Even after decades of bringing technical innovation to everything from cameras to automobiles, the Japanese still have a reputation as great copiers. The sophisticated modern version of this persistent myth is that the Japanese are great assimilators of basic Western research, who mask their dearth of original ideas behind a formidable product development and production technology. As with most sweeping generalizations, there is a smattering of truth in this simplistic, ethnocentric view, but if you really expect to find today's great camera copiers you've got to swing your sights a bit farther to the West -- to the Russians, to be exact.
Now before you start snickering about the Russians' penchant for swiping pre-war German and, lately, Japanese and European camera designs, just remember that the Keystone Everflash (a decent but simple point-and-shooter) is currently the only 35mm camera made in the U.S. In contrast, the Russians turn out over a dozen different 35mm SLRs in at least four different mount configurations, a wide variety of simple snapshot 35s, including a dandy half-framer and an autofocus model based on Konica's original, about half a dozen different interchangeable lens rangefinder 35s in two different lens systems, medium format cameras ranging from simple scale-focus models to professional, interchangeable lens SLR systems with full lens lines, plus a host of pro movie equipment. And speaking of lenses, whatever stones you cast at the Russkys for derivative designs and (at times) mediocre quality control will seldom smash their lenses, which generally vary from good to outstanding in performance. With all this in mind, let's look at some new Russian cameras.
If you want to make a good case that the Russians can be out-and-out plagiarists, you can hardly choose a better example than the Elikon-1, an Olympus XA clone not made under license. While the quality of the plastic body moldings is less refined on the USSR-made version, the shape and features are unmistakable. The Russians have faithfully copied the sliding "lens barrier," vertical aperture scale on the front, meter cell port over the lens, and milled wheel film-wind device on the back. Even the film speed dial and knurled setting ring below the lens, the large, flat shutter button on top, and the frame counter have been painstakingly reproduced. Not shown here is the Electronika FE29 flash, a knock-off of the Olympus A11 unit, which screws into the left-hand side. As you'd expect, the Elikon's tech specs are nearly identical to the XA's: 35mm f/2.8 Minitar-2 lens, which focuses down to 0.8m, electronically controlled interlens leaf shutter with speeds from 10--1/500 sec, and 0.55x finder.
Although I didn't have a chance to shoot with the Elikon, I did examine it briefly. It seems to be well made, its controls operate smoothly, and its rangeviewfinder is quite good. In overall feel and elegance it doesn't match the Japanese original and its shutter release isn't as smooth. What will happen if and when Elikon Is begin to appear in Western markets? Olympus might have good grounds for a design infringement lawsuit, but they shouldn't bother.
Additional unabashed Russian copies of other countries' compact 35s are scale-focusing models. The Lomo-Kompakt M (aka Smena-18 1)) looks like a twin brother of the Japanese Cosina CX-2, and the Kiev-35A is unquestionably a knock-off of the Minox 35EL, the first model of the German-made Minox 35. Like its Japanese predecessor, the Lomo features programmed autoexposure, interlens leaf shutter with speeds from 2--1/500 sec, slow shutter warning LED, hot shoe, and a 32mm f/2.8 (Minitar) lens with focusing to 0.8m. However, unlike the Cosina, the front lens surround doesn't turn to open and close the lens and viewfinder protectors — a simpler lever arrangement does the job. The latest version of the Kiev-35A, however, is almost as nicely crafted as the original Minox 35EL and provides electronically controlled leaf shutter with speeds from 4--1/500 sec, 35mm f/2.8 Korsar lens, which gets down to 1 meter, overexposure and slow shutter warning LEDs and needle type shutter-speed readout in the finder. This camera is a flagrant copy and sufficiently well executed to inspire litigation.
Of course not all Russian cameras are such definitive imitations. The new Zenit Avtomat 2) SLR is certainly Japanese inspired, but it's what might be called a universal Japanese SLR instead of a copy of a specific model. Hailed in the Russian catalogs as "a member of a new generation of the Zenit family," it is really nothing more than an aperture-preferred autoexposure SLR with a vertical metal-blade 3) focal-plane shutter with speeds from 1--1/1000 sec. plus B and sync at 1/60 sec. Concessions to the 80s include (gee, wow) an electronic self-timer with LED indicator, an electromagnetic shutter release, and your choice of a 58mm f/2 Helios-44K-4 or a 50mm f/1.8 Helios-77K-4 lens in Pentax-type K bayonet mount. You can also opt for a similar looking Zenit 14 with semi-automatic, match-LED metering. But perhaps the funniest pair of lovably derivative 35mm SLRs from the Motherland are the Kiev-20 and the Almaz-103. The latter is Russia's version of the Nikon F2 (or maybe a Nikon F with sleeker looking pentaprism), a rugged, hefty, meterless machine incorporating a metal-blade focal-plane shutter with speeds from 1--1/1000 sec. plus B, mechanical self-timer, depth-of-field preview button, and (would you believe?) a Pentax K mount (standard lens is a 50mm f/1.8 Volna made by Lomo).
Not content with unleashing a Nikon with a Pentax mount, those inscrutable Russians set about making (you guessed it) a Pentax look-alike with a standard Nikon F mount! It's called a Kiev-20 and it's a match-LED-metering SLR whose body contours are reminiscent of a Pentax Spotmatic. Main features include open-aperture through-lens metering, metal-blade focal-plane shutter with speeds from 1--1/1000 sec. plus B, and multi-exposure capability. One non-Pentaxy feature is the round dial on the front of the camera to the left of the lens, which is, believe it or not, the shutter-speed dial, which might have been lifted off an old Ricoh TLS.
If you think Russian design pilferage is limited to Western Bloc cameras, guess again. The grand and majestic Kiev-60 TTL, a professional 2 1/4 square SLR with the lenses to prove it, is nothing more than a lightly reworked version of the East German Prakatisix/Pentacon 6, which accepts the same lenses and (I think) top-mounted finder accessories. Its cloth focal-plane shutter provides speeds from 1/2 to 1/1000 sec. plus B, its 80mm f/2.8 Volna-3B MC lens focuses to 0.6m (2 ft.), and unlike its DDR-made forebear's, its wind-lever axis revolves with an amusingly eccentric motion as you advance the film. The through-lens meter prism displays three metering LEDs in the finder and provides a reasonably bright, contrasty focusing image. But alas, it's of the uncoupled, transfer-the-setting type.
Are the Russians, then, incapable of producing any original cameras? Certainly not, as any owner of an old spring-wound Leningrad rangefinder 35 or an ultraminiature Narciss SLR would be pleased to prove. Of currently made Russian cameras, my favorite original is the half-frame (18x24mm) Agat-18, an unassuming little plastic bonbon with a scale-focusing 28mm f/2.8 Industar lens that stops down to f/16, interlens leaf shutter with speeds from 1/60--1/250, knurled film-wind wheel, and a bright orange shutter release button. And where can you get any or all of these fascinating beasties from the other side of the Shutter Curtain? Regrettably it ain't easy, since Eastern Bloc countries evidently have first call on the latest Russian cameras while we filthy capitalists must content ourselves with the latest stuff from Japan or old-fashioned Russian models that have been in production at least a decade or two. One Amerikansky who's trying to change this sad situation is Arthur Goldstein of Goldstein Imports, 30 Vesey St. New York, NY 10007, the current U.S. importer of Russian cameras. Maybe if enough of us pester him, he can persuade the commisars that there really is a U.S. market for Russian cameras. It's enough to make you weep in your Stolichnaya.
Russian Olympus XA? It's not as refined or elegant as the XA, but design wise the Elikon-1 comes pretty darn close.
How about AVTOMATIC exposure? The Zenit Avtomat SLR will give you aperture-preferred AE plus manual shutter speed settings via finder LEDs.
Russian Minox 35? Almost, but Kiev-35A is a clone of original Minox EL.
Nikon-inspired Almaz-103 (below) has Pentax K mount while Pentaxish Kiev-20 sports 52mm f/1.4 in Nikon mount.
A pair of Russian cheapies: Agat-18 (above) is a cute half-frame Russian original; Smena-18 1) is a copy of Cosina CX-2.
What will Russian pros shoot with? Perhaps a nice, big 2 1/4 SLR like this Kiev-60 with TTL meter prism. It's very well made but hardly original (see text).