Published in HISTORY OF PHOTOGRAPHY, VOLUME 3, NUMBER 2, APRIL 1979
The Dzerzhinsky Commune:
Birth of the Soviet 35mm Camera Industry
by Oscar Fricke
The Soviet photographic industry was born in a manner very different from that in Western society. Pre-Revolutionary Russia did not have a domestic camera industry. The small Russian optics industry was dominated by foreigners, and all cameras, paper and accessories were imported. The Soviet camera industry emerged only during the late 1920s and early 1930s, a period of experiment and general social upheaval which followed the October 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and the ensuing civil war. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was officially created in 1923, Lenin died in 1924, and Stalin had begun his rise to power. The first Soviet cameras were produced during Stalin's push for the industrial and economic transformation of Russia.
The Soviet Union's first 35 mm camera was the FED, first produced by the F. E. Dzerzhinsky Labour Commune in Kharkov, then the capital of the Ukraine. Initially a colony for the rehabilitation of youth, the commune had been created as a memorial to Felix Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Soviet secret police. The person responsible for the unique path which the commune was to follow was its director, Anton Semyonovich Makarenko, who became famous, not in photography, but in Soviet education. In many ways the early history of the FED reflects in microcosm the changes the country was undergoing.
The original FED cameras were a limited number of straight Leica I (A) copies produced in 1932-33, the first of many Leica imitations. Thus FED is one of the oldest surviving names in 35 mm photographic equipment. When the production of FED Leica II (D) copies began in 1934, they marked a milestone in Soviet photography, becoming the first Soviet small-format camera to be mass-produced and only the second major Soviet camera of any type. Production of this model continued for over 20 years, during which time only small changes were made in the camera's appearance and mechanism. Ironically, the total production of FED and other Soviet Leica II copies greatly exceeded that of genuine Leitz Leica IIs, and may have even surpassed the output of screw-mount Leicas of all types...