PERSPECTIVE ON SOVIET UNION : Where Are All the Young Radicals? : The new generation is uninterested at a time of revolutionary change. Their elders aren't solely to blame.

Walter Laqueur is chairman of the Research Council of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, and author of the forthcoming "Stalin: The Glasnost Revelations " (Scribners). He recently returned from the Soviet Union.

Perhaps the most striking feature of today's political scene in the Soviet Union is the absence of the young generation. Speaker after speaker at the recent Communist Party Congress tended to be Russian, male--and well over 40. The average age of the opposition seemed not much younger. Indeed, a Soviet writer described the Moscow radical movement as "the revolution of the old-age pensioners." The only major exception I know about are the producers and presenters of such enormously popular television shows as "Vzgliad" (Outlook), "Do i posle polu notchi" (Before and after midnight) or "600 seconds."

It was not always thus. Students dominated the Russian revolutionary movement of the last century. When V.I. Lenin's brother was executed as a terrorist in 1887, he was 21. At the time of the revolution, Lenin was in his 40s (hence his nickname "the old man"). Leon Trotsky and Josef Stalin were in their 30s; Nikolai I. Bukharin was younger still.

Even during the 1920s and 1930s, Stalin could rely on the militancy and enthusiasm of youth: By the thousands, they helped construct, in the Urals and Siberia, the great works of the first Five-Year Plan. It was the finest hour of the "Young Guard of Workers and Peasants," to quote the semiofficial anthem of the Komsomol, the Communist youth organization.

Today, the Komsomol is more than half-dead. "Molodaia Guardia" (Young Guard), its monthly literary magazine, is run by a man with the most reactionary of views; he should have been pensioned off long ago.

During the early days of the current dissident movement, to be sure, there were not a few young men and women associated with it. But many of them emigrated, or dropped out of the movement. Their younger brothers and sisters did not, with some notable exceptions, follow in their footsteps.

Why is the young generation uninterested and uninvolved during a time of revolutionary change? Teachers and professionals blame the low quality of education and the decline of the family as a source of positive role models (drunken fathers; mothers frustrated and irritated from standing hours in food lines after working all day). Others are harsher in their judgment: "They have no values, no idealism; all they want is veshism (the possession of material things)."

These and similar judgments are frequently heard. Even Russian parents who blame themselves for not having been kinder to their children doubt that displaying more kindness would have made a great difference. Still, family ties remain effective in shaping behavior: Where they are strongest--in the Caucasian and Baltic republics and in Central Asia--the juvenile crime rate is distinctly lower.

Nor do the teachers deserve harsh judgment. Due to the shortage of facilities and materials, many schools work in two shifts. History teachers, for example, have to work overtime, because the old textbooks have been withdrawn and their replacements have not arrived. For a long time, they have lacked clear guidance on how to indoctrinate the young generation: Should they encourage students to get involved in public life, or should they depoliticize them?

Not that it greatly matters. The regime lost the young generation years ago. But the young have not vanished; they remain a potential reservoir of great energy that could be tapped one day by forces of good or evil.

At present, though, confusion reigns supreme among the young generation. Asked about their political preferences in a poll conducted a few days before the party congress, 38% said they could not answer the question; 21% favored the Communist Party; 16% liked the reformist wing of the party; 10% sympathized with the "Greens"; and 4% each backed the new Christian Democratic Movement and the Democratic Union (the most militant anti-Communist group). There was little, if any, support for extreme right-wing, para-fascist groups.

To some extent, the young generation's political confusion is understandably a product of the current situation. But young people are not relentless careerists, either.

Whither the young generation in the Soviet Union?

Its present apathy may be the result of the disappearance of former guide posts, deficient education, lack of self-confidence among their teachers and parents, or a combination of these factors. Martin Buber once said that youth was the eternal chance mankind had. But it is no more than a chance. The enthusiasm of youth, it should be remembered, has more than once been abused by unscrupulous leaders and demagogues.

In the long run, the outcome of the present crisis in the Soviet Union depends on the orientation and commitment of the country's youth--and on the ability of the regime to win its support. So far, it has not had much success.

In East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania and China, students and their contemporaries have played a central role in the struggle for freedom and reform. Not so far in the Soviet Union.

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