Camera Repairs and Equipment Distribution in the Soviet Union

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the editors of Sovetskoe foto received a large number of complaints regarding the state of camera repairs and the distribution of camera parts and equipment. While complaints about distribution were common, particularly developing chemicals and photo fixers, the letters received by the editors specifically referred to the availability of replacement parts and the problems facing amateurs whose cameras needed regular maintenance.

The problems being raised by amateur readers of the journal, according to the editors, were really threefold. First, when their cameras required maintenance, regular or otherwise, amateurs were unable to find qualified repair specialists even in Moscow and Leningrad. Second, many factories, based on output quotas, failed to produce replacement parts for recent camera models, including those that were less than five years old and also did not produce the necessary instruments required for camera repairs. Third, when spare parts orders were placed by repairmen to manufacturing warehouses, these work orders were often lost, ignored, or contained unneeded or unnecessary parts.[1]

Smena 1 2018-07-15 at 11.26.53 AM.png
Smena 1, 1952

The first problem was related to the latter two. Amateurs were not always able to repair or modify their own cameras, and this was due to the lack of available spare parts, but also their skill level. While the majority of photojournalists repaired their own cameras, many amateurs lacked the technical expertise to tinker with their own cameras, which were often lower quality, cheaper models to begin with. The professionals who did repair their own cameras were largely self-taught, and presumably had the means to purchase a replacement camera, should their attempts at repair fail. Furthermore, professionals often used older cameras, ignoring the contemporary automatic models.[2]

Repair personnel had little if any formal training themselves, and the majority were non-specialists who also worked on watches and small household appliances, including electric shavers, vacuum cleaners and irons. They often worked in cramped, dimly-lit, basement shops, as many as 10 people worked in the average 15-20 square meter workshop.[3] Those who received any training at all were usually former plant workers who attended a six-month seminar training program on camera repairs at the factory where they worked. But given the variety of camera models available for purchase, this hardly prepared them for working with the majority of domestic cameras and certainly not on foreign models. Similarly, the standard cost of camera repairs, set externally and not by repairmen, did not reflect the time one would need to repair more complicated models. Therefore, while the estimated cost and time of repairing a Smena and Kiev camera was the same, the latter required far more time and technical skill due to the intricacy of the device itself.[4]

Screen Shot 2018-07-15 at 11.29.40 AM.png
Zorki 5 with Industar-50 lens, 1959

To combat the lack of repair specialists, in the late 1960s and early 1970s there were some piecemeal attempts at further training. The Krasnogorsk Mechanical Plant collaborated with the Ministry of Public Services to train a number of specialists in repairing their Zorki and Zenit models. The Rostov and Kuibyshev educational and industrial complexes commissioned professional photographers and photojournalists to help train repairmen. Between 1969 and early 1972 the two programs had trained nearly 100 specialists, and projected that these programs would train a further 500 specialists by the completion of the Ninth Five-Year Plan in 1975 at a rate of 100 per year.[5] At the time Sovetskoe foto published its report on the state of camera repair work in January 1972, the journal was facilitating negotiations between the Ministry of Consumer Services in the RSFSR, the Deputy Chief of the Department “Glavrembytekhnika” in Ryazan and the Leningrad Optical and Mechanical Association to improve training programs.

The second and third issues, related to replacement parts and distribution. In an attempt to further assist camera repair workers, in 1971 the Ryazan regional production association “Rembytekhenika” produced prototypes of specialized tools for camera repairs, so that specialists would no longer need to rely on technical tools designed for repairing household appliances. “Rembytekhnika” forecast that by the end of 1972 all repair shops would be equipped with these tools, though there was no concrete production schedule.[6]

Screen Shot 2018-07-29 at 2.19.34 PM.png
Zorki-10 prototype, 1969

 

In the early 1970s, the successful delivery of replacement parts for cameras from factories and manufacturing warehouses was estimated to be 60-80%. This, however, masked the reality of the goods sent to repair shops. Often times, repair shops were required to purchase “kits” that involved a number of unnecessary spare parts that would then sit unused. Once new models were in circulation, factory equipment was repurposed for the production of new cameras and thus, factories lacked the ability to produce replacement parts. Manufacturing warehouses, where replacement and spare parts were stored for cameras still under warranty, often ignored work orders for months though they were meant to process these orders within 10 days. In one particularly egregious example, the 12th Camera Workshop in Moscow sent an order to the Krasnogorsk factory (23 km outside of Moscow) for a warranty repair of a Zorki-10. The replacement parts only arrived six months after the initial order was placed.[7] In another case, the 18th Camera Workshop in Moscow submitted an order for 24 parts worth 1,292 rubles to the Kiev Arsenal plant. The parts were never delivered.[8]

Screen Shot 2018-07-29 at 2.21.00 PM.png
Zorki-10, 1969

Because requests for replacement parts needed to be sent to specific factories and warehouses based on individual camera models, the margin of error for each individual work order was extremely high. While the Arsenal plant had a particularly unreliable reputation for replacement parts, in that they would often send and demand payment for unnecessary parts sent to workshops, the FED plant in Kharkiv, responsible for producing FED cameras, had a reputation for responding to work orders on time and upon first request.[9]

 

Screen Shot 2018-07-29 at 2.21.51 PM.png
FED 4, 1964-1980

What was most concerning for the editors of Sovetskoe foto was the issue of spare parts. In July 1971 Izvestiia reported that between 1971 and 1975 the production of cameras would increase by 160%. But the editors at Sovetskoe foto were quite anxious about these statistics. Amateur photographers did not and would not need new cameras if they were able to purchase replacement parts and have their existing cameras serviced properly: “In releasing the new models of photo and cinematographic cameras, it should also be remembered that [plants should] ensure the release of parts and repair shops for cameras already available to the population.”[10]

“The complaints of consumers and workshops are completely justified,” stated the Chief Specialist of the Department of Local Industry, Cultural and Household Goods and Consumer Services I. M. Belov. “The Ministry [of Public Services] does almost nothing to help repairmen,” and while Belov sympathized with amateur photographers, he blamed all deficiencies on the local and republican Ministries of Consumer Services and the State Planning Committee of the USSR.[11]

Screen Shot 2018-07-15 at 11.32.49 AM.png
Zenit-E with Helios 44-2 Lens, 1971

The problems associated with camera repairs as well as replacement parts, related not only to distribution, but that the Soviet command economy, while able to provide consumers with certain finished products, failed to take into account the needs of amateur photographers who didn’t necessarily want to replace their cameras, but instead repair them. These issues also related to education and technical expertise. Similarly, the size of bureaucratic organizations in charge of distribution, spread over multiple ministries, factories, warehouses both locally and across the Soviet Union that were unaffiliated with photography clubs and the photo section of the Union of Journalists, meant that those responsible for addressing distribution issues were able to pass the buck. Because no single organization was able to account for the peculiarities of equipment distribution, production and training, the result was that access was uneven and haphazard at best. At worst, it meant that amateur photographers were unable to have their cameras repaired (or find qualified people who were able to do so), were unable to rely on the warranties provided when they purchased their cameras, and even assuming they were able to find a reputable expert, could not necessarily depend on the factory/warehouse distributors to provide the necessary parts for repair in anything that resembled a timely manner based on the guidelines for processing orders.

While the Soviet economy ensured that goods were priced at a rate that the average citizen that could afford, the availability of specialist goods (i.e. camera parts) remained problematic. Similarly problematic was that the responsibility for delivering specialist goods was divided across multiple institutions and organizations that did not communicate with one another. As a result, apart from compiling reader complaints, Sovetskoe foto’s only recourse was to attempt facilitation between government ministries, and draw attention to the deficiencies in communication.

 

[1] Uluchshit’ obsluzhivanie fotoliubitelei, Sovetskoe foto no. 1, 41.

[2] Ibid, 41.

[3] Ibid, 41.

[4] Ibid, 41.

[5] Ibid, 41-2.

[6] Ibid, 41.

[7] Ibid, 41.

[8] Ibid, 41.

[9] Ibid, 41.

[10] Ibid, 42.

[11] Ibid, 42.

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