MOSCOW -- Yuri Sokol is a retired Soviet Army officer, a member of the Communist Party, a decorated war veteran and a Jew. It was the belated discovery of his Jewish heritage that prompted him, at age 63, to open Moscow's first Jewish library this fall.

"My main goal is to defend what we fought for -- that is, the right of every person to know his history, culture and language," Sokol explained. "It happens that I am a Jew, and yet I don't know my language or culture."

At this point, the library is only one room in Sokol's apartment; many of the bookshelves are empty, and visitors so far have been rare. Still, at Sokol's request, district officials came to visit, looked at the books, the poster of the Hebrew alphabet, the portraits of Jewish Soviet leaders and told him that while the library does not qualify as a "community" service, it can exist as a "private" library for invited guests.

Sokol is not satisfied. He hopes one day to be granted official premises for a Jewish library, museum and cultural center.

The opening of Sokol's library is one small sign that old attitudes toward Jewish culture may be changing here. So far, the shifts are mostly symbolic, and many Jewish activists maintain that they are still a long way from achieving the full recognition needed for a Jewish consciousness to survive, let alone flourish in the Soviet Union.

Still, some, such as Sokol, argue that the new period of openness under Communist Party leader Mikhail Gorbachev is the moment to press for the restoration of a culture that has been lost by most Soviet Jews.

There are now an estimated 1.8 million Jews in the Soviet Union, and their identity as Jews is noted on their passports. What little official Jewish culture there is here is centered in the Jewish Autonomous Republic of Birobidzhan in the Soviet Far East, about 4,000 miles from Moscow, where there are no more than 20,000 Jews, or 10 percent of the population.

Here in the capital, with an estimated 200,000 Jews, there are no official schools teaching Yiddish or Hebrew, no after-hour schools, clubs or libraries devoted to Jewish themes. There is a journal published in Yiddish called Soviet Homeland, but, as Sokol said, holding up a copy, "I can't read it, so what good is it to me?"

The fate of Jewish culture in Russia is an old and painful issue, linked to a history of anti-Semitism still evident in Soviet society today. In recent years, campaigns to revive Jewish culture have been closely tied to the issue of emigration. In both cases, the official response has been harassment.

Jewish activism, equated with Zionism, was treated almost as a criminal offense. Hebrew teachers were arrested and imprisoned. An anti-Zionist committee was created that published hostile tracts. Books on Jewish culture and history mailed into the Soviet Union were stopped at the border. No books on the history of the Jewish people (except anti-Zionist ones) have been published here in 40 years. Attempts to organize seminars on Jewish history were denounced as political provocations, and the organizers were put under house arrest.

Now, some of this has changed. The last Jewish activist imprisoned in the Soviet Union was released this fall. Relations with Israel are warming somewhat. Emigration is again rising, although only slightly compared to the 1970s.

{Austrian Foreign Minister Alois Mock said this week in Vienna that as many as 900 Jews a month are now emigrating from the Soviet Union via Austria, a substantial increase over last year, when a total of only 901 Jews was allowed to depart in the entire year. By contrast, more than 50,000 Jews received permission to leave the Soviet Union in 1979.}

A recent shipment of 5,000 scriptures in Hebrew and Russian was received from abroad at Moscow's main synagogue, and last month Moscow's chief rabbi, Adolf Shayevich, was awarded the Order of Friendship of Peoples.

Some of the changes here seem to be aimed more at impressing foreign audiences than making an impact on local Jewish life. Last month, for instance, the synagogue on Arkhipov Street opened its kosher canteen to guests, making use of donations from Jewish communities abroad. However, according to Shayevich, the facility is mostly for foreign tourists.

"It is a Potemkin village," said Josef Begun, a Jewish activist and Hebrew teacher who was exiled and imprisoned for his activities and is now preparing to emigrate.

"The situation is very sad. Jewish people still have no right to Jewish schools, clubs. Now there are several generations who don't know their language, history or culture," he added.

Shayevich, one of four Soviet rabbis sent to Hungary to finish rabbinical school, does not dispute that Jewish religious and cultural life has been restricted.

"Seventy years of streamlined antireligious education has harvested its fruits," he said, although he noted a continuing demand for more information on Jewish traditions and culture.

But Shayevich said he sees changes taking place.

"I can say that relations with the state have changed dramatically" in the last two years, he said. "For instance, for 15 years we had not received books from abroad. Now we have."

But the changes most often demanded by activists are not even on the horizon. No Hebrew school is available for young people, although the synagogue now trains 10 young men to assist at services, and an official cultural center is "beyond our competence," said Shayevich. Many activists here dismiss the role of the synagogue, which they see as being in the control of a hostile state.

Like many Jews here, Sokol had only vague inklings of Jewish history. Born in the Ukraine, he grew up "ashamed to be a Jew."

But last year, when his mother died, Sokol decided to explore the sources of Christianity. That was when he stumbled across Judaism. From there, he went on to collecting books.