Against the backdrop of snow-covered Afghan mountains, Soviet soldiers were cheering their sergeant as he received an award for successes in "socialist competition." The photograph showed smiling faces framed by Red Army fur hats and a cheerful colonel, presumably delivering a pep talk.

The scene last week captured a "particularly unusual" moment, the caption said, because "the applause is resounding in the Afghan mountains, where silence is frequently broken by the shots from automatic weapons and the explosion of grenades."

The accompanying dispatch from the front gave a remarkable glimpse of the life of the Soviet conscript: lonely, cold and under attack in an unhospitable land where things are "very, very tough" for the Soviets.

The cruelty and ferocity of the fighting was illustrated by heavy casualties suffered by Moslem insurgents, who in January alone counted 2,223 dead and 1,117 captured, according to the account.

Yet, the dispatch in the Defense Ministry newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda said, "Thousands upon thousands of bandits, armed and trained abroad, pour across the border day after day" into Afghanistan.

Their savage tactics include the bombing of schools and hospitals, the paper said. Giving "the facts of the past few days," it described a woman being hacked to death in the street. In another incident, hostages were seized, tortured and skinned alive. In the Faizabad region, The wife and 13-year-old daughter of an Afghan security official were "brutally shot" by rebels.

But, it said, the Soviet soldiers' morale was high. The Kabul Army was described as hitting "mercilessly" at the rebels, and the dispatch implied that Soviet forces had taken part in last month's large-scale operations, quoting them as saying they would not leave the Afghan people in misery.

But the reference to a possible Soviet fighting role was never explicitly stated. During the 26 months since dispatching their Army into Afghanistan, the Soviets' vocabulary seems to have lost the word war.

Combat actions are described as "exercises." There is no mention of Soviet casualties.

Western analysts attribute the apparently exaggerated nature of much of Soviet war correspondence from Afghanistan to the dilemma that Moscow faces in addressing its domestic and foreign audiences.

At home, the war has reached, directly or indirectly, a large sector of the population. Approximately 400,000 Soviet troops have been rotated in and out of Afghanistan during the past 26 months. A substantial number of conscripts serving in the Soviet Union may be facing possible duty there in the future. Then there are Soviet casualties, which have never been revealed.

According to Western specialists, even assuming a relatively low rate of 5 percent injured among the 400,000 who have served in Afghanistan, the number of wounded should be substantial--about 20,000. It is known that the Soviets have converted two schools in Tashkent into military hospitals.

Against this background, and the noticeable thirst for information about the war, the authorities are under substantial pressure to provide details in order to keep their credibility.

At the same time, Moscow insists that the fight against the rebels is conducted exclusively by the Afghan Army and that the Soviet forces are merely providing training and other types of "fraternal assistance."

To concede a direct Soviet military role, according to this argument, would provide new opportunities for an international outcry including demands for details about the size of the Soviet contingent and the nature of its operations.

The job of maintaining the illusion that the Soviets are not involved in the fighting is a difficult one. Soviet sources privately acknowledge that the Afghan Army has virtually collapsed and that efforts are under way to rebuild it.

This may be reflected by the fact that at the time of increased rebel activity, the Afghan defense minister, his deputy, the chief of the Afghan Air Force and several other senior Afghan military officials remain in the Soviet Union--a visit that has lasted more than four months.

What the Soviet media focuses on instead, are the conflicting themes of "normalization" of life in the country and increased imperialist pressure from the outside to subvert the Soviet-backed government in Kabul.

The steady diet of accounts ranging from literacy studies to joint irrigation efforts to improve the quality of Afghan life is sprinkled with attacks on the United States, China and Pakistan for their support of "counterrevolutionary bandits."

The Krasnaya Zvezda dispatch from the front, published on the Soviet Army Day, provided an unusually frank account of the life of Soviet conscripts.

"We are not going to hide the fact that they are having a tough time, and sometimes it is very, very tough," the dispatch said. Yet their mood is "cheerful" and not one soldier the correspondent spoke to complained of hardship, and all are "in fighting spirit."

The correspondent described an Army camp in an unnamed valley with tents stretching in all directions "as far as the eye can see." On the eve of the Soviet Army Day last Tuesday, ending their "exercises" with a long tiring trek through slush and mire and a "strenuous attack" in a neighboring mountain pass, the soldiers spruced themselves up.

Sitting around a campfire and eating bowls of kasha, they reminisced about their home towns far from Afghanistan but close in spirit.

One officer, a major, was introduced as an amateur poet having written some heroic doggerel about his country's glorious role in defending Afghanistan against "dark clouds" created by its enemies.

"For a Russian it is the custom to help, I shall help you, Oh Afghan!" the major intoned.

This and a film shown to the troops that night for the first time introduced the theme that the soldiers are selfless patriots serving under hard conditions far from home to fulfill their "internationalist" duty much in the way their fathers did in the Spanish Civil War and World War II. The film, the article said, featured Soviet volunteers with internationalist brigades fighting for the Spanish city of Grenada against Franco's forces.

"Our coming to our neighbor's aid--at his urgent request--is not aggression or intervention, as ill-intentioned slanderers try to prove. The only duty of the Soviet military contingent is to help Afghanistan repel the threat from outside," the newspaper said.

The decision to publish the account on Army Day--a major holiday--apparently reflected a political need here to reassure the country that things in Afghanistan, however difficult, are not getting out of hand.

At the same time, the tone of the dispatch did not suggest that, to borrow the phrase, one could see light at the end of the tunnel.

The dispatch ended with what could be seen as an attempted morale booster for the Soviet forces in Afghanistan: "You should know, friends, that you live in every Soviet heart. People are proud of you, love you, remember you. The victory you have achieved is a victory of our Army, of our country, of brotherhood and nobility, a victory of internationalism."