplified crap.
Mind you, not all cameras were made like this, there were very good ones for export, and Soviet factories definitely had expertise and skill when it came down to it. Just this was the way they had to act, given this system. Soviet factories tended to be overstaffed, and the production lines were set up for relatively unskilled laborers, meaning the products had to be kept simple and easy to assemble. This naturally means that tolerances between parts needed to be kept quite large, because factories were much more mass-producing entities than small watchmaker's shops. However, such special workshops did exist, for example for the miliraty, and the Soviet camera industry has shown on multiple occasions, for example with the Iskra series and the Voskhod, that they were capable of operating on very high industrial standards. The Kometa, a KMZ demonstration camera at the Brussels World Fair of 1958, outperformed the Leica-M3 and the Contax III on numerous points. The reason that it wasn't taken into production, is the simple reality that in a plan economy, it wasn't a viable project.
As explained above, the main aim of Soviet camera manufacturers seems to have been the mass production of relatively cheap cameras for the masses. My guess is that Soviet policy was to enable everybody to buy his own camera if he so wished. Also important is perhaps the prospect of export, to which I'll return below. Most Soviet cameras were made with amateurs in mind, but there were also cameras aimed at professionals. I don't know how many professional Soviet photographers were using foreign cameras (after all, Alexander Rodchenko is famous for using a Leica) but fact is that plants tried to win over professionals with cameras like the Start, the Iskra series, and the Moskva line. This fits in with the policy of self-sufficiency, and also with 'to each his own'.
It's important to remember that what I call civil-optical factories, are in fact huge defense plants that happen to have a civil-optical branch. KMZ for instance was focused more on the military than on consumers – consumer optics were just its smiling outside face. Like the United States at the time, the Soviet Union was posessed by its defence, what translated to huge defense projects at factories nationwide. Optical factories were specifically useful militarily: KMZ for instance made the camera that took the first picture of the far side of the moon, tank and helicopter sights, military rangefinders, et cetera. Even the camera workshops were split into a division that made cameras for the secret services, a division that made special-purpose conversions for the military, and a division that made innocent consumer optics. Consumers were just one tiny part of it all.
One of the reasons why consumer optics were important to the Soviet Union was that they could be used as propaganda. On the domestic market, being able to buy your own camera was a huge show of success of Soviet industrialisation. Cameras were luxury goods, so to own one was to live in a civilised country. Outside the Soviet Union, consumer optics conveyed the same message: that the Soviet Union was a modern industrial state capable of making intricate optical products. I suspect that some of the top line cameras like the Leningrad, Voskhod and Iskra were exported to Europe and the United States specifically for the purpose of demonstrating the Soviet advances in engineering and manufacturing. Other cameras, like the Zenit-E line, were exported for trade dollars.
In Western Europe, Soviet-Russian cameras had a no-brow reputation of cheapness and shoddiness: in the hierarchy of cameras they stood even below Praktica, which was a long way down. "Made in USSR" was synonymous for poor quality and a high malfunction rate, which was deserved. Because Soviet-Russian cameras were so cheap and lacking in features, they were the ultimate amateur cameras, and fashionably looked down upon by "real" photographers. Nonetheless they did pretty well in Germany, The Netherlands and further East. In Great Britain, a firm called Technical and Optical Equipment imported many Russian optical products.
Factories in the Soviet Union didn't operate alone like in the western free market system, but were integrated into the very fabric of the Soviet economic system. They were peons in a network of government institutions, suppliers and satellite plants. They took their orders from above, produced their products, and fed them on to the next balloon in the economy flowchart. The whole organisation was more one big machine than the familiar Western system of individual competing factories. Take KMZ for instance: it formed a Production Union (PO) with a number of satellite factories like Valdai and ROMZ, for which it served as the spider in the web. These satellite factories, though sometimes separated by great distances, worked harmoniously with KMZ on a single product. Another consequence of the integration was that through the intervention of the government, all Soviet civil-optical factories were more or less linked together. There was often an exchange of expertise and even construction plans, like in the example of KMZ creating lenses for the early Kievs, or MMZ manufacturing GOMZ's Estafeta. Though each factory did form its own culture with its own pride and corporate mores, there was no real rivalry in the western sense. This, of course, also did not encourage technological advancement.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the introduction of the free market system, lots of factories were faced with huge problems. To hide unemployment they had been hugely overstaffed for decades, but now they had to slim down to survive, but sacking the lot and reorganizing was not socially acceptable. Also, the whole corporate culture needed to change to adapt to the free market. They used to be organized around production based on government plans, but all of a sudden they have to be competitive and innovative. They needed to learn to manufacture for profit – which logically led to the massive slim-downs they couldn't humanly enforce. For the first time they were confronted with the inferiority of their products, but had no time or money to improve them to world standards.
The escape for most Soviet-Russian camera manufacturers was to assess their strengths and stick with them. In most cases that meant manufacturing for the domestic market and manufacturing niche products for export. KMZ focused itself on cameras like the Horizon-202, the Horizon-205, the Fotosnaiper series, the Zenit F-21, night viewing devices; and lenses like the Russar and the Zenitar fisheye in Leica-R and Nikon mount. Arsenal focused on its traditional strength of affordable medium format cameras. FED saw that its camera production was inviable, dropped it altogether and switched to other branches of industry. LOMO got a lucky break with LOMOgraphy. MMZ/BelOMO produces the Peleng fisheyes, along with domestic cameras.
Who knows what the future will bring? I don't know whether the Russian optical industry has the expertise and technology to adapt to the digital revolution, but then it seems film cameras will be in vogue for some time to come. Especially the niche ones.