Kiev Rangefinders  by Peter Hennig  

Pre-war Zeiss Contax III, as new from factory

Most Zeiss Contax II/III enthusiasts are familiar with the Soviet Union's Contax copy, the Kiev. However, accurate Kiev information has not been widely available in the West. In most cases, Kiev cameras have been neglected as a Soviet plagiarism of low quality. Even interest in finding out what kind of camera the Kiev really is has been limited, in part because of Cold War stereotypes.

The true nature of the Kiev was pointed out in a very expressive way by a seller of Russian cameras in Sweden, right after the fall of the Soviet Union: “This is not a Soviet camera - it is a German camera, made in the Soviet Union” As a matter of fact, by these few words, he stated the essence of the origin of this camera. The Kiev camera is no plagiarism at all, but a legal replica of the Contax camera, made in the Soviet republic of Ukraine. You could say that, in some respects, the Kiev camera belongs more to the Zeiss hemisphere, than to the Russian one.

Kiev Beginnings 

After the end of World War II in 1945, Germany had to pay war reparations according to the peace agreement. Among many well-known German products, the Russians demanded the famous Zeiss Contax II and Contax III cameras as war reparations. Before the war and until the factory was destroyed by bombing, Contax cameras were made by Zeiss Ikon AG in Dresden, the capital of the German camera industry - now in the Russian zone of the occupied Germany.

Paying reparations is of course not a voluntary act - but it is perfectly legal. The Russians wanted everything, but the name - and they got everything, but the name.

Because of the destruction in Dresden in the mass allied bombing attack of February 1945, Zeiss Ikon had little capability in carrying through any camera project at the war's end. The Soviet armed forces dismantled the company of all functioning Contax production equipment and spare parts soon after occupying the city of Dresden.   

1947 "Spare Parts" Kiev with script re-engraved front plate

Contax production facilities and parts were shipped to the Soviet Union. At the same time, late in 1945 the centre of the Zeiss companies Carl Zeiss in Jena was strongly occupied in restoring the business group and getting back to a reasonable capacity in a new civilian production. The leading persons of the company had been taken by the American military forces, and moved to the western part of Germany shortly before the Soviet Army arrived. In Jena Dr. Hugo Schrade was forming a new leadership, authorised by the removed company management.

The Soviet occupation force, the SMAD (Soviet Military Administration of Germany), offered some good paying projects, but also a lot of orders that could not be rejected. Among them, Zeiss were informed that the Russians intended to set up a production of 5000 Contax cameras a month in a suitable location in the Soviet Union. The working name of this camera project was ordered to be “Volga”. Obviously the SMAD realized that the production facilities taken in Dresden were far from adequate for setting up Contax camera production. Therefore the order was given directly at the highest level by Soviet General Sokolov to central Zeiss management, to restore the Contax production line as fast as possible, and to set up pilot production in Germany of the Contax camera. Three complete production lines were supposed to be built, two for the Soviet Union, and one to be used by Zeiss in Germany. The pressure was very hard on Zeiss, as the company was classed as a first class war industry, and thereby exposed to the threat of total dismantling according to the Yalta agreement signed by the Allies.

On direct appointment by Dr. Hugo Schrade, Mr Wolfgang Hahn an engineer who had survived the war, was placed in charge to take the administrative lead of restoring Contax production. The task was close to impossible. A Contax III camera is constructed from 22,000 controlling measurements in 600 drawings, describing 730 parts in detail. At the disposal of Mr. Hahn and his colleagues from Zeiss Ikon and Carl Zeiss, were some existing cameras and 24x36 film containing drawings, but lacking all measurement data. Despite all this, the Contax group succeeded in setting up new Contax production during the year of 1946 - truly a miracle.

Early drawing in the Jena project using the name ”Volga”

In 1947 approximately 2000 Contax cameras were officially built in this project at the Zeiss factory in Jena. The majority of these were the Contax II model, along with a few Contax III and some others wearing the new name; KIEV in heavy Cyrillic block letters. There were also an unknown number of cameras built unofficially. Parts were smuggled by members of the staff, and assembled at home in to a complete numberless cameras for selling on the black market. This was an unofficially accepted method for key persons to get food on the table in those hard days. Also the company itself assembled both numberless Contax and Kiev engraved cameras, probably as bribes for the use in the SMAD administration, in order to get raw material and other kinds of favours.

Post war Zeiss Contax II produced at Jena, with factory flash sync 


Assembling of Kiev cameras in Jena

 In October 1947, Zeiss delivered all three of the completed newly built Contax production lines as war reparation to the Soviet Union. The promise by SMAD, concerning the third production line for Zeiss production in Germany was not worth the paper they were written on in those days.

The transmission of the Contax production facilities from Germany to the Soviet Union was closed by a written contract. However, after the delivery of the three Contax production lines to the Soviet Union, limited quantities of the Contax cameras were still being built by Carl Zeiss Jena, well into the early 1950’s.

 1947 Contax II produced at Jena engraved "Na pamjat" (to remember). It was probably a gift to some high ranked Soviet technician

The production start of the Kiev camera in the Soviet Union

In October 1946, after the success of the beginning phase of the Carl Zeiss Jena-Contax project, Wolfgang Hahn and some of his colleagues were taken by force by the SMAD, and rapidly transported to the town of Kiev in Ukraine. The order to set up the new Russian camera production was giving during transport, however no further workers or technicians from the ongoing Carl Zeiss Jena-Contax project were taken. The Jena project went on in parallel to the first production training in Kiev at the company Zavod Arsenal.

The government-owned Arsenal Works at the garrison of Kiev was founded in 1764 in order to manufacture artillery pieces. After 1917, agricultural machines, instruments, and domestic products were in the offering.

During the war this Company was evacuated to Siberia, and they continued some production under primitive circumstances. Simple temporary hovels were built out in the open fields, electricity was connected, and the workers started running their machines. Due to the special circumstances, most of the workers never returned to Kiev at the end of the war. Zavod Arsenal had to be completely restored, and new staff had to be educated.

At their arrival in Kiev at Zavod Arsenal, Wolfgang Hahn and his colleagues found a number of large boxes containing the machinery and the parts taken from Zeiss Ikon AG in Dresden. The equipment was in good shape, nothing was damaged during transport. This made it possible to start a training program in manufacturing the Contax camera. However, as Hahn and his colleagues were mostly administrators and technicians on a general basis, they had to learn the machinery, tools, and parts themselves first!

Wolfgang Hahn at the age of 90 years

The camera production was to take place in the oldest part of the Arsenal, built in 1764. The walls were 1,3 meter thick, and the windows rather small. The machinery was supposed to be laid out according to a Russian plan which was not to be changed. However, when the installation was approved by Russian control system, the machines could be moved to a better location for the production.

The stress on quantities in the production was marked from the very beginning. The Germans noticed that some of the workers in other parts of the factory had some small red flags placed on their machines. One flag meant that the worker was one year ahead on his set production goals. Two flags meant two years, etc. Hahn told the Russians that such a system was not compatible with the Zeiss system of quality standards. Unfortunately, the Russians did not understand a word of this.

One of the first four cameras assembled in Kiev (the lens and the logo are later) 

The new staff were to be trained for the camera production to come. These were rural people from the close surroundings of the city of Kiev. No one had any technical background, but they were dutiful and hardworking people, and they held their German masters in high regard. By the help of tight, simple routines, functioning step by step, it turned out to be possible to assemble this complicated camera. A few hundred cameras were built during this training project late in 1946 and during the year of 1947. Most of these cameras contain 100% parts made in Dresden, but by the end some parts were delivered from the parallel project in Jena. The front plate was Contax original, but re-engraved with a special script logo. The Kiev script name being on the front and the original Contax engraving is still visible on the back side.

After the arrival of the three Jena-built Contax production lines in October 1947, the preparation for a full scale production could take place. However, during 1948 just limited quantities left the factory, and it seems to be the case that the real serial production started in 1949.

The Ultimate Replica  

1947 Kiev II, made at the Zeiss Jena factory in Germany. 

1949 Kiev III

Parallel to Contax II and Contax III, the first Kiev models were named Kiev II and Kiev III (in later series they were designated as Kiev 2 and Kiev 3). These cameras are true replicas in all details of the Contax camera. It is obvious that the level of ambitions was very high at Zavod Arsenal in the early stage of the production. Both the choice of materials, and the mechanical construction, as well as the look of the camera, are practically identical to Contax. If you place a shutter- and film transport mechanism from an early Kiev beside one from the Contax - it will take a skilled specialist a close study in order to separate them to differentiate them. Therefore, parts from early Kiev and Contax cameras, are perfectly interchangeable in most cases.

Yet it is possible to detect one functional difference between the Zeiss Contax II/III and the Kiev copies: While there are compatibilities between the two systems, Zavod Arsenal apparently decided not to meet the same high level of Zeiss accuracy in regards to the lens back focus, the distance between the lens and the film plane. Kiev cameras practically always have a slightly longer back focus than original Contax specifications (if you chose a lower accuracy this will be the best way - as the depth of field is larger behind the motive, than in front of it). This phenomenon, and others similar to come, will follow the Kiev camera the entire production period - and this leads us right on to the basic problem in this production.

The Zeiss standard of the distance between lens and film plane. 35 mm within +0.01 mm/-0.03 mm

Incompatible Goals

When the SMAD first confronted Zeiss Ikon AG to the Russian plans of Contax production in September 1945, the Soviet plan was to assemble 5000 cameras a month in a suitable location in the Soviet Union. This is approximately five times as much as the production at Zeiss Ikon AG in the period 1936 - 1943. At the same time, the order was to achieve a replica that was as good as the Contax. It is obvious that such circumstances must end up in a conflict of goals - as the camera to a great extent is built by hand, and though this type of quality production in those days, implied a long row of time-consuming manual control points and back-checking procedures, during the assembling of the camera.

In a production of this delicate nature, you will not double the production by doubling the manpower. There will also be certain limits in the total amount of persons possible to involve in a functional way in such a system. If that limit is already reached - the only way to increase the production, will be to simplify the process.

The stress on the politically ordered production quantities, expressed by such routines as the red flag system, did not make the Incompatible Goal conflict easier to solve.

The First Production Period

In the first half of the 1950īs, it seems that Kiev production was limited to approximately the same as by pre-war Zeiss Ikon AG. The camera that went on to the market, was a product of high quality, obtainable just by special persons in the Soviet Union, and used as status-increasing export. Today this fact has been discovered by many collectors - good Kiev II and Kiev III cameras are reaching about the same price levels as Contax cameras.

In 1954, Zavod Arsenal introduced a small pre-production serial of a flash synchronized Kiev 2, and in the middle of 1956, the official introduction of the flash synchronization takes place. The new cameras are designated Kiev 2 A, and Kiev 3 A.

1956 Kiev 3A commemorating the 1956 Congress of the Communist Party

In this period, the pressure of increasing production becomes visible in small details: The arrow on the rewind knob is losing its feathers, and the part surrounding the releasing knob, is no longer polished before the chromium plating. At the end of the 1950´s - still at a very high quality level in about 90% of the production, Zavod Arsenal is reaching a production result of approx. 3500 cameras a month.

Keeping up with the West German Jones's

In the 1950´s the Contax IIa and the Contax IIIa made by Zeiss Ikon AG in Stuttgart were of highest status at the camera market. Zavod Arsenal were influenced by the look of their West German competitors. In 1957-58 Zavod Arsenal designed some new Kiev prototype cameras, besides the ordinary production Kiev 2 A and Kiev 3 A.

The new camera has an exposure meter in outer appearance equal to the one of the Contax IIIa. The inner function however, is like the old meter. As a matter of fact, it is a simplified miniature variant of the Kiev 3 A meter - that made it possible to speed up the production further. The new camera back is, both in appearance and construction, like the Contax IIa and the Contax IIIa. This was not a very clever move, as the result will be a use of the back of the Contax IIa/IIIa on the film plane of the Contax II/III. It caused film flatness problems, especially since they abandoned the extra vertical spring at the film pressure plate (as in later Contax IIa/IIIa) a few years after production started. The official production starts in 1960, and the name of the new cameras are Kiev 4 and Kiev 4 A. From now on, the “A” stands for the camera without exposure meter.   


"No Name" Kiev 4A

A "No Name" Kiev 4A was also produced in 1963/64 which is often incorrectly called the "No Name Contax." They can be identified as Kiev's by the serial number starting with 63/64, and the flash sync on the left front body.

During the 1960´s more serious quality problems occurred in the form of careless assembling and use of parts that should have been rejected. Despite this, up to 80 % of the production is still very Contax-like. The process of simplifying continued. In 1964 the gravure of the distance scale on the side of the bayonet drum was abandoned. From about 1966 the two lenses of the rangefinder ocular are no longer adjustable. This will later on cause sharpness problems in the split image in the range finder.

Modernization Project

In 1968-69, Zavod Arsenal released a kind of test balloon beside the ordinary production, a camera that in the appearance diverged a lot from previous Contax-style cameras. The camera was the Kiev 5. It offered a large and bright finder, and a frameline for the standard 50mm lens. In the camera body there is an integrated light meter, and the film is advanced by a lever. Unfortunately, the camera was heavy and clumsy, and was not accepted, even by the hard supply controlled (and for the consumer limited) market in the communistic Soviet Union. In use the Kiev 5 turned out to be a rather complicated camera which was often impossible to get in working condition under Soviet production circumstances. The Kiev 5 project was gradually ended during the 1970’s. The Kiev 5 dispensed with the time-honored Contax-style focusing wheel and infinity lock. The 50 mm lenses used the outer bayonet mount, but would not fit other Kiev or Contax cameras. The advance lever tended to be unreliable, but was more dependable if the film was advanced by the knob, rather than the lever.  

The Kiev 5 with prototype Record 4 52/0.9 lens from 1971.  If produced, it would have been the fastest production full frame rangefinder normal lens 

Huge Quality Drop

Instead of the Kiev 5, Zavod Arsenal turned back to new models of the previous Kiev cameras. These models have no specific model designations, but could be called Kiev 4 model 2, and Kiev 4 A model 2.

Now the body covering previously made of genuine leather is abandoned in favor of synthetic materials. The front plate has a new shape, that will cover the little “bulb” that covered part of the main wheel in the mechanism (to the left of the front plate). By this change the rather stiff synthetic clothing became easier to install. The highest shutter speed 1/1250 was replaced by 1/1000 - as this saved a lot of adjustment time in the assembling process. These changes were introduced gradually in the period 1973-1975.

The changes to these new models, represent the most dramatic drop in the quality of the Kiev cameras during their entire production history. This is not at first a result of changes in the construction and the choice of materials - but rather the result of careless assembling, and a high acceptance of parts that should have been rejected. Also the simplifying of parts went on - e.g. the distance scale part is not polished before the chromium plating any longer, and the gravure is clumsy. This gives the entire camera an unpleasant look. It is also interesting to note, that in those days, the technicians who got their education at Carl Zeiss Jena, in 1946-47 went in retirement.

By this drop in the assembling quality, the most fantastic phenomenon of the Kiev camera become visible: Despite all careless assembling, and defective parts - most cameras still functioned within reasonable tolerances. The basic concept of the mechanism was so well designed from the very beginning, that its tolerance of assembling mistakes seems to be endless. This is a great credit to the designers and constructors at Zeiss, back in the 1930´s: Dr Heinz Küppenbender, Professor Emanuel Goldberg, and the Zeiss Ikon construction department under Mr. Hubert Nerwin.

the 1,000,000th Kiev,  a 1975 Kiev 4 model 2.  Far more Kievs were produced than the original German Contax.

Late Production

In the same way as in the 1960´s, new models of the Kiev camera are at the construction table in the middle of the 1970´s. A pre-production serial occurred in 1976, besides the ordinary production of the Kiev 4 and the Kiev 4 A model 2. Curiously enough, this test serial has a front plate in chromium, but the top is in black painting - the camera could be addressed as; Kiev, Black & White. Functional news in this model is a black film transport knob of expanded diameter, a flash hot shoe, a non-removable film take-up spool, a rewind crank, and an automatic releasing of the film transport wheel by one of the locking cranks on the camera back. The new models are designated as Kiev 4 M and Kiev 4 AM, and the official production started in 1979.

1976 Kiev Black & White Prototype

This is the period of the lowest workmanship at Zavod Arsenal. A certain amount of these cameras did not work at all when leaving the factory. Unverified rumors from the east, claim that in 1981 a delegation from the central authorities in Moscow suddenly arrived at Zavod Arsenal in Kiev. The production from the last two months was rejected, destroyed, and sent directly to the city dump.

In the Soviet Union a network of specialised workshops was developed in order to handle problems of this kind. First you bought your camera at a low socialistic price. Then you realised that the camera did not function fully - you had to visit the specialised workshop. After paying this part of the affair as well, the total cost was about the same as a similar type of camera in the west.

From 1982 onward Zavod Arsenal managed to increase quality a little bit. They also fulfilled the original plan of 5000 cameras a month - but the Contax quality was gone. The final series of the Kiev 4 M and Kiev 4 AM cameras left the factory in 1986.

Considering the fact that this camera first entered the market in 1936 as the Contax II, principally the same construction was built half a century - a neat record.

Peter Hennig is a well known Contax/Kiev expert, photographer, and repairman. His works include articles published in the Journal of the Zeiss Historica Society. He writes: "The information in this article are from my own long experience in using and repairing Contax and Kiev cameras. The facts concerning the transmission process of the Contax production facilities from Germany to the Soviet Union, are founded on sources from the archive of Carl Zeiss Jena, and on a written statement from Mr. Wolfgang Hahn who lead the setting up of the Carl Zeiss Jena-Contax project, as well as the production start at Zavod Arsenal in Kiev, Ukraine. There is also a written statement from Mr. Werner Widder, who worked in the Carl Zeiss Jena-project in 1946-1947." All photos on this page are copyright Milos Paul Mladek 2002, all rights reserved. Wolfgang Hahn copyrighted by Larry Gubas 2005. Text on this page is copyrighted by Peter Hennig 2005, all rights reserved.