The Strange Case of Yuri’s Camera: Part 2

Zorki camera top cover and lens-cap with graphic depicting the orbit, and 'Yuri', in Cyrillic lettering. The date of the 'First Flight' also appears. The date of the 'First Flight' also appears.

A close up of this camera's top cover and lens-cap shows a graphic depicting the orbit, and 'Yuri', in Cyrillic lettering. The date of the 'First Flight' also appears.

In the last post I described the Soviet ‘Zorki’ cameras that copied the design of the famous German Leica models. By the outbreak of World War Two, the USSR’s camera industry was well established, and many German soldiers in the Nazi armies that were pressing across eastern Europe and into Russia itself, were acquiring Zorki and other Soviet cameras as war plunder. This presented some of them with a potentially serious problem. If their superiors caught them in possession of a Soviet camera, they might find themselves suspected of spying for the enemy.

According to some photo historians, many soldiers solved the problem by finding Polish or Czech workshops willing to polish away the original markings and engrave the camera with the Leica logo instead. It wouldn’t convince anybody who had handled a real Leica, but it might convince a suspicious but hurried superior officer. For some perhaps, it also enabled them to sell on their ill-gotten prizes to unsuspecting comrades or civilians back home, eager to acquire a cheap ‘Leica’.

Whatever the reasons, the practice of re-engraving spread. Many entrepreneurs in the post war Soviet bloc countries found they could make money by adding all sorts of fanciful logos to Zorkis: Nazi emblems, ‘special commemorative edition’ markings, the ingenuity was remarkable. After a while, camera collectors became naturally suspicious. In fact the whole scene became quite confusing, making it hard to distinguish genuine special or commemorative editions from fakes.

One of the more controversial of these engraved cameras involves our hero: There is a ‘Yuri Gagarin Signature Edition’ Zorki series, well known to collectors around the world, which carries his name on the camera’s top cover.

Unfortunately, experts have been unable to definitively agree whether this is a genuine Soviet product, perhaps created for sale in the Star City Space Museum, or a fake.

One serious problem is the model of camera: the old Zorki 1. By the 1960’s this was a long obsolete model, with the look of the old pre-war and wartime Leicas. Why, some experts ask, would the Soviets commemorate such an important technological event with a special edition of an obsolete and old-fashioned looking camera? After all, the factories that produced these cameras showed themselves well able to keep up with changing western trends in camera design right through to the end of the Soviet Union.

Maybe we will never know whether this was really official ‘Yuri Gagarin’ merchandise, or an opportunistic fake. In a way, it hardly seems to matter today. Even collectors who doubt its authenticity are attracted by the famous name it carries, and many Gagarin fans are delighted to find their hero’s name on a vintage Soviet-era product, the mysterious and beguiling ‘Gagarin Zorki’ – for some, the most intriguing Soviet camera of them all.

Yuri Zorki 2 –

Yuri Zorki 2 This version has colour in the engraving. The old fashioned, almost 'steampunk' looks of the old Zorki 1 are clearly apparent in this picture.

Yuri Zorki 1
Image acknowledgement:

Yuri Zorki 2
Image acknowledgement:

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