September 11, 1995 12:00 PM

TELLING A WOMAN SHE BEARS A striking resemblance to Dwight Eisenhower won’t make anyone’s list of 10 best opening lines—but it worked for Roald Sagdeev. Of course the relationship that would blossom between the exuberant Soviet physicist and the American business consultant—who considered the comparison a compliment and agreed to dance with Sagdeev one balmy summer evening in 1987—never went by the book. At the time they met, during a Soviet-American conference in Chautauqua, N.Y., Sagdeev was head of the Soviet space program and served as Mikhail Gorbachev’s adviser on arms control. His dance partner was Susan Eisenhower, granddaughter of the former U.S. President. Over the next three years the couple’s friendship would warm into a courtship, complete with coded telexed love notes, long Moscow strolls to avoid KGB eavesdroppers, and trysts in the hideaway Sagdeev had rented to give them some privacy.

“I found him very intriguing,” says Eisenhower, 43, of the man who within minutes of their meeting began shattering her confessed stereotypes about Soviets by singing When the Saints Go Marching In with the band. “Roald has a great sweetness and generosity that I found absolutely captivating.” As Sagdeev, 62, grins at his wife of five years across the parlor of their Victorian house overlooking the Shenandoah River in West Virginia, it’s clear the chemistry was—and is—mutual. “I had never spoken to anybody in my life like that,” he remembers. “From the moment we started to talk, I felt that I could confide in her.”

Despite her attraction to Sagdeev (who was separated at the time from his wife, Tema), Eisenhower didn’t share that feeling of confidence, as she explains in her new book, Breaking Free: A Memoir of Love and Revolution (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). The third of four children of John S. Eisenhower, former U.S. ambassador to Belgium, and his wife, Barbara, a homemaker, Eisenhower had grown up proud of her famous name but fearful of tarnishing it. She was also fundamentally suspicious of all Soviets—especially one who seemed too open, warm and humorous to be genuine. She traces her distrust back to 1959, when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev visited her grandfather at the family farm where she grew up in Gettysburg, Pa. She and her siblings were excited when this bearish figure pinned red stars to their chests. But as soon as he left, Susan’s mother tore them off. If the Soviet Union ever invaded the U.S., her father told them, “guess which family would be the first to be shot?”

Even after getting some personal experience with Soviets in her capacity as president of the Eisenhower World Affairs Institute, the post in which she began attending U.S.-Soviet conferences, Eisenhower confesses, “I was very suspicious of every open thing Roald said. I thought, ‘This is some kind of setup.’ ” But gradually, during their encounters every few months, he began to win her over. One night shortly before her departure from a conference in Moscow, he kissed her on the cheek and murmured, “I am missing you already.” Another time he impulsively scribbled, “I love you like crazy” in Russian on a restaurant napkin.

“He was the bold one,” says Eisenhower, who confesses to anxieties that events such as more than one suspicious tire blowout on Sagdeev’s car fostered about the dangers she believed they faced. She was even more concerned in view of her responsibilities as the major financial support of her three daughters from two marriages (Caroline, now 23; Laura, 21; and Amy, 14). “I felt fear on a daily basis,” Eisenhower admits.

“I don’t think I felt that bold,” counters Sagdeev, a reform-minded Tatar Muslim who had previously broken with the hard-line Communist views of his parents, both retired math teachers, and the official party line. “I could be stopped from traveling abroad, but I knew that physical danger no longer existed.” Nevertheless the couple took as few chances as possible, communicating through cryptic telexes. One, from Sagdeev, concluded in apparent bureaucratese, “On bilateral side, I hope to have further discussion of our project.” That “project” was their future.

The couple let others in on the secret the month before their February 1990 marriage in Moscow. Susan’s friends George and Barbara Bush threw an engagement party at the White House. Then the President gave Sagdeev some fatherly advice: “Susan is very special to us, and we want to know that you are going to look after her properly and be a good husband.”

He needn’t have worried, say the couple’s neighbors in Jefferson County, W.Va., 90 minutes northwest of Washington. The pair have lived there for the past three years with Eisenhower’s daughter Amy and their stray cat Kiska in the rambling gray house they spend much of their spare time renovating. Eisenhower still keeps a pied-à-terre near the Washington office from which she runs her international trade-consulting firm, the Eisenhower Group, Inc., and the nonprofit Center for Post-Soviet Studies. A year after their marriage, Sagdeev, now a physics professor at the University of Maryland, regretfully surrendered his seat in the Soviet Parliament. But anxious not to be considered a defector, he has retained his Russian citizenship. Though the couple travel extensively, Sagdeev—who dotes on his own two grown children, computer scientists now living in Virginia and South Carolina, and three grandchildren—can often be seen driving Amy to the school bus at 7:35.

“Susan and Roald’s affection is so obvious; it is very touching—there’s a certain quality of light in their eyes when they are together,” says neighbor Dorothy McGhee, who has enjoyed the couple’s hospitality—and Sagdeev’s exotic vegetable and rice dishes—at the dinner parties they frequently host. “Their relationship is a great gift against formidable odds.”

Eisenhower would be the first to agree. “Nothing great happens from passivity,” she says. “By being willing to risk everything, one gains so much more in the end.”

PAM LAMBERT

ROCHELLE JONES in Jefferson City, W.Va.

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