Yuri Lyubimov laughs -- a despairing, Russian laugh -- at the tragic comic absurdity of making the transition from the most celebrated theater director in the Soviet Union to nonperson.

"They are trying to pretend I don't exist. The second edition of the history of the Soviet theater doesn't even mention me. My name has been removed from all the productions that I was responsible for. It's as if nobody staged them. Like the Immaculate Conception. And these gentlemen claim to be atheists."

Again, the laugh. The clear, pale blue eyes sparkle with a sense of righteous anger, combined with pleasure at finding a religious metaphor to satirize Communist bureaucrats.

For two decades, Lyubimov's theater on Moscow's Taganka Square was a place of pilgrimage for theater-lovers throughout Russia. Tickets vanished within minutes of the box-office's opening, reappearing on the black market for 20 or 30 times face value. Hours before any performance, long lines would form outside the theater in the slim hope that a few of the many tickets "reserved" for official guests might be returned unused.

Backstage, Lyubimov was involved in a running battle with the same officials who flocked to his theater. Suspicious that he was trying to smuggle hidden political allusions into his productions, the censors went through his plays line by line, demanding changes at each stage of rehearsal. He saved what he could by repeatedly threatening to resign and firing off letters to a succession of Soviet leaders from Leonid Brezhnev to Konstantin Chernenko.

This unequal struggle for artistic freedom ended last year in much the same way that it has ended for other leading Soviet cultural figures from novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn to cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich. After publicly giving vent to his frustrations while on a visit to Britain, Lyubimov was fired as director of the Taganka and stripped of his Soviet citizenship. All mention of his name was erased from the theater he founded and made famous throughout the world.

Speaking scarcely a word of any language besides Russian, Lyubimov has, at age 67, embarked on a new career in the West. In Paris this month, he won critical acclaim for an English-language adaptation of Dostoevsky's novel "The Possessed" at the Theater of Europe, which coincided with the publication in France of his autobiography. This summer he plans to travel to Washington, D.C., to complete production details for his American debut at Arena Stage, during the 1985-86 season.

Lyubimov bounces into the director's office in the Theater of Europe -- a repertory theater subsidized by the French government as a showcase for European drama -- closely followed by a personal interpreter without whose help he cannot function. In adjoining rooms, multilingual assistants are chattering away on the phone in a mixture of English, French, Italian and Russian.

"There is no point in me trying to learn another language at my age. If I was obliged to express my ideas in English, they would seem primitive, ill-formed. I have to find my own methods to overcome this linguistic barrier," he said.

Even more of an obstacle than language is the psychological and cultural gulf between East and West. In the Soviet Union, Lyubimov occupied a special place by virtue of the simple fact he was one of the few theater directors willing to challenge the canons of "Socialist Realism." In the West, he must compete with dozens of other creative and experimental directors.

"People keep on asking me here who I think my audience is. That's the kind of question I was never asked in Russia. In a country in which cultural and spiritual life is suppressed, everybody was very grateful for the slightest flicker of life, which the Taganka represented. Here you have everything -- and artists must look for an audience."

Since his dismissal from the Taganka, Lyubimov has been something of a nomad as he searches for a western niche. He has taken his London production of Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment" to Vienna and Bologna and staged Verdi's opera "Rigoletto" in Florence. But a proposal by the French minister of culture to give him his own theater in the Paris suburb of Bobigny fell through because of opposition from the local Communist municipality.

Lyubimov insists that he is not too disappointed by this decision, saying that he has had enough dealings with Communist officials to last him a lifetime. "I am quite happy not to have to work on Lenin Avenue or Karl Marx Street again," he jokes, referring to street names common to both the Soviet Union and Communist-run towns in France.

An assistant pushes a clutch of reviews of "The Possessed" from the French press under his nose. A report in Liberation, an independent leftist daily, is headlined "Yuri the Terrible." The French Communist Party newspaper, L'Humanite', has headlined its piece "Yuri the Magnificent" -- an obvious attempt to counterbalance the negative impact on French public opinion of the party's handling of the Bobigny affair. Lyubimov laughs and shakes his head. Communists are the same everywhere.

Lyubimov's autobiography, "Le Feu Sacre" (The Sacred Fire), charts his battles with the Soviet authorities since 1964 when he took over the run-down Drama and Comedy theater in Moscow and transformed it into the Taganka. Officials viewed with suspicion any attempt to breach the constraints imposed by Socialist Realism -- the doctrine that art should both reflect "real" life faithfully and serve as a source of inspiration for the construction of a Communist society.

The surrealistic quality of many of these confrontations is caught in the anecdote about the Soviet censor who, after examining an impressionistic stage design, told Lyubimov, "I'm warning you. Your trees must look like trees -- or the play will be taken off." Replied the exasperated theater director, "Can I have a few ants climbing up them, too?"

At local Communist Party meetings, Lyubimov was attacked for "creating a personality cult around himself," having "one foot in the Vatican," "ideological distortion," being "out of step" with the rest of the country. He was continually threatened with dismissal.

What enabled Lyubimov to survive as long as he did was his international reputation and the intervention of Kremlin leaders who viewed the theater as a source of prestige for Soviet culture and a relatively harmless outlet for the small class of frustrated Moscow-based intellectuals. Lyubimov credits Brezhnev and Yuri Andropov with saving the Taganka from closure on several occasions.

Lyubimov says he earned Andropov's gratitude by bluntly advising his children against a career on the stage because they were insufficiently talented. A Moscow rumor that an actor at the Taganka was the Soviet leader's son-in-law was, however, untrue. In a classic case of mistaken identity, which could probably only happen in a closed society like Russia, the actor (a certain "Filatov") suddenly found himself receiving a stream of television contracts because he was confused with the Andropov relative whose name was "Filippov."

The present Soviet leader, Konstantin Chernenko, comes across in the book as reasonably well disposed to the Taganka but ineffectual against the maneuverings of lower-level bureaucrats. It was immediately after Andropov's death and Chernenko's succession in February 1984 that Lyubimov was dismissed as the director of the Taganka.

The dismissal represented the fulfilment of a prediction by a Soviet official in London in September 1983, at a time when Lyubimov was rehearsing "Crime and Punishment" with a British theater company. Reacting angrily to an interview with The Times of London in which the Taganka director criticized Soviet cultural policy, the official remarked, "You have committed a serious crime. The punishment will certainly follow."

One way of interpreting Lyubimov's production of "The Possessed" is as a titanic struggle between Orthodox Christianity and atheistic ideologies such as Marxism. Writing in the 1870s, Dostoevsky seemed to predict the Russian Revolution and the subsequent rise of a totalitarian state.

The clash between Christianity and Marxism has a particular relevance for Lyubimov. Born in 1917, the year of the revolution, he was a member of the Soviet Communist Party for more than 30 years. But he was also a devout Christian -- and it was the Christian tradition that finally won the battle for his creative soul.

"The Bolsheviks understood how powerful religion was and fought it right from the beginning. They destroyed the churches and persecuted the believers. They substituted the history of the Communist Party for the Bible," Lyubimov says.

The topical nature of Dostoevsky's writings is one of the main reasons they fascinated Lyubimov so much at a time of his own disillusionment with the Soviet system. It also explains why the great 19th-century writer is regarded with so much suspicion by the Communist authorities. When Lyubimov tried to stage "The Possessed" at the Taganka in 1982, rehearsals were interrupted after six weeks.

"The fact that they prevented me from staging 'The Possessed' proves that they recognize themselves in this work," he says.

In the stage version of the novel, a band of revolutionary anarchists comes up with the idea of cementing its unity by liquidating one of its own members. There is talk of 10 percent of the nation forcing the remaining 90 percent along the path of "progress" -- and the "rotten liberalism" of the local governor paving the way for a workers' riot manipulated by the revolutionaries.

Like Dostoevsky, Lyubimov sees Marxism as a western ideology imported into Holy Russia with the conscious or unconscious aim of weakening the country. He differs sharply with the view of some historians, mainly in the West, who argue that the revolution gave a powerful new impetus to Russian absolutist traditions just as they were in the process of falling apart.

"Communism is totally foreign to the Russian culture, the Russian nation," he says passionately. "It was you westerners who sent Lenin to us from Switzerland. You put him in a specially sealed train and let him loose in Russia."

In "The Possessed," socialism is seen entering Russia through the utopian ideas of a naive middle-class German woman married to the governor.

After a year in exile, Lyubimov says he is amazed by the extent of ignorance in the West about the nature of the Soviet system. "I get the impression that nobody here has ever read a word of Marx and Lenin. They don't know what Communists are like."

Searching for ways to describe the reality of communism, he mentions the prison camps, the psychiatric treatment for dissidents, the tapped phones, the rising rate of alcoholism. "Can you imagine, if the Communists got into power here in France, there'd be no private restaurants, no oysters . . ."

His interpreter bursts out laughing. "Yuri adores oysters," she says. "He's been eating them ever since he got here."