MOSCOW, JAN. 29 -- Valery Burkov was a soldier in Afghanistan when he realized that his war was different from the one his family was hearing about back in western Siberia.

The story he tells is about a battle in Kandahar in 1984, in the days when the war was not even called a war, when Soviets bearing arms in Afghanistan were not fighting, but fulfilling their "international duty." As one of the casualties of the conflict, Burkov -- now a 30-year-old veteran who walks on artificial limbs -- sees a gap between his experience and what the Soviet people were told about the war.

"I heard on Soviet radio how an operation had been carried out in the Kandahar region by Afghan forces who eliminated 600 of the enemy, captured a cache of arms. . . .

"I listened, and I thought, 'Something is wrong here.' Yes, there was an operation; yes, there were Afghans. But to put it bluntly, there were only 10 of them, compared to a thousand of us. For the most part, we were the ones doing the fighting. The Afghans went first, but as soon as shots were heard, they turned back and ran toward us, yelling . . . . They did not go themselves because there were too few of them."

The Kandahar case was far from unique, according to Burkov and two other veterans who recently met with several western reporters in the editorial offices of the weekly Ogonyok.

"It was not pleasant to hear how our press distorts reality. It undermines faith, faith in what is said and what is written," concluded Burkov, who served as an Air Force liaison with Soviet ground forces.

As a result of the long blackout on news of Soviet fighting in Afghanistan, the war is still barely understood by many people back home. This has posed a special burden for returning Afghan veterans -- Afghantsi as they are called here -- who sometimes have to convince their audiences that what they were involved in really was a war that left Soviet men dead or wounded.

An article in the weekly magazine Cmena recently described how the first Afghantsi were under instructions to make the war sound almost pleasant.

"They were often invited to speak at schools and were warned before the lectures: 'For God's sake, don't say that it is bloody there; you know, so that there won't be any talk about people dying.' "

The number of Soviet dead in Afghanistan is still unknown, although unofficial western estimates put the figure at 12,000. Soviet veterans, asked if the time has come to publish the official figure, said the totals are not important.

"Knowing the numbers will not make it easier for anyone," said Capt. Sergei Sokolov, an Air Force pilot.

Now, as diplomatic efforts may be bringing the war into a final phase, Afghan veterans are becoming increasingly vocal. In the new era of openness, the press is assisting with more stories about the difficulties of their readjustment to civilian life. Afghan war songs, once forbidden, are now being released on records. Local clubs, and now a national organization, have been formed to lobby for veterans' rights and to raise money for a monument honoring the Soviet dead in Afghanistan.

As a result of the attention, the war, once a distant rumor punctuated by occasional tales of epic bravery, is coming home in a way it never has before. Both veterans and civilians are beginning to grapple with such basic questions as one posed by Sokolov last week: "For the sake of what did I go through all this?"

It is a question posed openly here now -- at discussions sponsored by Ogonyok, where veterans are popular speakers, in newspaper articles and in private homes. As Soviet diplomats intensify their effort to bring the estimated 115,000 troops home, the public is apparently being prepared for a national political debate over the purpose of the war.

In conversations last week, three Afghan veterans echoed what appears to be the common line: that Soviet troops were sent into Afghanistan before local conditions were fully understood, that the war dragged on much longer than expected and that U.S. support for the rebels contributed to prolonging the conflict just as much as Soviet intervention.

Asked what is likely to emerge in Afghanistan after a pullout of Soviet troops, Sokolov, 29, said, "Probably the same thing we had after {the Russian Revolution} in 1917, when we were building a new society -- that is, a civil war."

"I would not say our efforts came to naught," he said. "I am not able to judge that. Just let the Afghans decide their fate: If it will be a socialist system, fine; if not, fine."

Sokolov said he remains convinced of the Soviet Union's good intentions in going into Afghanistan to help the Kabul government. But Burkov said, "Our government did not want what ended up happening -- namely, that it would go on for eight years."

The veterans rejected comparisons with Vietnam. In the first place, they said, the war in Afghanistan was well intentioned. Secondly, Soviet soldiers were well-behaved, they said. And third, unlike the reaction of some Americans toward returning Vietnam veterans, Soviet "people don't blame us for the war," as Burkov put it.

Still, returning Afghan veterans face problems common to all soldiers coming home from wars. They said life at home seems disjointed, without values, without the friendship that binds people in battle. They see a world divided between those who shared their experience and those who did not.

"I saw with my own eyes what grief war brings, but many people do not know this and think that it is all some kind of joke," said Sokolov.

Coming home to Soviet society, the veterans complain about their first encounters with "negative phenomena" -- a category of social ills that range from irreverent, fad-happy teen-agers to indifferent bureaucrats.

Two years ago, the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda published a letter about a veteran of Afghanistan who was so disturbed by the materialism that he saw around him and by speculators and black marketeers that he organized a vigilante group of like-minded veterans to move against such law breakers.

"When people come back from there, these negative influences jump right out at them -- for instance, the indifference that hides behind documents and paperwork," Sokolov said. "Sometimes you just feel mean, you want to grab them and kill them. It is hard to explain.

"And in the end, there is a kind of intense feeling, an unpleasant taste in your mouth -- for the sake of what did I go through this? Why can't people understand?

"Then you understand . . . that for them it is difficult to understand. For that, we need reporting . . . that elucidates things more fully."