London — 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.
Later he traveled to Bologna, Italy, to stage a production of the Wagnerian opera ''Tristan and Isolde.'' Recently he has been undergoing medical treatment in Milan.
At some point he would like to return to the Soviet Union and the Taganka Theater, which he founded in 1964.
Yet his young Hungarian wife Katalin is urging him to stay in the West for the whote family's sake. (They have a young son, Petya.)
The KGB may stop him working altogether if he returns. And he himself has told friends he would enjoy living in the United States near his old friend Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
So far Lyubimov's strategy seems to be to establish such a name for himself in the West that the KGB will allow him to return home, write and direct more plays there, and travel abroad at will. But friends and Soviet emigres here doubt that such a risky strategy can possibly succeed.
Lyubimov has been battling Soviet censorhip for many years, continually sailing close to the Kremlin wind. Some see him as a hero. Others think the KGB has permitted him to operate as a kind of cultural ''safety valve'' for Moscow intellectuals.
He still believes he is in physical danger. In Milan he hCs been guarded, at his own request, by plainclothes agents from the anti-terrorist police.
Since his late-summer publicity in London, he has remained silent in public. He did give one outspoken interview to a reporter in Bologna, but sources say friends persuaded the paper not to print it for fear it would bring down more reprisals against him.
Meanwhile Moscow has also remained silent, forcing him to make his own decisions. His immediate response has been to intensify his schedule in the West and to extend his stay.
He has just agreed to stage ''Rigoletto'' in Florence in May, which will require him to begin rehearsals in there in April. At this writing he was in Stuttgart arranging to mount a production of ''Fidelio'' for the Stuttgart Opera Company.
Lyubimov plans a brief return visit to London later in January connected with ''Crime and Punishment,'' and has been negotiating with La Scala Opera House in Milan to direct a number of works later in the year (and perhaps even in 1985). They include Bach's St. Matthew Passion.
One friend, Mario Pasi of the cultural section of the Milan newspaper Corriere Della Sera, told Monitor contributor Janet Stobart that ''they are queueing up at his door'' in Italy.
A source close to him here in London said, ''He would like to go back (to Moscow) but he keeps worrying. Would he ever be allowed to travel again?
''I think he has no real choice. He'll have to defect and he'll probably live in the US. He has enough offers to keep him busy in the West until 1986.''
Almost all critics in London were impressed with his fast-moving ''Crime and Punishment'' at the Lyric Theater last year. It used vintage Lyubimov techniques of cinematic-style, cross-cutting of scenes, dramatic lighting changes, and actors moving through the audience.
''Tristan'' divided Italian critics, winning both praise and criticism for a mixture of 19th and 20th century elements. Lyubimov's reputation has been growing in Europe in recent years, especially in opera.
Of the utmost concern to the director, it is said, is the health of Soviet leader Yuri Andropov. Mr. Andropov is said to be a friend and supporter. Should he pass on or be replaced as leader, Lyubimov could well find it impossible to work in Moscow at all.
The Kremlin would undoubtedly be embarrassed if a figure of his stature should defect, and is said to hope he will yet return. The climax of the Lyubimov drama has yet to be played out.