Coup helped Soviet youth find its voice THE SOVIET CRISIS

August 26, 1991|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- As the Communist Party tore itself and the Soviet Union apart last week, the silent youth of Russia took to the streets and finally spoke up.

The young men and women who stayed home in conspicuous numbers during enormous pro-democracy demonstrations last year were the first this time to throw themselves on the barricades.

"There is a big difference between going to a meeting and going to the White House," said Dennis Kapitansky, a muscular young working man, explaining why he had built and defended barricades around the Russian Federation Building, known as the White House.

"This was a time to act. Something could be decided."

This was a generation that was being written off as cynical and passive, interested only in money and the status of Western-like clothes, their elders said.

In interview after interview, the young people said their parents were wrong. They said that before the coup they saw no effective way of fighting the Communists, who controlled everything.

"We could see what we had to defend," said Sergei Ushakov, 23, a student. "Our consciences started to speak."

Before, they had had no leaders. People with leadership abilities tended to join the Communist Party -- which was the only way to make any progress.

Other young people did what they thought they could to make their lives somewhat better within the limits imposed on them: They tried to make money, or they dreamed of emigrating.

At the same time, they were becoming impatient with the pace of change as President Mikhail S. Gorbachev cautiously jockeyed with right-wing hard-liners.

They were tired of hearing promises about how their lives would be getting better when every day they were getting worse. The average person on the street, young and old, had lost confidence in Mr. Gorbachev and was ready for drastic action.

In this mood, young people turned on their televisions and radios last Monday to hear that they were expected to believe the most ridiculous lies delivered by a man whose hands trembled as he spoke.

"They were talking about restoring the pride of the Soviet man," an incredulous Slava Dienkov hooted yesterday. "People laughed."

Mr. Dienkov, who is 23 and tries to make a living giving English RTC lessons, said everyone knew what that meant. "No more sex," he scoffed. "No more music. People in my yard like heavy metal. Everyone listens to Scorpion and Halloween and Death.

"All of a sudden the station that plays that was closed. All you could hear was classical music. That wasn't a big reason to go to the barricades, but everyone knew it would only get worse."

His friend, Sergei, 18, said young people were less intimidated by tanks than their parents might have been. There was a sort of romance to gathering at the barricades, he said.

"Probably the older people are used to the Stalin era," he said. "Their reaction is quieter."

Peter Ryabov, 22, pointed out that the protests came when students were on summer vacation and didn't have to worry about studying.

But others said that young people were, for the first time, presented with a clear moral choice on which they not only could but must act. Boris N. Yeltsin, the legally elected president of the Russian Republic, was being threatened by the tanks of a junta, summoning up a disdained past.

"This decision was made by conscience," said Yevgeny Kosholev, 21, an autoworker. "We could not pardon ourselves if we sat at home. I felt myself a prisoner. I felt something irreparable had happened."

His friend, Boris Nikolski, 23, an electrician, said he was no longer willing to put up with the past. "In a few hours they deprived us of the rights we had been fighting for for years," he said.

James F. Collins, a U.S. diplomat, said young people who have grown up under glasnost don't remember the bad old days.

"The younger people weren't willing to take the tanks seriously," he said. "They're used to things going in a certain direction. The younger people also are part of the media age. They watched what happened in Eastern Europe."

The young people took their rights back, at a cost. Three were killed in a skirmish with tanks.

The square behind the Russian building was named in their honor, and every Russian leader who commented on it mentioned how the young had helped save the country.

All day long yesterday, on a brilliant and warm Sunday, people strolled around the Russian building to marvel what had been accomplished there.

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