Spy sets
Burst encoders
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R-354 Shmel   Шмель
Russian spy radio set (Bumblebee)

The R-354 probably is the most widespread spy radio set deployed by the USSR (Russia) during the Cold War. It was introduced in the 1970s as the successor to the R-353 and was used by most countries of the former Warsaw Pact, such as Poland and the DDR (East Germany). The R-354 was used by agents in the (foreign) field as well as by Special Forces (SF). It is also known by its codename Shmel (Bumblebee). In the early 1980s, the set was succeeded by the R-394K.
The radio is fully self-contained and can be operated from a (wet) battery that is stored inside the top lid. A short (white) cable on the front panel of the radio is used to connect it to the battery, giving approx. 15 minutes of live.

After that, the battery needs to be recharged, using the supplied manual generator that is packed separately. The radio can also be operated from an alternative power source, such as the battery of a car, or a mains power supply. Suitable cables for this were packed into one of the pockets of the canvas coat.

Receiver (left) and transmitter (right) each have their own controls and frequency display, allowing split-frequency operation. The supplied headphones can be connected to a two-pin socket on the left of the unit. A small slight bulb on a flexible arm is present (right) to allow the meter to be read in the dark. Both frequency displays are projection scales, altough a later version of the R-354 (modified by Tesla in Czechoslovakia) had 7-segment LED displays.
Sending messages in morse code
Like its predecessors, the R-354 can only send messages in morse code, using the morse unit on the right of the radio. The morse unit, that can be recognised by the numerical key pad (0-9), is bolted onto the front panel of the radio.
It allow three ways of sending messages in morse code. The first method is by using the small morse key just above the key pad. Messages can be sent directly, but this was only used in case of an emergency. Furthermore, the key is not very comfortable, making it rather difficult to send faultless messages.

If the operator was not trained in giving morse, he could use the number keys to send a pre-coded (numerical) message, simply by typing the appropriate numbers. In case of a mistake, the user would press the ···иии button.

The normal mode of operation however, was by using the built-in burst encoder, allowing pre-coded numerical messages to be sent at very high speed, minimising the risk of detection. For this, the messages were first stored on photo film as a series of punched holes, much like with the R-350 radio set. Standard 35 mm film was used for this purpose, as it was readily available in most countries around the world. Agents in the field could buy 35 mm film in virtually any store without attracting attention.

Unlike the R-350 however, the R-354 consumes only half the amount of film, as the film was first sliced in two halves (of 17.5 mm each) using a supplied film cutter (see the images below). Once sliced, the film was fed through the encoder, which punched a series of holes in the film, representing the various numbers (0-9). Different versions of the film puncher were supplied (see the next section below).
The full radio set with opened lid Close-up of the burst encoder The film container (stored inside the top lid) Both film and cutter are stored inside the container The cutter that was used to slice the film in two halfs The radio in full operation with the hood over the frequency readout

Film puncher (old model)
Initially, the R-354 was supplied with the film puncher shown here. It's a rather buly square device that is normally stored under a flap in the top lid of the radio, aside the film container.

The film is fed through the puncher and the pen is used to 'dial' the required numbers on the rotating disc. Each number is represented by a series of holes (rather than a single hole, as on the R-350).

Old style burst encoder Old style burst encoder Instruction sheet showing the various codes The pen stored inside the unit The two halves of the pen The fully assembled pen The puncher stored in the top lid of the radio, aside the film container

Film puncher (newer model)
The rather bulky film puncher (above) was later replaced by the much smaller version shown here. It fits nicely in one hand and is stored in the usual bay of the radio's top lid.

Punching the message works much like a modern dymo label printer. The wheel is set to the required number before the large white button is pressed. Each number is represented by a series of holes. A small copper blade, hidden behind the black instruction plate, can be used to clear the mechanism when it gets blocked.


Special Forces
When used by Special Forces, the radio is packed inside a canvas 'coat' that can be worn on the back of the operator. To allow R-354 units to be dropped behind enemy lines or in combat zones, a special padded 'para-bag' was available. When packed in such a padded bag, the radio could be dropped by parachute.
The backpack seen from the rear The backpack seen from the front Another view of the padded bag

The back pack has several 'pockets' in which tools, accessories and spares are stored. The drawing below shows the pack from the rear and gives a rough idea of where the various items were packed.

Extension lead
A short extension lead was supplied to allow the radio to be connected to an external power source, or to connect the battery to a charger.

The extension lead is only about 50 cm long and has a two pin male plug at one end, and a matching female plug at the other end. The lead is either stored inside the back pack or in the top lid of the radio, wound around the film container.

Battery charger cable
The battery of the R-354 lasted only a few minutes before it had to be recharged. Recharging was usually done with a hand generator or a small mains adapter (both described below).

Alternatively, the battery could be charged from a standard car battery, using the supplied battery charger cable shown here.

As the projection scale of the R-354 produces a rather faint image, a foldable hood was supplied that could be fitted in front of the display, thereby effectively blocking any sunlight.

The hood was normally folded and stored inside the large pocket of the back pack (at the rear). The images below show how the hood was used. It was mounted over the display in such a way that both frequency adjustment thumbwheels were left free.


Small spares kit
Sometimes a small plastic box with some spares (consumables) is supplied with the radio. If it is present, it is usually packed inside one of the pockets of the back pack.

The box contains several light bulbs, fuses and a piece of insulation tape. As far as we know, the boxes were either black or white (see below).


Spare parts and accessories
Some R-354 radio sets were supplied with a small bakelite box containing a number of spare parts, accessories and consumables. A checklist, glued inside the lid of the box, shows which items should be present. Please note that at least two different layouts of the spares box exist.
The box shown here contains the following items:
  • 4 rechargable batteries
  • Battery fluid (container)
  • Hex key
  • Syringe
  • Spare valves (tubes)
  • Mains battery charger

The closed box The opened accessory box One of the wet batteries Battery fluid (Potassium Hydroxide) Hex key for (dis)mounting the battery connections Syringe for filling the batteries Spare miniature valves Mains battery charger

Mains battery charger
A rather small main adapter was supplied with the accessory kit (shown above). It's a small grey cubical box that can be plugged straight into a mains socket.

At the back of the unit is a standard mains socket that allows a standard mains light bulb to be connected. When connected to the battery, the lamp acts as a current limiter.

Mains battery charger Mains battery charger (bottom view) Inside the battery charger Inside the battery charger Inside the battery charger Inside the battery charger Drawing of the charger

Power generator
If no mains power is available, the battery can also be charged using a small crank-operated power generator. Charging the batteries is not an easy task and takes several hours, for just a few minutes of operation.

The generator is normally stored inside a carrying case with a canvas strap. The connection cables are stored inside the top lid of the case. New generators were generally supplied in grease paper, stored inside in a green wooden box, together with a checklist and instructions.

Wooden box containing the generator Checklist The generator packed in paper Connection cables stored inside the top lid The closed generator The generator taken out of the carrying case The hand-crank operated generator The hand-crank operated generator

Almost any type of headset can be used with the R-354. In most cases, a common USSR military headset was supplied, with rubber ear pads and elastic head bands. Such headsets are commonly used with military radio sets in tanks etc. Headsets are connected to the two-pin socket on the left of the front panel of the radio.

Alternatively, some sets were used with a small earpiece such as the one shown below.

Carton with new headset Unpacking the headset The standard headset (normally stored in one of the pockets of the backpack) Alternative earpiece Alternative earpiece

Antenna mast
To ensure that the antenna wire is as free as possible from ground and obstacles, one or two supporting masts are supplied with the radio. These masts are usually stored inside a canvas bag that is strapped to the bottom of the radio.

The mast is constructed of glass fibre and consists of several telescopic segments. It is rather light weight and can be erected in seconds.

Although the R-354 is rather heavy, it is a well constructed electronic hybrid that shows the clever combination of valves (tubes), transistors and digital building blocks. After releasing the four large bolts at the sides of the front panel, the radio can be lifted out of its case.
All building blocks are mounted to the front panel, so that the radio remains fully operational when being serviced. At the top are a tuning capacitor, a band selector, the antenna tuner and part of the power supply. Left of the center are the two projection scales. At the far right is the digital block that holds the burst transmitter.

At the bottom are the smaller electronic circuits, like the various stages of the receiver. Although transistors are used at various places inside the R-354, some of the more critical circuits are still built around sub-miniature values (tubes).

The radio is beautifully compartimented, using a die-cast aluminium alloy frame to hold the various circuit boards at the bottom. Also at the bottom is the remaining part of the power supply. To the left of the power supply is the transmitter PA-stage, consisting of three sub-miniature valves connected in parallel. At the far right of the front panel is the key panel with its integrated film reader. Behind the switches is a nice die-cast assembly with the micro switches.

To the rear of the film reader is the actual burst transmitter that is housed in a large rectangular aluminium sub-assembly. Inside the block are 27 small PCBs, each of which contains a digital circuit. The block connects to the film reader by means of a 31-pin connector at the front.
Top side of the radio Bottom side of the radio The projection scales Various electronic circuits Power section Unit with digital building blocks Close-up of the digital building blocks Unmantled burst encoder

Each R-354 was supplied with a set of manuals, complete with user instructions, circuit diagrams and maintenance information. In some cases, maintenance pasports for the radio and the batteries were also present.

In practice, original manuals in the Russian language are extremely rare, but thanks to Bjorn Forsberg [2][3], we now have them available:

 Download manual
 Download circuit diagrams

Technical specifications
  • Power Supply: 6 Volt, 3-8 Amp.
  • Frequency range: 2.5 - 15 MHz (in 5 ranges)
  • Modulation: A1A, A3A
  • TX Power Output: 10 Watt (CW)
  • Range: 1500 km
  • Weight: 12 kg
  1. Louis Meulstee, R-354
    Wireless for the Warrier. Volume 4. September 2004. ISBN 0952063-36-0.

  2. Radio Station R-354, User and maintenance manual (35.2MB PDF)
    Original documentation supplied with the R-354 (Russian). 1970. 1

  3. R-354 Circuit Diagrams, large format (1.1MB PDF)
    1970. Extracted from [2]. 1

  1. Original scanned manual kindly supplied by Bjorn Forsberg.
Further information

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