Russia's house of straw is not for want of bricks Careless smashing epitomizes nation

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

November 10, 1992|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau

GOLITSYNO, Russia -- Alexander Kuzmin is one of those infuriating Russians who resolutely refuses to let himself be turned into a prophet of the future.

Here he is, about 25 miles outside Moscow, chief engineer of the one factory that maybe has a modern idea about -- well, about bricks -- and he's unwilling to reveal so much as a flicker of excitement or even pride.

Bricklike, in fact, is a word that springs to mind.

OK. Who cares? Why drive all the way out here, jockeying with enormous trucks that are hell-bent for Poland's Warsaw, or some such place, and skittish little cars that tend to drift at high speed, just to talk about bricks? They're red, they're foursquare, they sit in buildings for about 100 years, and then someone knocks them down. What's the deal?

Just this.

Take a foreigner, put him on the streets of Moscow, turn the weather dial to moderately dreadful, give him a day where nothing goes right and no one but him cares about it, throw in a few infuriating confrontations with Soviet-style bureaucracy, and then have him come upon a construction site with a pile of bricks sitting on the sidewalk.

These bricks were not delivered. They were thrown down here, dumped out of a truck. Half of them are smashed, and all of them are cracked. They symbolize the national condition. If people here can't even care about bricks, no wonder this country's such a mess.

That's what makes Golitsyno worth the visit. Here they put the bricks on palettes and wrap them with steel bands. And they're good bricks, too. They're not cracked.

Somebody obviously cares in Golitsyno. Here, in this 110-year-old brickyard, surely here is someone with modern notions of efficiency and cost.

Here is Mr. Kuzmin. He's a quiet man. He seems to be thinking about his garden or a novel he just read. He can't understand why anyone would be interested in his bricks, but yes, they have French machinery to do the work. Only problem is, it wastes too much steel, and so they wrap the stacks by hand instead.

These good French bricks make up about 48 percent of Golitsyno's production of 1.25 million bricks a year. That's not many. Throughout the Moscow region, brickyards turn out a total of 1.4 billion bricks annually. These are the ones that get smashed on the sidewalk.

Mr. Kuzmin sells a lot of his bricks to church renovation projects. They go for about 2 cents each, and there's virtually no wastage.

Mr. Kuzmin says other brickyards expect about 10 percent of their delivered bricks to be broken -- which seems unbelievably low, but even so, that's 140 million broken bricks just in the Moscow region every year.

The Golitsyno Ceramic Factory was founded in 1882, and today it employs 870 people. Mr. Kuzmin is quite content to conduct a little tour of the 104-acre site. Here in the oldest shops they make crude blocks; their quality's no good, he says matter-of-factly. Over there's a shop with Bulgarian machinery, where a squad of soldiers is pushing a flatcar loaded with bricks destined for new military housing.

Across a muddy field, past the growling, pouncing trucks, is a big blue shed with the French equipment.

Brown mud, from a pit just nine miles away, goes in one end. It's dried and then watered. It's sent on a conveyor belt from here to there. It's tumbled, and most of it is extruded from a big mixer like hot steel and then sliced like warm bread. The rest of it drapes the machinery, hangs in the air, coats the lungs.

The bread-bricks go into the oven, and 70 minutes later come out hard and red. Four men standing in a cavernous end of the shed, beneath a high ceiling, wrap the bricks in steel tape, working with what might be described as patience rather than energy.

Isn't he pleased with all this, Mr. Kuzmin is asked -- to be different, to be showing the way toward cost-consciousness? Isn't this what the new Russia is going to have to be about?

Well, all the brickyards are state-owned still, he says. Most of them make money. Brick-making isn't very intricate. Look, he says, the future's in roof tiles. Now there's something to get worked up over.

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