Olympic Zenits (Pic: Vladislav Kern)
Kilamr-branded Olympic Zenit Es (Pic: Vladislav Kern)

It’s 40 years since the Summer Olympics took place in Moscow. Kosmo Foto looks at the special Moscow Olympics commemorative cameras released to mark them.

In the summer of 1980, all eyes were on Moscow. For once, the centre of a secretive empire was open to the world.

The Games of the XXII Olympiad had come to Moscow, the first time the summer Olympics had been held in a communist country. In 1974, just two years after the terror-affected Munich games had been held, Moscow went up against only one other bidding city – Los Angeles – and won the vote by a landslide.

More than 60 years after the Bolshevik October Revolution, Moscow was closed to most of the world. The relative thaw of the 1960s Khrushchev years had been replaced with the icily detached Brezhnev era. It was arguably the chilliest height of the Cold War.

Olympics At the heart of Moscow’s Olympics merchandise was a cartoonish bear called Misha, a symbol smiling heartily from everything from badges to keyrings to ties and wall pendants. The bear cub was designed by Russian children’s book illustrator Viktor Chizhikov, and intended as a counter to the cliché of the menacing “Soviet bear”. But Misha was by no means the only merchandise made for the games.

At some point before the crowds arrived it was decided that each of the major Soviet camera makers – KMZ, Lomo, Arsenal (Kiev) and FED – would produce special commemorative editions of their cameras, sporting the official Moscow Olympic logo.

These cameras are a little reminder of Moscow’s games, four decades on.

Olympic Kievs (Pic: Vladislav Kern)
Olympic-branded Kiev cameras (Pic: Vladislav Kern)

The Soviets were not the only ones to release Olympic-edition cameras; Canon released a raft of commemorative cameras for the 1980 Salk Lake City Winter Olympics and the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics aswell. A boxed and unused Los Angeles Games Canon F-1 with accompanying documents can now set you back £1,300 ($1,750).

Two main emblems were used – the striking ‘skyscraper running track’ designed by Vladimir Arsentyev, and the five Olympic rings with “Moskva-80” above them. According to Alfred Klomp, whose camera site compiled a pretty comprehensive list in the early 2000s, the logos were applied to a number of the more common cameras produced at the time. A quick glance at Klomp’s list (below) shows all of the major Soviet camera manufacturers took part in the scheme (Arsenal also added the symbol to their Kiev-17 SLR, which Klomp was unaware of at the time.)

Table of Olympic cameras (Graphic: Alfred Klomp)
Alfred Klomp made this table of Olympic cameras in the early 2000s (Graphic: Alfred Klomp)

Klomp’s list shows that the Olympic badge was not just reserved for high-priced cameras, but for everyman cameras such as the ubiquitous Zenit-E and even the humble Smena-8 compact camera. Even today the Moscow Olympics cameras are relatively easy to find, and don’t command anything like the Olympic Canon price tags. In 2003, I bought a fully working Zenit-E inscribed with the Olympic logo for only £4 in a London market. The prices only really start spiking when it comes to Olympics cameras complete with their special-edition boxes.

To find out more about these Moscow mementoes, Kosmo Foto spoke to Vladislav Kern, one of the most prominent collectors of Soviet cameras and the founder of USSRPhoto.com, about the Olympic versions.

How many models were produced as Moscow Olympics versions “Quite a few as you can see from my photos, pretty much every factory produced cameras dedicated to 1980 Olympics. I believe I have all of the major models with Olympic symbols provided in the pictures.”

Kern says “most can be found fairly easily, the USSR made quite a lot of these and symbols were placed on common models since it was a huge event for the USSR and the idea was to spread the Soviet pride of it as much as possible.

FED Olympic cameras (Pic: Vladislav Kern)
FED Olympic cameras (Pic: Vladislav Kern)

“I don’t believe there are any super-rare Olympic models. To be honest none of them are even considered uncommon. The only exception would be Arsenal Kievs, those are in fact somewhat uncommon to find, especially the 4AM and marginally the Kiev-17.”

A rumour long persisted that the communist state had done played a very capitalist trick and churned out commemorative models for years after the Olympics, under the assumption that they would fetch higher prices. “No they were not,” Kern says. “An overwhelming majority were produced in 1979 preceding the year of the Olympics, with some still made in 1980. I don’t believe I’ve seen a later Olympics camera. It is a bit harder to tell with the FED factory since they did not use year prefix in their serial numbers, but I still believe most were 1978-1980.”

The other rumour about Olympic cameras is they passed a much stricter level of quality control than most Soviet cameras. Not so, according to Kern. “In most cases it just involved a silk-screened Olympics logo or a stick-on badge. There were also Olympic boxes, even though some cameras did not have any indication on the bodies, the boxes during 1978-1980 period may have sported the Olympics logo. I have never personally heard of any accords of it being any higher quality than usual.”

Lomo Olympic cameras (Pic: Vladislav Kern)
Two Olympic Lubitels flank a Lomo 125BC (Pic: Vladislav Kern)

The cameras ended up being exported far and wide, part of the USSR’s charm offensive ahead of the games. “Obviously quite a few went abroad to promote the event but the majority, especially the Zenits stayed, in-country.”

As it turned out, the first communist games (China would become the second when the Olympics were held in Beijing in 2008) did not go according to plan. Dozens of countries – including USA, Canada and China – boycotted the games due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the previous December. That would, in turn, lead to a tit-for-tat boycott of the Los Angeles games four years later. It took some of the lustre off the games meant to show off Soviet might to the world, and meant fewer than expected tourists came back from the Olympics with a Moscow memento.

Zenit Olympic SLRs (Pic: Vladislav Kern)
Olympic-branded Zenit SLRs are still a common sight (Pic: Vladislav Kern)

One more thing: while the Moscow Olympics cameras might me a nice addition to a camera collection, don’t think that you might be shooting on the kind of camera Soviet photojournalists used at the Moscow games.

Russian photo historian Vladimir Zverev tells Kosmo Foto the Soviet press corps mainly shot on East German Prakticas rather than Soviet cameras. “Only a few photographers had Nikon F2 cameras. These were photo correspondents from the central media (TASS agency or the Pravda newspaper).”

A Moscow Olympics Nikon F2? That’s definitely one to pop beside the commemorative Zenits and Lubitels…

Stephen Dowling
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