MOSCOW -- When Artyom Borovik was young he read Ernest Hemingway's terse accounts of the Spanish Civil War and Michael Herr's "Dispatches," a ground-level view of the war in Vietnam. It never dawned on him then that the Soviet Union would ever allow, much less require, such relentless description in order to come to terms with one of the most humiliating episodes in its history.

"For years the real war in Afghanistan, the shooting, the dying, wasn't in the press," said Borovik, 27, an editor at Ogonyok magazine. "All you ever read about were the Afghan people saying, 'Yes, of course, we are building socialism.' But it was ridiculous. Everyone was supposed to believe we were planting rose gardens in Afghanistan."

In Borovik's articles for Ogonyok -- which were excerpted in the February issue of Life magazine -- he steered clear of ideology in favor of the voices and scenes of battle. Death, useless and brutal, is everywhere in his pages. After a month in the field, Borovik got soldiers to tell him how long it takes to feel the pain of a bullet tear into a shoulder -- "five seconds on the nose" -- why they got rid of their useless Army-issued boots in favor of sneakers, how the rebels would slit open a prisoner's stomach, bend him over and shove his head into his own guts.

"Soldiers will talk to you from their hearts if you are flat on your stomach next to them during an ambush," Borovik said. "It's an ideal interviewing situation."

The State Department has estimated that since the Soviet invasion in December 1979, 1 million Afghans, most of them civilians, have been killed, as have perhaps 12,000 Soviet troops. But for years, the Soviet Union was virtually silent on the war. Only when veterans began returning and telling their stories did people begin to learn. Still, the press ignored it.

"There wasn't any glasnost yet, and so Soviet reporters had a great excuse to avoid the war," Borovik said. "They'd show up at the Ariana Hotel in Kabul, do a few interviews with diplomats who never left their embassies and then write about the cause of 'internationalism.' But in Kabul, the war looks like nothing. Kabul is not Afghanistan."

After Mikhail Gorbachev took power and instituted a policy of glasnost, or open discussion, publications such as Ogonyok, Moscow News and Sovietskaya Rossiya began printing articles on the mafias that run the cemeteries, on taxi businesses, even on women in the country's Islamic republics burning themselves to death to avoid arranged marriages.

Borovik saw his opportunity. Last year he asked Ogonyok's editor in chief, Vitaly Korotich, to send him to Afghanistan, to "the real war" outside Kabul. Korotich agreed, but in order for Borovik to fly in bombers and join Soviet troops in battle, they needed permission at the highest levels.

Korotich phoned Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev, the head of the Soviet armed forces, and asked him to let Borovik have free rein. Akhromeyev hesitated, reportedly saying, "We just haven't done that before." But he finally agreed, so long as Korotich took responsibility.

"I guess they loved the idea of sending writers in against the bullets," Korotich said, smiling.

Although the general profusion of useful articles in the press could never have happened without sanction from the Politburo, editors here say that discovering the limits of glasnost is guesswork. Korotich already has been blasted by government officials and more conservative journals for such items as moving Lenin's picture from the cover to the contents page and printing an article that criticized a former head of the writers' union for building a museum to himself in Tomsk.

"Look, we paid with 25 years of our lives because of the last regime," Korotich said. "A lot of young talent was lost, never had a chance. So my strategy now has been to build personalities, well-known young journalists. So long as the attacks concentrate on me and those personalities, like Artyom, are writing, we can survive."

Artyom Borovik is a child of privilege. His father, Genrikh Borovik, is a prominent journalist and chairman of the official Soviet Peace Committee. The elder Borovik's access to the government and the KGB is such that he has interviewed CIA defector Edward Lee Howard and Kim Philby, the famous, reclusive defector from British intelligence who is now an officer in the KGB. Some here suppose the son's quick ascent was made similarly easy.

In the 1950s, Genrikh Borovik reported for Ogonyok in Cuba, where he interviewed Fidel Castro and Hemingway, whom Soviet readers of foreign literature tended to consider a deity.

Between 1966 and 1972, the Boroviks lived on Riverside Drive in New York. The elder Borovik worked for the Novosti press agency and his son attended Dalton, a posh private school where the limousine is the primary mode of arrival. The younger Borovik describes American guests coming to the family apartment all the time: Arthur Miller, Norman Mailer, John Updike, Mary Hemingway.

"But I guess what sticks in my mind from those years is the Vietnam war," Artyom Borovik said. "I remember Walter Cronkite giving the casualty figures and general {William C.} Westmoreland giving his side. I remember that famous phrase of someone saying they destroyed a village in order to save it. My dad was always writing articles about people who were refusing to go to war."

Fluent in English and Spanish and trained in journalism at the elite Institute for International Relations here, Borovik could have worked his way up the apparatchik ladder at the Foreign Ministry.

"I spent a year working at the embassy in Peru writing reports that no one cared about," he said. "I wanted action."

With a head filled with Hemingway and Herr, the Vietnam journalism of David Halberstam and the war novels of Vassily Grossman and Yuri Bondarev, the cherubic child of the Soviet elite went to war. And in Afghanistan he played the part of the semirebellious son with distinction.

"I'd always wanted to try drugs," he said. "One day a kid came up to me and said, 'Commander, commander, try to fly, get high.' He gave me a 'cigarette' and I smoked it. I liked it. I tried maybe 10 cigarettes and it felt very nice, like I was lifting off the ground. It was so nice, but I couldn't work. It's like nothing mattered -- the war, problems, nothing. But my dreams were so vivid, realer than life, even. I dreamed I was flying just above the road to my childhood house. And no one thought it was strange that I was flying."

Borovik said he did not doubt that some Soviet forces, support staff and reporters in Afghanistan were using drugs -- "They are there for the asking" -- but he said the soldiers he traveled with avoided them. "To carry a 50-pound rucksack and walk 10, 15 miles and fight -- well, you just can't afford to be on drugs or drinking too much."

What Borovik was least prepared for were the darkest corners of the violent imagination. Night after night, the Soviet soldiers talked about why they were so frightened of the rebels:

"They told me everything: how the rebels would cut off your penis, your nails. They'd stick burning cigarettes into your skin. They'd impale you on a sharp pole. They'd tie your limbs to four camels and make them run in all separate directions. They'd slice the skin around your waist, then pull the skin over your head like a shirt and then throw your still-live body onto the hot sand."

Borovik said that he also had heard about "severe beatings" by the Soviets against rebels, but they were hidden from him. "When I was with them they didn't do anything. Maybe because I'm a reporter. But it's logical that they'd want revenge for something done to their comrades."

The music the soldiers made in Afghanistan is like something out of "Apocalypse Now." Singing combined with the authentic recording of a helicopter pilot saying he has been hit and is about to die. Recordings like "Ballad of the Helicopter Pilot" can now be found on the underground market in Moscow.

The music was the right accompaniment for Borovik's most frightening night in Afghanistan.

Throughout his trip, he was dressed for combat, armed with a Kalashnikov rifle, six magazines of ammunition and two grenades. "They told us that you always save the last grenade for yourself in case you need to blow yourself up."

"Personally, I didn't want to do any shooting," he said. "I felt I was a journalist. I was there to write and see and not to prove anything to myself."

Encamped on a hill one night, Borovik and some soldiers waited for rebels to travel along a deserted road. During the ensuing firefight, Borovik spotted some rebels coming from the rear and he opened fire. When the shooting stopped, he and the soldiers walked to the rebels, dead in the moonlight.

"In the center of the stream bed next to a smooth boulder, an Afghan lay dead, his knees drawn up to his chin," Borovik wrote. "His eyes were open. They gazed in surprise at the sky. His narrow, swarthy forehead was still covered with small drops of sweat. Each of them shone in the moonlight, which had now become like the fluorescent light of a morgue.

"The chest of another of his comrades was delicately tattooed with the 48th chapter of the Koran. A third rebel lay with his face down in the pebbles. His left hand held a machine gun, and to pry it loose we had to unclench his fingers. The bullet had passed through his Adam's apple. In his right pocket was a cellophane packet of raisins and walnuts."