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Empire falls, but dance goes on Ex-Soviet pair stays strong, wins berth


ALBERTVILLE, France -- He carried her in his arms and skated along ice that was colored by the five Olympic rings. The somber melody of Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet" filled the arena now, and suddenly, they were so very alone, this man from Lithuania and this woman from Russia.

An empire crumbles, but a skating union remains strong and free.

Povilas Vanagas and Margarita Drobiazko are ice dancers and Olympians. He is the Montague to her Capulet. But unlike Shakespeare's doomed lovers, they have turned division into unity, the fall of the Soviet Union into an opportunity.

Yesterday, they practiced. Saturday, they will march as symbols of a new world in the opening ceremonies of the 16th Winter Olympics. And next week, they will skate for Lithuania.

In the past year, they have seen their countries transformed by revolutionary change. In the past days, they have received an extraordinary invitation to compete in the Olympics.

"Of course, it was as if a stone fell down from the heart," Vanagas said.

He is 21 years old with blond hair and a smile that interrupts his conversation. He looks around the Olympic ice skating arena, and he can't believe how far he has come, how far he has yet to go.

Once, he was a soldier in the Soviet Red Army, but he never rose in rank, saying, "If your epaulets are clean, your conscience is clear." Now, he skates for a country that was traded by Hitler to Stalin in 1940 and freed in 1991.

Drobiazko is 20, a brunette who ties her hair back in a bow. She is a student, a Russian whose roots lie in Ukraine.

"My mind is for everyone to believe how they want," she said. "I want Russia and Ukraine to be free countries."

They met 3 1/2 years ago in a rink in Moscow and consummated a union of convenience. They needed one another. There were other, greater, skaters in the old Soviet Union. But they worked with what little they had.

Her Russian-made skating boots broke constantly. And so did his. Blades were imported at great cost from Britain. Costumes were handmade and hand-me-down.

Still, they skated.

When Lithuania declared its independence in 1990, Vanagas was there, in his home of Kaunas, sipping champagne, "with great afraidness." In January 1991, he was at the barricades in Vilnius, face to face with Soviet troops.

"They had tanks, and we had tongues," he said.

And then, last August, Vanagas and Drobiazko were training in Japan, while an ocean away, the Soviet government was in the midst of a coup.

"Of course it was terrible," Vanagas said. "There were difficult thoughts. For us, we were young, we were not at home. We wanted to be with our parents. With our friends. There were tanks on TV. We wanted to return home."

They stayed in Japan and waited. They saw the coup fail. They saw the Soviet Union dissolve.

"When it was finished, it was very easy to live," Drobiazko said. "There was no end of happiness."

They returned to Moscow and trained. Food was scarce, so they waited in lines for bread. The refrigeration unit at their training rink broke down, so they went cross-town to another rink.

"These troubles are for everyone," Drobiazko said.

They saved $900, a fortune by Soviet standards, and bought round-trip tickets to last month's European Championships in Lausanne, Switzerland. There, they finished 15th. Instead of returning home, they stayed in a flat with Simonas Zmuidzinas, a Lithuanian-American doctor who lives in Lausanne. They weren't skilled enough to qualify for the Unified Team of the former Soviet Union, but they discovered a back-door route the Olympics. Appeals were made to the Lithuanian Olympic Federation and to the International Olympic Committee.

"Our national Olympic committee did not want us to take part," Vanagas said. "If Margarita was French or American, it would be easy for the Lithuanians to send us. But she is from Moscow."

Yet even governments and bureaucrats change. Lithuanian authorities had a change of heart and decided to enter the ice-dance team. And Sunday, the former Soviet soldier from Lithuania and the student from Russia were admitted to the Games. Monday, they took a train to Geneva and arrived by bus in Albertville. Yesterday, on the day the three Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were officially reinstated by the IOC, they practiced.

What was once unthinkable had become inevitable.

"There are no words," Vanagas said. "It was my dream. But I never thought the dream would come true."

From the ashes of an empire have emerged a Romeo and a Juliet for a new age.

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