Yuri Lyubimov, the Soviet Union's most distinguished theatrical director, has been granted official British protection after he denounced Soviet authorities in a London newspaper interview last week and then refused to meet with Soviet diplomats to discuss the issue.
Lyubimov, 65, has not requested political asylum, according to British sources, nor, at this time, is he planning to do so, say his friends. But his request to the Foreign Office for protection reflects a concern that the Soviets might try to force his return to Moscow or otherwise harass him, his wife and child while they are here, officials said.
The impact of the case on the Soviet political and cultural establishment is bound to be considerable. Lyubimov has long been a pillar of the country's intelligentsia, depleted in recent years by the exile or defection of such luminaries as Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Mstislav Rostropovich and Rudolf Nureyev. Among those who remain, Lyubimov is considered a symbol of the willingness to challenge the restraints of orthodox party artistic policies.
While he decides on his next move, Lyubimov has requested and received a one-month extension of his British visa.
He came here earlier this summer to direct a dramatization of Dostoyevsky's "Crime and Punishment," which opened last week at the Lyric Theater.
On the day of the premiere, the London Times published a long interview with Lyubimov in which he vented his frustrations with the restrictions that Soviet authorities increasingly have placed on his work at home and his ability to travel abroad. For a man who has known throughout his lifetime the perils to Soviet citizens of speaking out, the outburst was plainly a serious matter.
"I am 65," he told the Times' deputy arts editor, Bryan Appleyard, "and I simply don't have the time to wait until these government officials finally arrive at an understanding of a culture that will be worthy of my native land. I'm tired after 20 years of analyzing their decisions. Most recently, I feel that their decisions do not contribute to the cultural prestige of my country. . . .
"The majority of applications for my theater to work abroad have been denied. Every time I go abroad it is a complex, tense and humiliating situation."
That evening, Lyubimov was accosted in the theater lobby by a Soviet diplomat who sought to persuade him to come to the embassy to discuss the interview. When Lyubimov refused, the diplomat became abusive, according to a Russian emigre present at the exchange. Late last week, Lyubimov turned to the British for protection, but officials refused today to say how it was being provided.
Lyubimov was last seen at the theater yesterday afternoon. His present whereabouts are unknown. A Soviet official visited the Lyric today, but a theater spokesman told him he had no idea where the director is.
At Lyubimov's Taganka Theater on the Moscow Ring Road, his name was still on the board outside as chief director, Washington Post correspondent Michael Dobbs reported from Moscow. An administrator at the theater said she did not know when Lyubimov would be coming back.
Lyubimov is the founder and guiding spirit of the Taganka Theater and from there he has been responsible for more than two decades for the most innovative and exciting work in Soviet drama. His creative skills and technical mastery combined with a shrewd sense of how to outwit censors have enabled him to function at the outer limits of the permissible in Soviet culture.
The Taganka repertoire contains classic and contemporary plays that Lyubimov has rendered in ways that are either esthetically bolder or politically franker than the work of other theaters. Any Taganka ticket is a much-valued Moscow prize sought after by the official elite and foreigners. One of the explanations for the theater's survival is that few ordinary Soviets can ever get inside.
Lyubimov told the Times that three productions have been banned in the past three years, including Pushkin's "Boris Godunov."
"I cannot accept this," he said. "I cannot allow myself to be trampled underfoot."
While his problems were already worsening at the end of the era of Leonid Brezhnev, Lyubimov indicated that cultural policies under the government of Yuri Andropov are growing even more restrictive. He said he has submitted his resignation as director of the Taganka but that it had not been accepted.
"April 23 marks the twentieth anniversary of the theater," Lyubimov told the Times, "so these functionaries have had enough time to define their relationship with us. The present conditions they have created mean that my work is impossible, and I've told them so. I've offered my resignation. There is no reaction from Andropov. He has neither confirmed nor denied it so I continue to work.
"They asked me what solution do I see to the present situation, and I said the only solution I can see is my retirement. My offer was not accepted. I am a man of firm discipline and, therefore, I continue to do my work."
Lyubimov, who has the patience of a master craftsman, sometimes rehearsing plays for a year or more, can also be extremely volatile. He feuded with authorities several years ago over his plans for a production of "Queen of Spades" at the Paris Opera and his permission to go to France was revoked.
Yet through it all, Lyubimov has remained a member of the Communist Party and a staunch Russian patriot.
"I've been in the party for 30 years now," he said in the interview. "When I was relatively young, the older members of the party wanted to attract me. They thought I was an honest person and they wanted honest people to join the party. . . . There are morally upright and very honest writers who are still living in the Soviet Union. As in every society there are other people, careerists who speculate on the arts--but there are honest and decent people as well."
Recent speeches by top Soviet officials--in particular Konstantin Chernenko, regarded as Andropov's leading rival--have called for a harder line on cultural questions.
Thus it came as a surprise when Lyubimov was permitted to accept an invitation from the Lyric Theater, after five years of problems in getting approval from Soviet authorities. He was allowed to take his wife and 4-year-old son.
According to Lyubimov's friends, his blast in the Times and another on the British Broadcasting Corp. are his means of putting public pressure on the authorities.