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Russian Lyubimov broke the limits of theater - and may break from Soviets

Yuri Lyubimov, the Moscow theater path blazer seeking official ''protection'' in Britain, has spent his career testing, sometimes breaking, the limits of official artistic doctrine in the Soviet Union.

If he indeed stays in the West, the move will be seen by colleagues as capping a longtime frustration with official restrictions on some of his productions, a feeling that seems to have grown amid news media calls for tightened cultural orthodoxy since Yuri Andropov came to power.

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One friend of Lyubimov here recalls a recent encounter with him: ''He said he had had enough.''

Yet the friend, and other acquaintances or admirers, added this ironic footnote: Lyubimov's experiments, gripping in a Soviet context, may seem not half so imaginative in the West. ''There is a Russian Jewish proverb,'' a Muscovite who is both an official and a friend of Lyubimov remarked: ''A rabbi in Berdichev (a town in the Ukraine), once in Odessa, is a mere idiot.''

Still, the latest news of Lyubimov surprised few friends or admirers among the Moscow intelligentsia.

A tip-off, to many, was a recent London interview, carried by the British Broadcasting Corporation Russian service, in which Lyubimov sharply criticizes the Soviet cultural environment.

The theater company itself is on a domestic tour, and is currently performing in Omsk.

Lyubimov is a man of chunky build, craggy features, and a waggish tongue who made his directing debut about the same time Leonid Brezhnev became Soviet leader in 1964. Lyubimov has since traveled often abroad, and is now in London.

At first, his theater on Moscow's Taganka Square looked much like any other building. Since, a more modern, red-brick structure has been appended - as distinctive, in Moscow context, as Lyubimov's productions.

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The Lyubimov mystique began with a 1964 adaptation of Bertolt Brecht's ''The Good Man of Sichuan.'' Like many other Lyubimov productions, the play was as interesting for its unorthodox sets and for its mix of media involving drama, music, mime, and dance, as for its substantive content.

But content, too, has attracted Lyubimov: his 1977 adaptation of the long-banned Stalin-era work, ''Master and Margarita,'' caused something akin to a cultural storm here, also earning him an accusatory review in the party newspaper, Pravda.

Another Lyubimov classic, in 1980, was his adaptation of Yuri Trifonov's novella, ''House on the Embankment,'' a yet franker indictment of the Stalin era. Even as manicured by the cultural authorities, the work retained eerie reminiscences of that era of terror, including a chilling tirade from a character playing a police investigator.

In the last few months, under various official pressures, Lyubimov has had at least one tussle with the cultural powers-that-be.

This involved a production of Pushkin's ''Boris Godunov,'' a modernized treatment of a long-past Russian ''transition'' period that could easily have been read as a comment on a more recent transition.

Though Lyubimov himself seemed safe, the administrative director of the Taganka almost lost his job. The play has yet to be performed publicly.

Among colleagues, Lyubimov is an object of both adoration and frustration. He is held in awe for his artistic talent - a talent acknowledged privately even by some officials here. At the same time, some colleagues came to feel that Lyubimov, himself largely immune to pressure, put the entire theater in jeopardy through his periodic tug-of-wars with the cultural authorities.

The concern now is that the theater may in effect wither. Said one devotee: ''Lyubimov is the Taganka.''

If he stays in Britain, his departure will be the second blow to the theater in three years. The first came in 1980 with the passing of the Taganka's premier actor, Vladimir Vysotsky.

Vysotsky was much more than an actor - though his portrayal of an angry Hamlet, with overtones of current political commentary, was a Taganka classic. He was also a bard - a bit of a Soviet Bob Dylan, yet wider in his national appeal - adored for his pert, satirical guitar portraits of everyday life.

Friends say Lyubimov's current troubles began with a 1981 multimedia tribute at the theater, performed to closed audiences including this reporter, but never publicly.

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