Oleg Protopopov had fled his home once before. Long before he and his wife, Ludmila Belousova, changed the art of figure skating, long before they defected to Switzerland, he knew what it was to be "between life and death."
He was 8 years old. His mother was a nurse in blockaded Leningrad during World War II. She traded all their possessions for bread. "You could buy a Steinway for a chunk of bread," he said.
When there was no more food and he was "just clean bones," she took him to the hospital. "I saw a live death," he said. "I slept between dead people in the hospital. I knew the face of death."
He remembered the evacuation from the besieged city in a caravan of cars filled with women and children. They crossed the frozen lake on a road called "The Way of Life" in open cars. The Germans bombed them. "The cars sank below the ice," he said. "You can't imagine what I saw or heard as the women and children went together under the ice."
On the other side of the lake, there was no blockade. There was porridge and pork and American chocolate. He remembers the chocolate. "My mother only gave me small pieces," he said.
Others ate and ate and died from eating too much after not eating at all.
There are different kinds of death. One day in 1978, Oleg and Ludmila Protopopov, the Soviet pairs champions, realized they were dying. Drop by drop, their art, their soul was being drained. "Drop by drop," he said, the realization came.
They would have to leave the Soviet Union.
The officials did not want them to skate. They wanted the Protopopovs to retire as gracefully as they performed. "They wanted me to stand for 80 kopecks an hour, nearby the boards, saying, 'C'mon, c'mon'," Protopopov said.
And so if they had stayed, he said, "We would die like Romeo and Juliet."
His wife, a small woman with a large smile and long blond hair, was stringing sequins together for her husband's costume. "They couldn't live without each other," she said. "That's why they died together."
The Protopopovs could not live without their art. That's why they defected to Switzerland in September 1979. "If I stayed three or four years, I would not be alive now," he said. "We were so unhappy. We did not see any perspective for the future. We understood that nothing would change. Our power, our knowledge was not enough to change. It was better to take our life because our life was not in our hands."
He never made a conscious choice to commit suicide. He knew only that life had become unbearable. It had to end. A heart attack, perhaps. "It is impossible to be in this tension," he said.
He pulled on both ends of an imaginary cord, showing the stress they were under. At first, skating provided a release. "Steam came out," he said. "It preserved our hearts against breaking. When it did not help, we were forced to find a decision."
To leave. "If I killed myself, my mother would die immediately," he said. "We saved her life and our own life but we are separated."
She has a sister there, he has his mother. Sometimes, they call. They receive no letters and can send none. "I think they have a lot of trouble," he said. "They never tell us."
They miss their friends. "When I go to shop, when I eat something delicious, I say, 'I wish they were here,' " he said. "We are more lucky than the local people. They know one life. They go to the Safeway and there is everything . . . They are so spoiled, I think. They have not seen the other side of the medal."
The Protopopovs live in a chalet in Grindelwald, in the Bernese Alps in central Switzerland. They have two cats, no children. They travel where they want and perform when they want. It is never a burden for those who had been denied the opportunity to do both for so long. They came to Washington to perform in the World Professional Figure Skating Championship Friday.
One day last week, they sat in their suburban hotel room talking about their life, their philosophy. "Our life in Russia makes us philosophical," he said.
He shrugged: "This is a life, like a day. Some days, the sky is blue. Others is it black, black, gray, rainy, and foggy. This is our life. We think about how much we have blue sky."
He did most of the talking, speaking in halting English and parables, a style as grandiloquent as his skating. Sometimes, he made his points in mime. She interjected, correcting his English occasionally, punctuating his remarks when she felt the need.
Theirs is a tale of romance and intrigue and sadness. But not regret. It is a love story about a man and a woman and the art they have made for the last 28 years. This year, he turned 50, she 47. and they celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary. They met one day in 1954 at the first artificial ice rink in Russia. She was skating circles around the rink. He fell in beside her. "This ice rink was so small, it plays a great part in our life," he said. "It was so tight, I had to do a curve like this."
He stands demonstrating how he caught her and whirled her around the ice on his arm the first time. "It was our first pair spin. We didn't know this spin was forever."
Even in the beginning, he said, the officials had little use for them. They were considered too old. The Protopopovs paid no attention. They won world championships four times (1965-1968) and the Olympics in 1964 and 1968 and changed the way people thought about skating.
They made the sport lyrical. When they skated, danger seemed remote. "They brought a classical mind to skating that had never been there before," said John Petkavich, a skater and commentator.
On Friday night, they skated to "Moonlight Sonata." He held her aloft with one arm, a mobile sculpture frozen in time. This same program helped them win the 1968 gold medal in Grenoble. "It was told to us, one day before the competition, 'If you stop the day after, if you announce this is the last time, you will be first surely,' " Protopopov said. " 'If not, nobody knows.' "
Who told him? "People from the judges," he said. "Maybe it was even from our own representatives." A smile.
The next day at a press conference, he casually mentioned to a reporter that surely they would compete in the 1972 Olympics.
"They wanted us to stop," he said. "They said we are standing across the development of figure skating in our country. That's why they wanted it. There was a great fight inside our country. They wanted a change of direction. They did not like our esthetics. They hated us because we were always independent. The sports authority doesn't like it when a young sportsman has an opinion."
Before the games, the team chairman asked the skaters to sign a paper promising to win. "I said, 'You know it is impossible to predict. We are not horses. I will not write this report. We will do everything to be first; to sign a paper saying I will be first, that is stupid.'
"They loved us very much," he said wryly.
They returned home champions. They became nonpersons. Their names disappeared from the newspapers. "We felt they went like this," he said marking a huge "X" in the air.
Suddenly, there was no money from the club for ice time. "We began to skate at night with the help of a friend," Protopopov said. "He said, 'I can't give you a lot of light. Don't tell anybody.' "
They skated in the dark from midnight until 2 or 3 in the morning. They were ready for the 1972 Olympics. The Soviets sent another pair, Irina Rodnina and Alexei Ulanov, who won the gold medal.
In January 1973, they decided to turn professional. It took nine months and the help of an important government official to get them a job in Leningrad's ice show. "For six years, we skated incognito," he said.
"You could not find our names in the program," she said.
There were many arguments with officials about where they would skate and the size of the rinks. "It was administrative sadism," he said.
Small ice was the beginning and the end of them. They met on small ice, and performed their first exhibition, "Dream of Love," on small ice. That night in Leningrad, with the spotlight shining in his eyes, he looked for her over his shoulder, ignoring the edge of the rink. He fell over backward, breaking his hand.
They need big ice. To do what they do, to be what they are, they need space. Their art is easiest, safest when performed at the greatest speed. "To go fast, you need more space," he said. One day in 1974, during a rehearsal on a rink 100 feet long, he tried to hurry a lift and she fell. She was in the hospital for two months with a concussion. Protopopov said, "I needed almost five years to think, do I want this to happen again or not?"
The Soviets needed their name recognition for Western tours. Protopopov told them, "I understand you need a name. I need to prove my name but not in the newspapers. I need to show what I am on the ice."
Officials asked them to skate in France, on small ice, in 1977. When the Protopopovs refused, officials threatened to fire them. In 1978, they were invited to skate abroad (on big ice). They packed their bags. Five days before they were scheduled to leave, they were told they could not go. Conflicts with the show prohibited it, officials said.
One official told him, "Oleg, you have seen the world. You have made so many trips. Please stop your traveling. It is enough for you."
A few days later, he met a very important person in the elevator of their apartment building. Protopopov said the man said: " 'Oleg, why do you travel so much? You have seen the world. It is time to stop.' "
She: "The same words."
He: "I connected it at once. Two people with no connection to the show. They said the same sentence. I understood the window for us is closed."
"She: "After that, we began to think how to live abroad."
In 1979, they told officials they would agree to go on tour to Brazil if they would be permitted to first go to Switzerland to perform exhibitions during their summer vacation. The officials agreed. The Protopopovs took a sewing machine, a video recorder and 10 suitcases. On Sept. 18, they asked for asylum in Switzerland.
"It was the last chance for us," he said.
In November 1979, they signed a three-year contract with the Ice Capades. Tass called them "biliousness and avarice."
The Protopopovs say they have invested all their earnings from Ice Capades in producing a video-taped recording of all their classical performances. Dick Button, who brought them to Washington for this weekend's competition, says they spent nearly $250,000 on video equipment for the project. They finished filming on Sept. 11. In 18 days, they were on the ice for 80 hours.
They have 16 hours of tape. They expect to spend another year editing and writing the narration, in Russian, which will be connected with the events of their life. Eventually, they will try to sell it to television, but that was not their motive.
"Every man and woman in a certain period of life, looks back and asks, 'For what did I live?' " Protopopov said. "When we decided to do the taping of our art, we looked back and asked what we did for the world of skating." And tried to preserve it.
Last week in Washington, "We went to do a small interview at the Voice of America," he said. "I said, 'We did this film for Russia.' Maybe after our death, maybe something in Russia will change. I can't predict if it will be 10 or 20 or 100 years. I'm sure our names will come back to Russia."