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National Agenda : Youths Stand Up and Fight--and Grasp the Soviet Future : * And by doing so, they could give a powerful new thrust to the country's reform movement.

August 27, 1991|ELIZABETH SHOGREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — As tanks and armored personnel carriers closed in on the Russian Parliament late Tuesday night, 16-year-old Misha Podnakov was among thousands of young people standing arm-in-arm, ready to sacrifice their lives to resist dictatorship.

"We thought there would be a storm any minute," Podnakov said, remembering the emotion at the barricades as portable radios brought the news to the protesters that soldiers had been ordered to attack the Parliament. "There was incredible tension in the air. But none of us even considered running away. We knew that our futures depended on our resistance."

Three men died in the violence that night, but the bloodshed only intensified the resolve of the thousands of young people who held a vigil outside the enormous white Parliament building to protect Russian Federation President Boris N. Yeltsin and his government.

In their resistance to the attempted coup, the teen-agers and young adults of Russia--who had been conspicuously absent from the emergent democratic reform movement until last week--suddenly became one of the most influential factors in the battle for Soviet freedom.

Assuming that they stay politically engaged, these young people could give a powerful new thrust to the movement. And ultimately young new faces may appear in Russian or Soviet leadership lineups that have for more than seven decades been dominated by old or at best middle-aged men.

The new Soviet Defense Minister, Col. Gen. Yevgeny I. Shaposhnikov, said Sunday he plans to shake up 80% of the country's military leadership, with special emphasis on appointing people who are "younger, more loyal and incapable of anti-constitutional acts."

During a speech to mourners of the victims of the putsch, Yeltsin, choking back emotion, said he was especially grateful to the youth: "The young people were the first to stand up in defense of freedom and the independence of Russia."

During the crisis last week, one after another, the young people emerged as heroes of the people's resistance.

* Soon after the coup started, a student movement sprang into action--frantically telephoning student leaders at 20 universities and institutes and telling them to immediately spread the news that everyone should go to the Parliament and protect the first president Russia has ever elected.

* Just hours after being ordered to Moscow, a 23-year-old tank commander talked personally with Yeltsin and then persuaded his superior officer to break ranks by setting up their armor in defense of the Russian Parliament. They were the first of thousands of Soviet soldiers to pledge their support to Yeltsin and denounce the hard-line gang trying to overthrow their government.

* The majority of the people who built massive barricades out of concrete blocks, bricks, scrap metal and anything else available were in their teens or 20s. And these same volunteers--young men dressed in mismatched military fatigues, "Soviet hippies" with long hair and worn-out jeans and young women in mini-skirts and stiletto heels--also manned human barricades.

* Two of the three new state heroes buried over the weekend, who lost their lives trying to stop armored vehicles backing the coup, were young men who had recently finished their military service and were just starting their careers.

"In all the mass actions, the young people played a very big role," Vladimir Boxer, a grass-roots organizer for Democratic Russia, the most powerful democratic movement in the Russian Federattion, said. "For many people this was a surprise. . . .

"An especially important part was played by the Inter-University Union of cells of Democratic Russia, which includes more than 20 universities and institutes, which called up the student activists."

Many of the leaders of volunteer defense groups at the Russian Parliament were young businessmen who saw that they stood to lose everything if the coup were successful.

Vladimir Nikiforov, 24, the manager of a private business that runs restaurants, bars and beauty shops, said he and many of the 100 volunteers he managed had left their businesses unmanned and headed to the Parliament because they saw no other way to protect their futures.

"Our job is to keep order, make sure there's no panic, bring more people out here and, in general, to get prepared," said Nikiforov, who was dressed in German hiking boots and his father's old Soviet military uniform complete with flowing cape. "We are ready for anything. We've had enough of living under Communists and we want to live like normal people."

Whereas at most pro-democracy demonstrations over the last three years the percentage of people under 30 has been tiny, young people clearly made up the majority at the blockades last week, especially when the situation became critical.

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