The Soviet Union has tried and failed to alter a United Nations document citing the Soviet Union and East Germans as "gross violators of human rights."

The attempt, allegedly made with the collaboration of U.N. staff officials, was thwarted by a British delogate with the support of his U.S. colleague.

The affair took place last summer at Geneva in the U.N. subcommission on human rights and the details have just now been disclosed by the British delegate, Ben Whitaker, in an interview.

The Soviet response to the incident has been swift. Moscow is now urging the abolition of the subcommission "to rationalize the work of U.N. organs, stop parallelism and liquidate superfluous sectors."

The parent Commission on Human Rights is supposed to implement the U.N.'s eloquent declaration on this theme. The commission has been widely criticized by civil libertarians for its single-minded focus on abuses in South Africa, Israeli-occupied Arab lands and Chile.

Unlike the parent body, the subcommission is supposed to be made up of delegates independent of governments. They are charged with evaluating the 50,000 complaints that pour in each year to the commission. Some countries like Britain and the United States do nominate genuinely independent figures but most do not.

The Soviet Union delegate last summer was Sergei Smirnov, a veteran diplomat. Britain sent Whitaker, director of the Minority Rights Group, a private British body. The United States sent W. Beverly Carter, the black ambassador to Liberia who previously had clashed with former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, and John Carey, the liberal mayor of Rye, N.Y.

On Aug. 19, Whitaker disturbed the even tenor of the subcommission's discussion by drawing attention to "gross violations" outside the familiar South African-Israeli-Chilean trio. He mentioned several Latin American countries but, most importantly, he accused the East Germans of breaching the human rights declaration and its promise that any citizen can freely leave and return to his country. He also charged the Soviets with censoring and destroping letters complaining of Soviet abuses.

At the end of the session Sept. 1, the delegates were asked to approve a report that was supposed to be a faithful reflection of their discussion. The draft listed every country that had been cited with two notable exceptions, East Germany and the Soviet Union plus Uruguay. Whitaker believes Uruguay was omitted as a thin cover for the more sensitive pair.

Whitaker promptly called attention to the oversight, but the chairman, who happened to be Smirnov, the Soviet diplomat, tried to push the draft through without change.

As Whitaker recalled the heated argument, Sjirnov contended that only one delegate had complained of the Soviet Union and East Germany. But only one delegate had complained of Brazil, Whitaker retorted, and its name was on the list.

Tmirnov said his heart was troubling him and pleaded for a two-hour break, evidently hoping to find absent delegates to vote Whitaker down. U.S. delegate Carey vigorously backed up the Briton and only a 20-minute pause was allowed.

After a half-dozen attempts, Smirnov yielded, a vote was taken and the report was corrected to include East Germany and the Soviet Union.

How could the incomplete draft have been submitted?

"Censorship of a draft can only be achieved by the cooperation or collusion of the U.N. staff and a member," Whitaker said. "I think Smirnov was twisting the arm of the top of the (commission) secretariat."

Marc Schreiber, a Belgian, is the director of the Human Rights Commission and his aides draft all the reports.In a telephone interview from Geneva, Schreiber said that Whitaker's charge "is an irresponsible statement and not consistent with the facts."

He added, however, "I can't tell you what discussion took place between me and the Soviet Delegate. They were part of confidential discussions."

"This particular incident is not unusual in U.N. meetings," he said, explaining that draft reports are frequently altered from the floor. In any event, "The Soviet Union was only mentioned once" in the debate, the same argument advanced by Smirnov.

Finally, Schreiber insisted that the draft was the responsibility of the subcommission's rapporteur or secretary, "a lady from Kenya."

The Kenyan delegate, Mrs. Kezia Njeri Egeria Kinyanjuri was the session's rapporteur. Virtually all U.N. meetings select a delegate as rapporteur, but drafting is invariably performed by paid U.N. officials.

Schreiber, 61, was not allowed to succeed himself and a new human rights director, Theo Van Boven of the Netherlands, has just been announced to replace him at the end of March.

Whitaker has called for a formal U.N. inquiry into the attempt to doctor the record and Schreiber has said he would respond to its questions.

"We can't have selective censorship or history rewritten," Whitaker said. "I think this is very serious indeed."

In Moscow, The International Relations Publishing House has just issued a book V.A. Kartashkin, "The International Defense of Human Rights," that says the government-dominated Human Rights Commission should take over the subcommission's work because its "activity has not hitherto produced any significant results." Wiping out the subcommittee, the book says, will "rationalize" the U.N.'s work.