THE struggle for the hearts and minds of Soviet youth is a central element of Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of glasnost. Mr. Gorbachev's supporters realize that only by changing the attitudes of the country's new generation will it be possible to carry out reforms that last into the 21st century. During a recent stay in the Soviet Union, I witnessed a disturbing episode that illustrates the difficulty of changing the character and attitude of the USSR's most loyal young cadres.
In Volgograd last summer, a Soviet friend, Ivan, informed on a Western friend of mine for distributing a few harmless questionnaires on Soviet perceptions of America. This nearly resulted in the Western student being expelled from the country. I later discovered that Ivan, with whom I had regularly socialized, was a leader of the local Komsomol, the Communist Party's youth organization (age 14 to 30).
Ivan could simply have requested that my friend stop distributing the questionnaires; he contacted the local authorities instead. Ivan also implicated his friend Vladimir, by telling the authorities that Vladimir had assisted the Westerner in distributing the questionnaires.
The issue of what would motivate a young man to betray friendships goes to the heart of the Soviet system. Soviets with whom I've discussed the incident agree that the Komsomol leader was trying to demonstrate his vigilance by turning in a foreigner - a move that could boost his career.
A Soviet teacher said that Ivan's behavior reminded her of the young people described by Anatoly Rybakov in his novel ``Children of the Arbat.'' In the book, Yuri Sharok flourishes as an informer and member of the NKVD (forerunner to the KGB), while his childhood friends fall victim to Stalinist terror. Prior to glasnost it is likely that this teacher, age 25, would have approved of Ivan's behavior. But after reading about the Stalin era, her attitudes are changing. The debate about Soviet history and works like ``Children of the Arbat'' have compelled some young Soviets to reexamine their ethical standards, a tangible result of glasnost.
Soviet schools and mass media taught Ivan to distrust Americans. He had a detailed knowledge of America's homeless problems and US policy in Central America, yet never criticized the USSR. While most Soviet friends at least commented on the difficulty of obtaining certain consumer items, Ivan showed not a bit of glasnost in describing life in the USSR. The general intolerance and extreme anti-Western rhetoric of people like Ivan is unfortunate, because Komsomol activists like him will be part of the country's future leadership.
In the past few years, a backlash against the Komsomol has emerged. For example, an article in Komsomolskaya Pravda noted that the organizational framework of the Komsomol may encourage the rise of ``careerists'' - future conservative bureaucrats. Gorbachev supporters identify bureaucrats as the main obstacle to reforming Soviet society.
A more dramatic critique of the Komsomol appeared in Mikhail Shatrov's play ``Dictatorship of Conscience.'' Komsomol members are displayed as hypocrites who say whatever is necessary to please their superiors. Moreover, Komsomol members in the play not only smoke marijuana and shoot up heroin, but nearly gang rape a young woman. This degree of criticism shocked Soviet audience members.
To combat the falling membership in the Komsomol (a decline of 4 million people in 3 years), older party figures have encouraged the Komsomol leaders to organize rock festivals and to support the growing environmental movement. But since many Soviets still consider Komsomol leaders to be untrustworthy, there is little prospect this tactic will increase membership.
A recent Pravda editorial argued that the spread of apathy and discontent among Soviet youth ``is the consequence of the spiritual diet that we fed to young people for decades and of the discrepancies between what was said on rostrums and what actually happened in real life.'' To put it more bluntly - many Soviet youths are fed up with the official hypocrisy.
However, there are some signs of a youth awakening. Komsomolskaya Pravda reported recently that more than 10,000 young people protested air pollution in Nizhnyi Tagil, against the wishes of the local party leaders. Another example is the Delta movement in Leningrad, which has protested plans to build a dam on the Neva River.
For decades, educators taught Soviet school children that 13-year-old Pavlik Morozov was a hero for informing on his kulak father during collectivization. But in the past year, press articles have criticized the legend of Pavlik Morozov and a park in Moscow has removed his name from its place of honor. The March issue of Yunost wrote that Morozov's actions were an example of ``legalized and romanticized treachery ... the spirit of which even now has not died out.''
Americans should be aware that for lasting change to occur in the USSR, Soviet young people must rethink old prejudices and past norms of behavior. We can only hope that their attitudes will change to reflect a greater tolerance of the outside world. But as Ivan's behavior illustrated, old attitudes do not die easily.
Stuart Anderson is the deputy director of the Bethesda Institute for Soviet Studies, a nonpartisan research organization in Bethesda, Md.