The Zorki family of rangefinders, produced in the Soviet Union from the 1950's to the 1970's, are often thought of as the archtypical russian camera. Kitschy and the subject of a small cult following, they're heavy, being entirely metal, are fully mechanical, requiring no batteries, and they're frequently mocked by Leicaphiles, who seem to think you need a $2500 camera to take decent photographs and view the $25 Zorkis as pathetic wannabe's. (See the earlier article on photo snobbery.) I don't intend to rehash the history of the Zorki, which is already covered extensively elsewhere. Instead, this is intended more as a practical review to owning and using a Zorki camera.
I own two cameras from the Zorki family, a Zorki-4, and a slightly newer Mir. The Mir is nearly identical to the Zorki-4, but is lacking the often troublesome slow shutter speeds (below 1/30) of the latter. The result is an arguably more reliable camera, and a somewhat less expensive one than it's "full featured" brother. Both were purchased a year or more ago from sellers on eBay for pittances, around $15 each. The Zorki-4 had a bad shutter while the Mir worked fine.
Using one of these cameras isn't really that difficult, if you have a decent grasp of the "technical" side of photography - f/stops, shutter speeds, and the like. You cock the shutter by turning the large wheel on the right side of the camera, set the speed by pulling up on the top dial and carefully turning it to the desired speed, set the desired aperature on the lens, focus, and shoot. People online are quick to poo-poo the handling on these cameras, describing them as inelegant or rough, and in one instance describing the film advance as being tractor-like. I have to admit, I initially largely agreed with this assessment.
I only use the Mir - the Zorki has become a "parts camera". I used it for about a year, and was quite happy with the results - the Jupiter-8 50/2 lens, a close copy of the famed Zeiss Sonnar, is an excellent performer. The film advance took tremendous effort to move, which got old quickly, but was quiet and smooth. Lens focussing was very slow - the lens required considerable force to focus, though the aperature ring was extremely smooth. I chalked this up to being an old, russian camera, and thought no more of it. I enjoy shooting with a rangefinder, and am able to produce great photographs with the Mir, so I accepted these little difficulties.
This winter, sadly, the rubberized cloth shutters began to crack - apparently the 50-year-old cloth didn't like the subzero Minnesota weather. Depressed, I sent the camera off to a repairman to have a new shutter installed. $25 and a month later, my Mir returned, and I was floored. In addition to replacing the shutter curtains and adjusting the shutter speeds, the technician had fully CLA'd the camera - the viewfinder was cleaned, the lens was disassembled and cleaned, the rangefinder adjusted and calibrated, and the film advance mechanism cleaned of it's ancient dried lubricants.
Everything I'd read online and experienced myself about this camera no longer applied. The film advance is silky-smooth and required almost no effort; lens focussing is smooth and easy. It's essentially a brand-new, reborn Mir, having been fully CLA'd. I really think that if everyone who owned a Zorki had it cleaned and lubed, they'd like it much more. It's earlier "problems" weren't due to it being an old, russian camera, but simply due to being an old, unmaintenanced camera.
Is it a reliable camera? I think so. For a camera to still function, albeit roughly, after 40 years is pretty amazing. Odds are it saw little to no maintenance during it's life in Mother Russia, and had probably not been used for several years before making it's way to me. Considering the lifespan of most of today's point-and-shoot cameras, I wouldn't be sneering at a working camera approaching the half-century mark.
In the end, ultimately, it's a rugged, reliable camera which accepts great lenses, and teaches photographic discipline while offering all the advantages of a rangefinder. Even after being CLA'd, my Mir cost about half of what a Voigtlander Bessa-R body costs. And, after all, what's the point in spending all your money on a camera if you can't afford to take pictures?
April 2007: I've posted some thoughts on the Zorki-4 after more than five years' use here.