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Soviet director manages to keep busy in West without defecting

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The most famous Russian theatrical and opera director since World War II, Yuri Lyubimov, is prolonging a spectacular visit to the West, playing out a real-life drama more dramatic than any he has put onto the stage.

Although the Kremlin ordered him last year to cut short his current stay in Europe and return home, he continues to refuse. Instead he is plunging into a new round of staging operas in Italy and West Germany, and considering offers to work in the United States as well.

But so far, torn by doubt and indecision, he has not taken the final step of defecting to the West.

Friends contacted here in London believe defection is inevitable, since they are certain the KGB will not let him out again if he returns to Moscow. If he does defect, he will be the biggest cultural name to leave the Soviet Union since Rudolph Nureyev in 1961.

Today Lyubimov, a tall, shaggy, graying, and moody man, is still wrestling with what to do. He is trying to balance artistic freedom against loyalty to his own Moscow company and to his roots at home.

He came to the West last August to direct a stage version of Dostoyevsky's ''Crime and Punishment'' at the Lyric Theater in Hammersmith, London, and has not returned home since.

He gave an interview to the London Times in September in which he strongly criticized Soviet censors for blocking his last three productions in Moscow. As a result two Soviet diplomats visited him at the theater. He says they threatened him with physical harm unless he retracted his criticism and returned to Moscow at once.

Instead he asked the British government for physical protection, and was given a telephone number to call in emergencies. He also asked for, and was granted, a one-month extension of his visitor's visa.

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