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Russian bricklayers are now making good money

Is Russia now doing well, economically? Here’s a quote which suggests that it is. It is from classical music commentator Norman Lebrecht, writing with his usual over-the-topness about the young Russian recently installed as conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Vasily Petrenko. According to Lebrecht, he is doing very well. Here is what Petrenko says about his recent Russian past.

Petrenko’s grandparents endured the siege of Leningrad; his parents grew up under communism. He is among the last to have enjoyed the elitist benefits of the Soviet education system, getting fast-tracked through specialist schools after being spotted singing in a choir from the age of four. ‘People around me were being trained to direct choruses in Siberia,’ he remembers. ‘There were 200 professional choirs in the country, now there are nine. Those times are over. Parents don’t want their kids to be musicians any more. They make more money as bricklayers, not to say bankers.’

Whatever your opinion is about people being paid to sing in choruses – mine is that if audiences won’t pay, such singers shouldn’t be paid – it surely says something about the Russian economy that now you can make proper money laying bricks. “Banking” could mean anything, from proper banking to legalised thievery. Merely getting rich being a construction worker would be similarly ambiguous, economically speaking. But there is something reassuring mundane about bricklaying, suggestive of real people wanting to hire you for good reasons, to build buildings that actually make sense.

I remember vividly what Soviet bricklaying used to be like. I attended a Libertarian jamboree in Tallinn, Estonia, in about 1990, and I recall seeing the wall around the local Soviet military base (I think it must have been). It was by far the most badly constructed wall I have ever seen, then or since, and had I not seen it, I wonder if I could even conceive of such constructional badness. Try to imagine the most spectacularly incompetent bricklaying that you can, and then halve its quality. Then halve it again. That’s approximately half as bad as this brick “laying” was. It looked as if it had been done by six year olds, who had been alternating that with drinking Vodka.

Russian walls are now, I surmise, getting a lot better. Which I agree may not be wholly good news.

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11 comments to Russian bricklayers are now making good money

  • raven

    Don’t mean to be rude but citing this gentleman’s opinion on russian bricklayers well-being is like asking NY fine art critics on horrors of reaganomics.

  • Laird

    I have to agree with Raven. It seems to me that Petrenko’s comment goes more to the financial prospects of professional musicians than to the wages of bricklayers (about which he probably knows nothing). He’s using the trade as a metaphor, not an example.

  • RAB

    Russian Tanks are rumbling over the border
    playing “Georgia on my mind”
    and we’re talking bricklayers and fiddlers?

    Sounds like the old year one O level Economics saw.

    The Concert Musician , who is also very good at fixing cars.

  • philmillhaven

    I have to agree with Raven. It seems to me that Petrenko’s comment goes more to the financial prospects of professional musicians than to the wages of bricklayers

    So what? Having 200 professional choirs is precisely the problem. Or part of it, at least. When the government controls the lion’s share of the economy you have world class orchestras, ambitious space programs and powerful armies. Meanwhile all the humdrum stuff like getting food into shops or constructing habitable buildings goes to rack and ruin.

    200 professional choirs couldn’t be a better example.

  • Laird

    Undoubtedly so, philmilhaven, but that wasn’t what I understand to be the point of the post. Perhaps I misread it. The (probably appropriate) shrinkage in the number of professional choirs doesn’t say anything about the wages of bricklayers, or of the Russian economy in general, one musician’s comments notwithstanding.

  • Paul Marks

    I suspect that Brian is correct.

    Yes Putin is an ex KGB thug who will do anything for power (i.e. George Walker Bush was wrong about him, and John McCain was right about him), and yes he goes around invading places.

    And yes Putin and co will use also sorts of dirty tricks (including murder) to bring Russian natural resources under their control.

    BUT.

    It is true that basic property rights for ordinary Russians are far more real now that they were in Soviet times (when the only market was the black market).

    So yes bricklayers most likely are paid more than they used to be – and most likely do a better job (at least for private customers).

    I am not a happy bouncy “positive thinker” (in fact I despise such people), but truth is truth.

    Things are better in Russia than they were.

  • Right now, improvement or not, Russia is intenr on acreatin an environment where people will neither wish to invest there nor buy from them.

    It is showing itself to be both dishonest in its dealings and greedy for authority, and both will put commercial and political partners off.

  • and that is not going to help the bricklayers, or anyone else.

  • Fiesta del Lupe

    Well at least the Russian bricklayers will have a bit of trade coming their way thanks to their innovative urban redevelopment and landscaping project in Georgia.

  • Oh dear. What a day to pick. I shoved this up yesterday morning, before I clocked the news from Georgia, and then went out and about. And so did every other Samizdatista by the look of things. Not a good Samizdata day. Grovelling apologies to all.

    As to the relative detail of how qualified Vasily Petrenko is to comment on the wages of Russian bricklayers, well, I think it counts for something that he picked that trade to illustrate the point he wanted to make about what he really does know about, which is the wages of Russian musicians. These kinds of things do get around. Remember that “loudsamoney” character that Harry Enfield used to do.

    The more serious point here is that Russia, as I have already said in a comment on Perry’s more recent posting about Georgia (thank you Perry!), is in some ways now a harder adversary than the old USSR for the West to deal with. Squaring up to ideological powers who constantly talk about wanting to have the entire world in their thrall, however implausibly, is easy, because anything you do can be described as defence, even something like invading another country. (See also: Islam.) But Russia is not like that now.

    And nor, as this post says, is it any longer the economic joke that it used to be – jokes about the economy being just about the only thing that the old USSR didn’t have any shortage of. Finally, the guys in the Kremlin have worked out that you need a semi-intelligent economy to pay you tribute if you are to be a sustained force in the world, and more to the point, they have worked out how a semi-intelligent economy works. I.e. it must not be dominated by something like their previous idiot ideology.

    And it isn’t, hence all those busy bricklayers. Who, I still bet you all, are much better paid, and much better at bricklaying, than they used to be.

  • Andrew Duffin

    I would guess that “the wall around the local Soviet military base ” was probably built by slave labour in Stalin’s time, so for all sorts of reasons you wouldn’t expect it to be a particularly good job, would you?

    Unless you believe in Central Planning, of course.