When we think of Belarus, not that we do very often, many think of unstable and shifting governance, Eastern Orthodoxy, and in my experience, some astonishingly beautiful women. It’s the former Soviet Union that would typify our thoughts and all that goes along with it; the only way cameras fit into that generally is the association with ‘spy.’ Zenit, or Zenith, as a camera brand, is a relic of the Cold War, and like the Cold War, it’s trying for a comeback.
The Russian tech firm Rostec is the parent company to some 700 or so organizations. A large part of their business is the exporting of Russian-made goods and is often referred to as ‘state corporation,’ given its strange and special entity status. As recently as 2014, Russian PM Dmitry Medvedev brought up the topic of exhuming the camera brand, and now Rostec is going to do just that. Not only are they going to do that, but they’re aiming for the heart of the red sun that is Leica.
This is a very high demand product, we want to make it a luxury device, by analogy with the Leica.
That’s the news in brief, but what does this mean? It actually warrants a little bit of reflection about our current industry because Leica, whatever your feelings about them may be, are still the producers of just about the finest photographic pieces; even if you don’t buy that per se, the world does. So trying to take on Leica seems extremely ambitious. To quote the immortal genius of Jesse from The Fast & The Furious, “…you just can’t climb in the ring with Ali ’cause you think you box.’”
Zenit never enjoyed much success in North America, despite producing some 15 million units. Actually, they’ve never enjoyed much success period. I’ve only ever played with one, in England, and it was an old Zenit E; a heavy, lumbering, cumbersome, pile-driver of a thing. It was hideous, and apparently rather crap, despite even in its birth years trying to take the comparison to Leica. Zenit even had their screw mount be 39mm, making for a tasty likening to the Leica thread mount, L39. They’ve been trying to be Leica from the start in some ways, but wanting to embody something totally different in others.
The Zenit cameras were made with an approach similar to how many Soviet and Russian military pieces are designed, somewhat reminiscent of then young tank sergeant Mikhail Kalashnikov and his AK47. Kalashnikov was wounded and in the hospital when he dreamt it up, and what he dreamt up was a completely simple machine, no more sophisticated than a mousetrap. You could abuse an AK to no end, submerge it in water, mud, forget it was there for years, and it would still work when you found it again. The mentality of machinery from this area at this time was simplicity, durability, and affordability above all else (not ability), so it could be taken apart, fixed, and rebuilt in the middle of a Russian winter, by someone aged 5, with his pocket money.
*The irony isn’t lost on me that the AK47 was born to put the Germans in their place – though it came about 2 years after Hilter was no more.
This can’t work with cameras, and Zenit’s failure is example of that. Cameras aren’t like guns, despite Zenit’s ambitions to prove otherwise, as evidenced by the Photosniper12S modeled to work like a gun. Cameras are objects of finer materials – of character, precision, and personality if we’re talking about Leica here. There is nothing refined or beautiful about a Zenit, the product or what it produces. Walking around with one looks like you’re carrying Optimus Prime’s face, and feels like it too, whereas walking around with a Leica is like walking around with Heidi Klum.
So what are they talking about in terms of ‘high demand product’? What is it they’re going to bring to the table? This to me is a feeble attempt to prop up their economy and honestly, there is a void in the market that they could possibly be placed to fill, like that left by Voigtlander, and possibly even better if they went with film bodies to begin. In terms of digital with a lower-priced vintage feel, but a modern built style is what we get with Fuji, and Sony to some extent, but to get that older film vibe of higher quality, it’s really only Leica.
Here’s the thing too, those that want a Leica, aren’t just buying it for superior optics and form, but the whole ‘golden glove’ feel of buying into a heritage Leica worked hard to develop and maintain. A Leica tends to be more than the sum of its parts, whereas a Zenit is just a collection of them.