This proud capital was stunned and stung today by the political defections of Oleg and Ludmilla Protopopov, the revered figure skating team long richly rewarded here for bringing high art to their sport and world esteem to the Soviet Union.
The couple's defection in Switzerland brings to five the number of well-known soviet performers who have chosen the West over Mother Russia in the past month, and there are predictions of possibly more to come until the Soviets can restore blanket control and discipline over their many traveling artistic troupes.
An official of the government's powerful Soviet Sports Committee told Western reporters he was astonished by the news.
"For sports personalities of their standard, there are no problems. They had everything they wanted here."
Indeed, the couple of Olympic gold medalists have been privileged members of a privileged slice of the classless society for more than 15 years, hailed as exemplary citizens who combined political orthodoxy -- both are Communist Party members -- with faultless sportsmanship. For their part, the four-time world figure skating champions often extolled the virtues of the communist way in public statements and appearances, giving no sign of dissatisfaction with their statue or artistic opportunities.
Russians who had heard the news were unable to turn away with the muttered "never heard of them" they had used to evade Westerners' questions about the earlier defections of three ballet dancers. Instead, the reaction was the quizzical look of people who had been insulted beyond deserving and can't yet find the way to express their anger. The Protopopovs were well-known, admired fixtures in a country filled with rabid sports fans.
That these two "honored masters of Soviet sport" have joined the dramatic recent defections of three prominent dancers from the Bolshoi Ballet underscores the fact that flight to the West by Soviet performers frequently has as much to do with clash of lifestyles and artistic opportunities as it does with choosing one political system over another.
In the words of one seasoned Western observer, the decision of the Protopopovs may be more analogous to the choice by an American of New York over Topeka than it is to any profound political soul-searching. The same may be said of Leonid and Valentina Kozlov, the Bolshoi couple who defected last week in Los Angeles. They were known here as political regulars who checked up on their colleagues in the ballet company.
The two couples thus seem different from Alexander Godunov, the talented young Bolshoi dancer whose defection in August in New York led to a three-day Soviet-American confrontation at Kennedy Airport until his wife, ballerina Ludmilla Vlasova, told U.S. officials she wanted to return to Russia. Godunov had a Moscow reputation as a man who wore his love for the West on his sleeve long before he sought political asylum.
Even so, one ballet aficionado suggested here recently that Godunov's move was spurred chiefly by dissatisfaction over the scarcity of challenging, principal roles for Bolshoi artists.
Although the Kozlovs were not stars and are said to have only limited capacity for future growth in their careers, the same scarcity of opportunity applied to them.
The situation of the defecting figure skaters was different. At 47 and 43, respectively, Oleg and Ludmilla Protopopov are well beyond competitive supremacy and the kind of inflated accolades the Soviets heap on their world-class athletes. Although their positions were secure as politicall reliable sportsmeni, the future for them eventually would narrow down to pensioners' status, living in circumstances that any sophisticated Westerner would consider pinched, with little chance at the forbidden fruits offered by a foreign tour -- the adulation, fame, and access to Western goods that Soviet citizens in all walks of life increasingly covet.
Coming as they do from a country where art and politics are inextricably intertwined, these five defections cannot be fairly assessed simply as cases of opportunism. Many performers struggle for years to find breathing room within the strictures of this ideological state, with its stiff dicta on what is morally and politically acceptable artistic creativity.