Oleg Protopopov was trying to set things straight, which wasn't easy. He kept skating onto thin vocabulary.

"We don't defect Russia," he said. "We left Russia."

The distinction was not immediately clear. It wasn't political?

"No," he said, meaning "correct."

The motivation was more artistic, he said. Oleg Protopopov lives for art and so does Ludmila Belousova, his wife. That art will be on display tonight at the Capital Centre as the Ice Capades opens its Washington run. t

It wasn't a question of artistic freedom, exactly, said Oleg. That wasn't it.

"Sometimes the reporters wanted to show that some artists in the Soviet Union had no artistic freedom. I wanted to stress on this point, we had artistic freedom. We had it. We had opportunity to perform any kind of numbers because this is our creative work.But . . . the problem was that we had no opportunity to realize, uh. . . ."

Soft spot. Oleg faltered. He grappled silently with the English language. Ludmila made suggestions in Russian. They both concentrated.

"This . . .," said Oleg.

"Possibility," added Ludmila.

"Artistic . . .," said Oleg. "Uh, creative. . . ."

Dead end. He braked. Backed up and came around another way.

"I will explain you," he said. "For instance, you are a conductor. Or you are a pianst. For instance, Van Cliburn. And you say to him, 'you can play Tchaikovsky, you can play Beethoven, you can play any composer you want. As you like. But you see, unfortunately, we have only half a piano. If you can do it, have your artistic freedom.' In the same position was our art."

There is was, the metaphoric truth. Now presumably Oleg would translate from piano to ice.

"It concerns the size of the ice areana," he said, "which is very important for our art . . . because we say the soul of skating, this is gliding. If you have no room, you have no speed. If you have no speed, you have no gliding. If you have no gliding, you have no the art of skating."

That is, the Protopopovs, twic Olympic figure-skating champions, six times U.S.S.R. champions, four times European and World champions, Masters of Sport and members of the Order of the Red Banner, had left Mama Bear forever because the skating rink at the Leningrad Ice Ballet was too small.

"We have about 14 different classical numbers on the ice," said Oleg. "During six years, we performed only two numbers."

They could not glide.

So they slipped away to the West, Better working conditions.

The two previously exemplary Communist Party members asked for asylum shortly after arriving in Switzerland last September. Although their defection came as a complete surprise to both Swiss and Soviet officials, it was noted that Protopopovs arrived in the West with 10 pieces of baggage, including his videorecorder and her sewing machine. By November, they had signed a three-year contract with the Ice Capades. Reports circulated in the Soviet Union at the time calling them "two greedy, businesslike consumers."

A drastic move like that, a sea change, must have meant a big, dramatic change in their style of living -- it must mean everything is very different now, yes?

No.

"We like very much this life," said Oleg. "Because there is no difference, no change in the schedule of our work. In Russia was the same -- building, hotel, hotel, building. A reporter asked what you have seen and what do we like here? I said, 'Only this room, building and hotel.'"

"And Marcy's," said Ludmila, laughing.

Hey, what kind of story is this? "Two Flee Russia Over Dinky Rink. Find Life in U.S. Similar." Very dramatic.

The Protopopovs smiled, polite, eager to please. They were in their dressing room in Madison Square Garden, where the show played last week before sliding down to Washington.

Oleg did most of the talking. It wasn't clear whether it's because his English is better or that Ludmila just defers. She definitely understood the questions because she would frequently whisper to him in Russian or add an English word or two to the conversation.

He wore a spiffy blue blazer with pointly European-style lapels and a flowery cravat. She wore a sweater and slacks, a colorful pin at the throat and plain glasses with a Made-in-U.S.S.R. look that did little to flatter. Both are blond (and when he skates, he is blonder still, wearing a hairpiece for performances). He's 47, she 43. They are in terrific shape.

They sat in a bare-looking dressing room with cement block walls, a clothes rach and some costumes. There was the sleek Western-model sewing machine that Ludmila uses for costume repairs. It was cold in the room, and both of them had to put a sweater or robe on their laps.

Such rooms will be home for the Protopopovs for at least the next three years.

They have no children. They do have relatives they left behind -- Ludmila a sister, Oleg his mother. They miss them.

The work is everything and they have been doing it together for 25 years. To them it's high art. In the word of skating, the Protopopovs are known for developing a classical style, borrowing the movements of the ballet.

This is a strange thing to see in the Ice Capades, after watching the schlock routines strut by -- the disco number, the Fred Flintstone number the Spanish flamenco number. And then suddenly there is Beethoven and there are the Protopopovs gliding in formal balletic seriousness.

Slavic elves.

Oleg believes that they are pioneering the evolution of the figure skating form onto some new high plateau. "Now it is like a baby," he said, "this art of skating. Because I'm sure that the next step in the development in this kind of choreography is the creation of pure classical ballet on the ice. And now I can see that we, Ludmila and me, we are the first who tried to . . . who tried. . . .'

The word problem again. Frustrating for Oleg. He strives for exactness in the work, in everything else. He spoke in Russian to Ludmila.

"To grow?" she offered.

"Not to grow," he said thinking. "You see, we try to show to people that this is possible to create. Because many people, many professionals, they don't believe that there is now the opportunity to create a pure classical ballet on the ice. To be the first in the new way always is very hard."

Oleg said that Peggy Fleming came.

"In this moment you see in one shop you can buy food for a cat. In this interruption, you can forget a little bit the awful film. Maybe in this way, it's good.

Then he looked at his watch. "Oh to see them perform and cried and so did Tenley Albright. It was hard for him to explain why. "But the people who understand really understand."

Time was growing short. There were a few questions about their reactions to American life. Oleg expressed amused bewilderment over TV commericals.

Sometimes it irritate me a lot of advertisement," he said. "But sometimes it is very good. Maybe during the film where somebody killed another and when you feel yourself . . .

He tried to think of the word for fear, then acted it out, clutching his heart and gasping. my God," he said. "Half past one. We have to go, to skate."

There was a show that night but they had to practice. They practice at least an hour and a half a day, sometimes up to four hours.

They started changing into skating gear. Ludmila looked about 195 percent more glamorous when she took off the proletarian eye glasses.

Oleg did have a couple of questions of his own for the visiting American questioners about their bizarre country. What is the difference between advertising and publicity? he wanted to know. Like this interview -- who was paying whom for it? Also if he originates a routine to perform in the show, who owns it, him or the Ice Capades?

Not easy questions to answer. One did the best one could, then gave the Protopopovs their privacy.

A little bit later, they left their dressing room and went out on the ice where at last, free of all restraints, they could explain themselves.