Today you gonna read me delve even deeper into madness and talk Russian lenses. Shall we? Ok, now. Once the bug has bitten you and you have the old glass flu, russky lenses are so conspicuously there that you can’t ignore them. Many despise old Soviet glass out of plain prejudice: because it’s a product of the commie economy. Which sure had its issues, but we are talking glass & helicoids now.
For all of those who talk crap on Soviet lenses without knowing shit: you should know that when most Soviet lenses first hit the (very controlled commie countries’ only) market in the 1950s, they were on par with its Western counterparts (I won’t say ‘competition’ because they didn’t share markets), both mechanically and optically. Take into account that many optical legends like the Biotar, the Macro-Switar, the Zoomar, the Angeniéux Rètrofocus, the first Summicron… were mass marketed for the first time in the 50’s.
Other haters point at the fact that many Soviet lens designs were ripoffs of German prewar glass. Sigh. If they gave me a penny… When you repeat a lie often enough, it will become truth. And I’m quoting a very German, very infamous. politician, by the way. Ah, the Germans! Yes, it is true that many of the optical designs that the russkies kept rinsing and repeating into their products up until today were formulated in Germany, but it is also true that it was as legal as chewing gum, because after WW2 all German patents everywhere were deemed void and so it was legal to make your own version of anything German. Some Germans have been whining at the world for this until this very day. Baron I’s two cents? Vae victis, motherfucker: you deserved worse. Some even have the nerve of saying that after the war Soviet troops looted unfinished samples and even entire assembly lines from those poor innocent German factories. Wooohoo, baby, you just stepped on my balls now. It’s true that Uncle Joe took back home unfinished samples, assembly lines, and even German engineers to rebuild Soviet opticomechanical industry, but he did so as war reparations to compensate for the at least TWENTY MILLION DEAD that cost him going from Siberia all the way to Berlin to oust the fascist varmint, that scourge of humanity that was the German Nazi regime, out of its lair. So yes, German blueprints and whole industries were taken as a meager compensation for all the suffering the Soviet people had to endure because of that silly German enterprise of world domination that was the Third Reich. I’m sure that if the Soviet people had been given the choice, they would have told the Germans to shove their tech up their asses instead of having their country invaded and their kin killed by the tens of millions, but they weren’t, so ignorants should really stop complaining about war reparations paid to the Soviet Union.
Now, we’re talking. So now that we have established once and for all that Soviet engineers using at leisure German patents and parts was as legal as chewing gum… What the Hell is so wrong about them being used? German lens designs such as the 5cm 1.5 Sonnar were as good in the 1950’s as they were in the 50’s. Even more, they were improved with lens coating techniques developed in the USSR, so they were actually one million times better lenses than their ‘original’ ancestors, which weren’t coated. So no, Soviet lenses were as good as it gets. In the beginning.
That is because Soviet photographic industry kept very good quality levels during decades… for the standards of the 1950’s. Soviet lenses after that show little change design-wise, especially mechanically, but also optically. As decades went on, it was clear that, for example, new barrel designs weren’t on par with new designs from other parts of the world, basically Japan. Now, what was on par with Japan in the seventies and eighties? With the guys that kicked everybody else’s asses in every market open to them? Nothing. The Japanese were best at making cameras and lenses than anyone was, had been or would be, period. Soviet lens factories survived the Japanese onslaught just because their markets were closed to exports from capitalist economies. But no competition also made innovation really sluggish in the USSR, particularly, I won’t ever say it enough times, when it comes to barrels and mechanics.
Much has been said about Russian quality control. And much has been exaggerated, I think. I have seen much Soviet gear, and by far the first cause of most samples being bad was abuse; much, much, more frequently than quality control issues. Let’s not forget that the newest products with ‘made in the USSR’ engraving are roughly a quarter of a century old, and that Soviet gear we buy, it is often much older than this. So yes, comparing a Jupiter-3 to a 50mm APO Summicron is unfair. Now, it’s true that you can’t compare an Industar 61 mechanics to that of a Leica lens, but this is something that has nothing to do with quality control, because the I-61 wasn’t designed to perform mechanically as well as any barrel made in Wetzlar. It’s not that the russkies wanted to achieve superb quality but botched it in the assembly line, it is just that their concerns were more in the direction of acceptable quality at a low cost, both material, labour, and design wise. So yes, there were few new optic arrangements being mass marketed, new mechanics were very simple, and Soviet industrial authorities just were reluctant on retiring the older ones.
Am I saying that Soviet lenses are fucking amazing. No. Well, yes, but for all the wrong reasons. I mean, if you’re in for quality, go buy the newest Canon L series lens in your favorite focal distance. They’re awesome and would overperform any Soviet lens by miles any day of the week.
But we GAS-bitten know better. We buy Soviet lenses because we love owning a piece of camera history and shooting with it; because older versions are chrome and shiny; because we prefer to own a ton of trashed and abused but cheap crap than a sensible selection of focal lengths, because seeing Cyrillic on a barrel gives us an instant hard-on, because the code names of Russian optical designs is music in our souls. Industar! Shout it three times: Industar! Industar! INDUSTAR! If I ever win a photo prize I will say I took the pic with an Industar, just because it sounds so badass. ‘You lost to me shooting with your big moolah Otus? I took this with my 20 buck Industar. IN YOUR FACE, MOTHERFUCKER.’ Wanting to shoot a Helios or a Jupiter is something that doesn’t come from our brains, unless you’re braindead. But oh boy, it’s great.
Seriously, I wouldn’t recommend a Soviet lens to everyone. Certainly don’t pick one if you don’t know what you’re doing and what you’re in for, but the same can be said about every other lens. Just do not roll your eyes when you see Cyrillic script on one and dare to try. Cut those commies some slack: they had a tough time. And most importantly, if you want some Russian piece of gear, first check my ebay store. If you don’t, God will kill a kitteh.