Photography and Text by Bob Shell, Copyright 2019
What’s in a Name?
I’m reading a very interesting book: Ancient History of Aratta-Ukraine by Yuri Shilov. I’ve read a lot of books on ancient history, but had never heard of Aratta, so when my friend Ed told me about this book, I just had to read it. Most traditional historians believe that writing originated with the Sumerian culture, but this book sets forth convincing evidence that writing originated much earlier in Aratta, in what today is Ukraine, perhaps as early as 20,000 BCE. The problem I’m having in reading the book is that the Ukrainians have recently changed all the names of places. Kiev is now Kyiv! Ruegen Island is now Ruyan. The Dnieper River is now Dnipro. The Dniester River has become the Dnistro. And so on, and because the book is translated from the Russian original, some of the maps are labeled in Cyrillic. The book is lavishly illustrated in black and white, and will fascinate anyone interested in ancient history who makes the effort to read it.
There’s an old song that goes something like:
Take me back to Constantinople,
No you can’t go back to Constantinople,
Now it’s Istanbul not Constantinople,
Why did Constantinople get the works?
That’s nobody’s business but the Turks.
I guess we should say the name changes are nobody’s business but the Ukrainians. But it sure can be confusing to an outsider trying to figure out where places mentioned in the text actually are. I have the same problem with India, where Bombay became Mumbai, and how did Burma become Myanmar and Rangoon turn into Yangon? I have a nice little Atlas I bought several years ago, but it hasn’t caught up with the dissolution of Yugoslavia or any of the more recent name changes. I think any book for outsiders should have the old name in parentheses after the new name, at least the first time it appears — Yangon (Rangoon).
Anyway, it seems that the Ukrainian legislature passed a law in 1995 requiring the use of the new names. But the Arsenal Factory certainly didn’t change the names of their cameras from Kiev to Kyiv! I have a collection of their cameras, many made after 1995, and the export versions all bear the KIEV nameplates. Those for domestic sale within the old USSR are marked KNEB with the N backwards, the equivalent of an “I” in the Cyrillic alphabet used by most of the countries of the former USSR, which looks like CCCP, but is actually SSSR. I had to learn the Cyrillic alphabet when I started collecting Soviet cameras in the 80s, so I’d know things like what looks like Zopkuu is actually Zorkii.
The folks at the Kiev factory struggled to make good products under the old Soviet system. My late friend Saul Kaminsky was the official US distributor of Ukrainian, Russian, Belarussian, etc., cameras, lenses, and other optical products. His company in Connecticut was called Kiev USA. He told me a story that once he went by the factory in Kiev to check on a shipment and found the factory shut down because there was no electricity. He located the manager who explained that the electric plant had no coal, so was shut down. He then went to the electric plant and they said they had no money to buy coal. So he went to the coal company and bought a trainload of coal that was delivered to the electric plant where they fired up the generators, and sent electricity to the camera factory, where the cameras Saul needed were then made. That’s how business was frequently done in the old USSR! One day Saul called me: “Bob, could I interest you in a hotel in Kiev?”. It seems that someone there owed him money and was trying to settle the debt with this hotel! Of course he knew I’d have no interest in a Ukrainian hotel, no matter how cheap! Selling cameras from the USSR was a sideline he’d stumbled into during travel for his real job, lighting technician for CNN. Saul used to say to me that I made him famous from my Shutterbug articles about his products. I used a number of his Soviet cameras over the years with good results, and have a bunch of them in storage right now. One of my first cameras was a Zenit B bought from the old Cambridge Camera Exchange in 1969 for $ 49.95 with 50mm f/2 Helios lens and leather case. The negatives I shot with that old beast are super sharp and contrasty. The folks in Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, etc. knew how to make good lenses.
This goes back to the end of WW II. The USSR troops, mostly Russian, took over the eastern part of Germany. They took the Zeiss-Ikon factory in Dresden, dismantled it, loaded it onto a train, and shipped it, lock, stock, and barrel, to Kiev. They also took the best Zeiss technicians. When I first learned of this in the 80s, many of those men were still living in and near Kiev, where they’d settled down, married, and raised families, and didn’t want to leave. Many of the first generation of Kiev cameras were built from German parts taken from Dresden.
The other best known Soviet cameras are the Fed series. The name Fed comes from the initials of Felix E. Dzerzhinsky, founder of the KGB, who wanted a quality camera to give his men. He had a factory set up to build the Fed camera, a part by part copy of a Leica. I don’t have my reference books here, but I believe they copied a Leica IIIa. I have around a dozen Fed cameras of different vintages. All are capable of taking excellent pictures. I also have a number of Russian fake Leica cameras, which enterprising Russians made from Fed cameras to sell to unsuspecting tourists. One of them is so good only an expert would know it wasn’t a real Leica. Saul picked most of them up for me on his trips to Russia and Ukraine. He also knew of my interest in mechanical watches and brought me a couple Shtermanskyi (Navigator) chronometers, the same watch Yuri Gagarin wore into space. They keep very accurate time but must be wound once a day. One has a rotating bezel for travel, and I used it for years in my trips to keep track of local time and time back home.
About The Author: Bob Shell is a professional photographer, author and former editor in chief of Shutterbug Magazine. He is currently serving a 35 year sentence for involuntary manslaughter for the death of Marion Franklin, one of his former models. He is serving the 11th year of his sentence at Pocahontas State Correctional Facility, Virginia. To read more letters from prison by Bob Shell, click here: https://tonyward.com/bob-shell-on-the-legal-front/
Editor’s Note: If you like Bob Shell’s blog posts, you’re sure to like his new book, COSMIC DANCE by Bob Shell (ISBN: 9781799224747, $ 12.95 book, $ 5.99 eBook) available now on Amazon.com . The book, his 26th, is a collection of essays written over the last twelve years in prison, none published anywhere before. It is subtitled, “A biologist’s reflections on space, time, reality, evolution, and the nature of consciousness,” which describes it pretty well. You can read a sample section and reviews on Amazon.com.