It is not like 1969, when the government was able to soften the grief by telling families their soldier sons had died in patriotic defense of the motherland against the Chinese.

This time, the government death notices sent privately to families say only that the soldier fell "while carrying out his duties." But everyone knows what that means -- their man was killed in Afghanistan.

It is painful for any nation to lay its war dead to rest without appropriate ceremony, public notice or citation. For the Soviet people, steeped in the heroic sacrifice of their forces in World War II, the official silence about how many Soviets have died or been wounded in clashes since the Dec. 27 Soviet invasion has stirred rumors and reports of hundreds of thousands of casualties.

These rumors are now seeping into this capital in grim counterpoint to the propagandists' claims that near-tranquility reigns in the Marxist-run country to the south.

There are rumors that some of the dead have been so badly mutilated that their coffins were permanently sealed. Other rumors talk of frustrated parents demanding without success to know how their sons died, and why they earned no public recognition for their battlefield deaths.

Some say hospitals in Tashkent, a major marshaling point for Soviet troops heading over the border and returning from duty, are filled with the wounded and that schools, dormitories and rest homes around the Uzbekistan capital have been turned over to the military to treat the injured. Others say many wounded have been flown to East Germany for treatment to minimize the impact of their numbers.

But no one knows for sure.

Quite apart from the repressive tactics available to the authorities here in dealing with Soviet masses, public ignorance gives the Kremlin virtually unlimited amounts of domestic political time to deal with the Afghanistan intervention as it chooses, in the view of observers here.

Soviet leaders cannot fear that public opinion will build within the country demanding explanations of why Soviets are dying or how long the bloodshed will go on.

Nothing can take root here like the Vietnam war opposition that grew in the United States, forcing Lyndon Johnson from a reelection bid and driving President Nixon into White House isolation long before Watergate.

Nevertheless, the casualties are growing. Some Western sources estimate that up to 5,000 Soviets may have been killed, wounded or injured in the two months since Soviet forces carried out the Kabul coup that installed pro-Moscow Afghan communist Babrak Karmal and killed his predecessor, Hafizullah Amin.

Some Westerners say the casualty rate has been much higher then they could have expected, since there have been only a few pitched battles reported. The Soviets have concentrated on garrisioning the country's major cities, attempting to keep the main roads open and building up materiel for a probable major offensive once the mountain passes are free of snow.

Although the rebels have few heavy arms and no aircraft, and so far have failed to coordinate their operations, most foreign military analysts believe the Soviets may have to double or triple their estimated 90,000 troops to establish firm control in the country. A knowledgeable Soviet source agreed that the Soviets must do this, "if they want to make the guerrillas realize that resistance is hopeless."

Besides the serious damage such an escalation would bring to Soviet attempts to repair their foreign relations with dozens of countries in the aftermath of the intervention, the leadership must assess its own internal handling of the conflict in anticipation of much higher casualties once an offensive begins.

Some veteran sources suggest this is part of the reason Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev has seemed to hint twice in the past week that the Soviets may be interested in exploring a possible negotiated settlement.

"While they ponder what to do, they are keeping their options open," one source said.

Brezhnev has said that Moscow would withdraw after ironclad guarantees by the United States and other countries to cease alleged subversion of the Kabul Marxists. Some European leaders have also suggested a neutralized Afghanistan in return for a Soviet withdrawal.

But seen from here, according to one source, "if they can achieve a decisive military blow in a spring or summer offensive, the leaders won't have to concern themselves with the question of neutrality for Afghanistan."

Then the unexplained sacrifices of today would be worth it -- to the Kremlin. Meanwhile, the bodies are brought back and the rumors fly.