Transistor Radios Around the World

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Soviet transistor radios (Russia, Latvia, Ukraine):

The Soviet Union's development of transistor devices was well behind the times, though probably not as far behind as most transistor radio collectors in the West might have thought: the USSR's first point-contact transistors were created in the early 1950s, and the first Soviet-made junction transistors were produced in the mid- and late-1950s — the later devices among these included the black top hat versions found in most of the early Soviet transistor radios from the late-1950s through the mid-1960s. Further info on early Soviet transistors can be found on Andrew Wylie's Soviet Union Vintage Semiconductors page.

While it's true that several 1960s Soviet transistor radio models (Spidola, Cosmos, Mikro, Sokol, Selga, Signal) were exported to Great Britain and Western Europe, and some of these in massive quantities, most transistor radios from the late '50s and early '60s that were produced in Russia were made for the Soviet domestic market only and apparently not even for export to the satellite states of Eastern Europe.

An eBay search for “Russian transistor radio”, “Soviet transistor radio” or “USSR transistor radio” will normally bring up a load of Russian 1970s and '80s models on US eBay — also, a few of the above-listed earlier '60s models will often appear on UK eBay and eBay Germany: Nearly all of these radios were export products, each bearing the English-language phrase stamped on the back of the set, “MADE IN USSR”.

The domestic models are a different story. As of this writing (August 2014), domestic models made in the late 1950s and early '60s have rarely shown up on eBay over the years and are pretty much still found today only in Russia.

The first five Soviet transistor radio models are reported to have been produced in 1957 and 1958: Sverdlovsk, Sputnik, Surprise, Progress, and another model also named Surprise: All but the second Surprise model (2700 units reportedly produced) were produced in very small runs, only a few hundred units each, with the first four (perhaps excepting Sputnik) currently described as having been "experimental" models. These were produced in the Russian factories Voronezh Radio Works in western Russia near the Ukraine boarder (Sverdlovsk, Sputnik, first Surprise, Progress) and Znamia Truda Plant in Saratov in southern Russia (second Surprise). This second Surprise model, with its paltry 2700 units produced, could be considered as having been the first Soviet "mass-production" transistor radio, even if the production run was very limited.

The second “mass-production” (probably fewer than 10,000 units produced) Russian transistor radio, Atmosphere, appeared at the beginning of 1959, produced at Voronezh Radio Works — this was a small lunchbox portable with a truly memorable cabinet design, highly treasured today by Russian collectors, though more for its rarity and early production date than for its cabinet design.

The first mass-production Russian “pocket” transistor radio, Neva, came out in 1960 — a 6-transistor vertical shirt pocket set with almost exactly the same cabinet dimensions as the Regency TR-1 but with a price you couldn't beat: 43 Rubles (about $1.50). And like the TR-1, both the Atmosphere and the Neva were available in a plentiful variety of cabinet colors.

Several dozen more transistor radio models were produced in the first half of the 1960s — most were domestic, some were also exports — and a few interesting models appeared in the latter half of the '60s, particularly the Orljonok micro-radios, memorable for their toy-like plastic color combinations.

What I find of interest about these radios:

First, just the fact that they exist. These sets live in a sort of parallel universe of transistor radio history, one which until seven or eight years ago I didn't even know existed. The Cold War still lives on in many Western minds in sentiments best typified as, “The Russians couldn't even build a decent refrigerator.” And it's true that the USSR's best engineers took an embarrassingly long time to perfect production methods for the transistor device itself — 1957's history-changing Sputnik 1 went into orbit without a single transistor in its circuits. And note that the first four USSR transistor radios shown on this site (Atmosphere, Spidola, Neva, Gauja) each use only two different transistors in their circuits (yes, that includes the ten-transistor Spidola!). But Soviet mass-market transistor radios did arrive on the domestic market by 1960, long before many collectors in the West might have assumed.

The circuits and the cabinet designs: Given all the Cold War rhetoric on the American side, many Westerners naturally may have assumed that there were few if any Soviet transistor radios made in the early 1960s, let alone any in the late 1950s. So what a revelation it is to see that in fact there were quite a few different models, quite a few different cabinet designs, and some of them quite striking by any standard. And while the circuits of late-'50s and early-'60s Soviet sets made use of a small variety of transistors, the circuits and their transistors were pretty much up to date by Western standards.

The names: Rather than having model numbers, almost every Soviet transistor radio model had its own name — Atmosphere, Gauja, Mir, Neva, Sokol, Topaz... The names on these radios were not of the manufacturing plants in which they were produced but of the radios themselves. (Hitachi, Grundig, Tesla, Loewe Opta and other manufacturers outside the USSR also often gave their radio models names, but these always were accompanied by model numbers as well.) The names on these Soviet sets were often written in script on the cabinet faces, sometimes on raised-lettering plastic, mimicking the automobile styling of the day even in Russia. Several names were recycled, sometimes more than once — “Atmosphere”, for instance, reappeared on two very different looking radios, first as “Atmosphere 2” and later as “Atmosphere 2M” — and why not, with a name as evocative as “Atmosphere”?

The plastics: Certainly the plastics used on some of these sets were of questionable quality — on some cabinets it may even have been straight polystyrene rather than ABS — the white plastic often yellowed quite severely over the years on many models. But other models seem to have employed plastics such as those used for transistor radio cabinets made in Japan, the US, and Western Europe — and what I admire is how these plastics, good and bad, were put to use in the Soviet radio cabinet designs. Many of these radios incorporated their speaker grilles into the plastic face itself, something also found on a number of early US and Japanese transistor radios — but combined with script names in raised-lettering plastic, many of these sets take on a wonderfully “plasticky” look that was quite unique to transistor radio cabinet design anywhere. Remember that during this same time radio manufacturers in Western Europe and the UK were pumping out transistor radios year after year with lunchbox-sized cabinets made of wood or cardboard covered in leatherette, with only a small percentage of plastic radios in the mix.

The politics: During the early years of the transistor radio, the Cold War dwarfed almost everything else going on in the world, both East and West. In the Soviet Union, semiconductors played a part in it (1957's Sputnik 2, the first satellite to use transistors in its circuitry), transistor radios played a part (the Soviet multiband Spidola, produced and sold by the millions within Russia throughout the 1960s), and radio itself played a part on all radio bands, LW, MW and SW (Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, Radio Moscow, Radio Kiev...) — if you were listening at the time, you'll remember all the hyped-up rhetoric on both sides, often drowned out by the ubiquitous "airplane drone" sound of Soviet radio broadcast jammers.

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