MARIETTA, GA. -- It's been one long hot bummer for nearly 100 proud Russian circus performers stranded here in a budget motel near the Big Chicken drive-in.

Gone for now are their beloved dancing bears, lions, chimpanzees, horses and parrots -- held hostage by a New York firm owed more than $300,000 by the circus's American promoters, who have been accused of leaving behind a trail of rubber checks and unpaid bills from West Virginia to Tennessee. Gone are their trapezes and other props, locked up in an Atlanta warehouse, including saws used by Kio the Illusionist, a sort of Russian David Copperfield, to cut his wife (the parrot trainer) in half. A local trucking company is holding that as collateral against what it claims is a six-figure bill for getting the Great Circus Bim Bom this far. To make matters even worse, shortly before the troupe limped into Atlanta on May 7, its Kuwaiti investors pulled the plug, citing near-empty arenas as evidence that circus promoters had not been doing their job.

Indeed it's been downright humiliating for Soviet all-stars like he-man power juggler Vyacheslav Anokhin. A muscular 6 feet 5, he once drew oohs and ahs beneath big tops around the world for tossing 60-pound steel balls about like apples and oranges.

Now he's been reduced to, in effect, juggling for his supper, as circus colleagues survive on church dinners, loans and handouts from restaurants.

"A performer is only alive when he's onstage," sighs technical director Leonid Gordon, sipping a Strohs beer at a morale-building July Fourth picnic. His brand of choice? "Any beer is good at a time like this."

"I call this 'Resting in America,' " quips monkey trainer Victor Lomakin through an interpreter. "How do I spend my time? I read letters from my chimps thanking me for such a long vacation."

"We just want to get back to work," says aerialist Valieri Panushkin, 44, who spends his days working out in a motel weight room and watching soap operas he doesn't quite get. "When a man doesn't work, he loses hope."

Here on a two-year glasnost tour that began in late March but then quickly unraveled amid financial chaos, the stranded circus filed for reorganization July 6 under federal bankruptcy laws, a gambit designed to recover equipment and animals and get the show back on the road, according to Richard Keck, its pro bono Atlanta attorney. He is scheduled to meet this afternoon in chambers with a federal bankruptcy judge and top creditors to address liberating assets, including two lion cubs born in captivity in America. At the same time, he is hunting corporate funding throughout the land of Dixie as operating capital to reconstruct the big top.

"We are very optimistic," says Yuri Turkin, managing director of the circus.

But even as he spoke a breakaway group of two dozen performers from his circus was holed up in Las Vegas at the Landmark Hotel, where the Bim Bom's former promoters and others from the now defunct International Showbusiness Inc. were reorganizing and plotting an end run as they tried to find new financing themselves. A spokesman for the promoters said they were angling to redeem animals and equipment, raise funds, recruit other performers and hustle a reconstituted circus to be staged in a tent in the hotel parking lot.

"The heart of the circus is in Las Vegas," says Martin J. Cooper, a Beverly Hills attorney for a group of investors in Las Vegas, whom he declined to name. "Turkin failed with his circus, and his group in Atlanta is living off charity. Out here, we have a deal. And a lot of the performers here won't work for {Turkin}. He's a sleazeball."

Curiously, that's about the same word, roughly translated, that Turkin and others in Atlanta had for the former promoters running the show in Las Vegas.

Alas, all of the Soviets had hoped to earn a pretty ruble in the United States, only to come face to face with the flip side of fast money: a capitalist's nightmare of repo men, hustlers, porno stars, bill collectors, bankruptcy lawyers and cops who booted the Soviets out of a Motel 6 here.

For a brief moment on the Fourth of July the bad vibes were forgotten as Marietta's Soviets were bused to the lakefront home of seafood wholesaler Ron Williams, and the good times rolled. Hot dogs. Hamburgers. Twenty-five cases of donated cold beer. While some Soviets played their trumpets and accordions beneath tall pines and joined Americans in traditional Russian folk dancing, others held on for dear life to giant inner tubes hitched to speedboats, swinging across the lake and screaming with delight.

"They've been having a ball," says speedboat driver Ed Adams, service director of a local car dealership who was eager to show first-time skiers a simple American pleasure. "I kept looking back and their thumbs were up. They kept wanting to go faster and faster. I was doing about 30 in the boat but when I turned I swung them out at about 60 miles an hour. They kept saying, 'Faster.' The rougher the better."

The Russians might have been professional daredevils, but they certainly hadn't been prepared for the jolt they took in the anything-goes American marketplace. A handful of locals at the Rotary Club were horrified that the Soviets might spend a downbeat Fourth of July, and a picnic was laid on.

"I'm embarrassed they got dumped on in America," says German immigrant Willie Lauck, a local Mercedes mechanic and Rotarian who helped organize the afternoon. "These are guests in our country who back home are considered national treasures, heroes.

"What are they going to tell the world later? How our cops kicked them out of motels for unpaid bills? I love this country and I'll be damned if I'm going to stand around and let them get the wrong idea."

Yet this bizarre circus tale has more twists than anyone bargained for:

The FBI is investigating possible mail and wire fraud violations by one of the principal promoters, Wadah Al-Kilani, a Jordanian with a Kuwaiti visa, who allegedly wrote a $58,000 check that bounced in West Virginia, where the circus was training before its U.S. tour even began. Colleagues of Al-Kilani blame other Kuwaiti investors who they say reneged on promised financing. But others charge promoters kept writing checks long after they knew there was no money in the bank.

The original promoter, Nicholas Vissokovsky, has been named in 10 civil suits since 1984, most charging failure to pay debts. Nine of the suits were dropped or dismissed and one is pending. The charges include his failure to pay a pool-cleaning service and to provide a car and jewels after making a purported deal to swap them for other goods. He has said his past travails in no way reflect on his ability to manage a circus.

A volunteer spokesman for the splinter circus group in Las Vegas is none other than Samoan-born porno star John Stallion; his real name is John Laolagi. Stallion, as he prefers to be called, says he has stuck with the Russians this far without pay because he cares about them and is confident he will be rewarded once the show gets off the ground: "I thought I'd make a lot of money, so when the circus went down the tubes I didn't jump ship." He believes he's still sailing with a winner. "They've got the horse troupe {in Atlanta}, but we've got two acts that make the circus unique," says Stallion, including gymnast Alexander Bondarov. "He's the Joe Montana of the Russian circus," says Stallion.

On July 6 Jerry Zimmerman, one of the former promoters of the Las Vegas group, was served with search warrants, according to Los Angeles County police, who said they were hunting evidence of possible irregularities related to unfiled payroll taxes of actors and film crews who had been hired to crank out 100 pornographic films last year. Zimmerman and Stallion were partners in that venture under the umbrella of John Stallion Productions.

That same day, Stallion was arrested and released in Las Vegas for outstanding traffic tickets. "How'd you find out about that?" he wonders.

It all started beneath the big top in Kuwait, where circus director Yuri Turkin says he first met the backers while on a Russian circus tour. Later Vissokovsky, backed by Kuwaiti investors, landed in Moscow to negotiate for a U.S. tour. Turkin recruited the circus, picking the top acts from across the Soviet Union, all to be paid salaries, with the promoters contemplating millions of dollars in profits.

So it was off to America, with a circus group that included 11 children and about 40 married couples, landing in the United States March 31. For three weeks they trained in Wheeling, W.Va., then debuted in Hershey, Pa., on April 25.

That's where the trouble began, says Brooks Savage, a Washington attorney for Waleed A.A. Ahmad, the father of one of the Kuwaiti investors. Savage says that after his client, who was funding his son's venture, was told by promoters that the shows were sold out, he showed up in Hershey to check out the circus and to collect 10 percent of gross revenues. But promoters told Savage there was not enough money to pay the truck drivers and asked him to take a check for $10,000.

The check bounced, according to Savage.

Next stop was Knoxville, Tenn., where a lack of promotion yielded low turnouts, circus members say. According to promoters, Ahmad at this point refused to give the circus any more money and flew back to Kuwait.

"During this period," says Savage, "I was getting calls for more money to save the circus. The promoters said, 'If your client doesn't put more money in, we'll drag him through the mud.' I got threatening calls saying, 'If he doesn't put up more money, we'll tell every paper and TV station this SOB stranded these Russians.' "

Stallion denies making any threats, saying Ahmad refused to cover his son's checks. "He said he didn't care if his son went to jail," says Stallion. "He wasn't putting up one more penny."

As for his investor son, "he snuck out of the hotel when we were in Knoxville and flew home" to Kuwait, says Stallion.

The Great Circus Bim Bom then limped into Johnson City, Tenn., where managers were accused of writing a bad check for $923 to Mary Salads store for such items as 20 pounds of bananas, 100 pounds of cabbages, six cases of dog food, 20 pounds of cucumbers and 137 loaves of day-old bread. Back then they had animals to feed.

Nearby, a vigilant manager at the Holiday Inn perked up when he was handed a $36,000 check to cover projected expenses by promoters. It was drawn on a Kuwaiti bank. "It wasn't worth the paper it was printed on," he says in a telephone interview. After two days the bill totaled nearly $10,000. The manager, who asked that he not be identified, summoned the promoters, Vissokovsky and Al-Kilani. A check was written on their Bank of America account. It was no good. Police were called, with officers telling the promoters they'd go to jail for defrauding an innkeeper unless they coughed up sufficient cash. The circus performers were packed off to Atlanta, while the two promoters, under what was essentially house arrest, burned up the phone lines hustling a bailout.

It took the promoters a day of scrambling to settle, paying $6,800, says the manager. They covered it with one credit card in Kuwait, another in California and some cash from a promoter's relative, says the manager. Vissokovsky later acknowledged to reporters that they had written some bad checks, but said they had no idea they were worthless at the time.

Once in Atlanta the promoters met their match again, this time in the manager of a Motel 6. "I would have loved to have helped the Russians out, but something didn't strike me as right," reflects Edward Jones. "So I researched the history of the group." He called Johnson City and got the scoop.

"I didn't let 'em get in debt. I made it a straightforward deal. I said I'd accept their credit card for one night if it got approved and they had a certified check wired to my bank the next day."

When the money never showed up and promoters refused to vacate 76 rooms, "I called Marietta police," he says. "They sent eight officers and told them they had to leave."

So the bedraggled Russians moved over to the Scottish Inn. Then Oglethorpe University took them into dorm rooms for 10 days gratis and fed them free. Soon it was on to the Master Hosts Inn, where some of the Russians were allowed to cook on hot plates at the bar. As the story hit the press and neighbors learned of their plight, ladies from East Side Baptist Church stepped forward to feed the troupe for 17 days straight; corporations kicked in. The Russians were touched. "We know there is no evil without goodness coming from it," philosophizes Lomakin, the monkey trainer.

Yet the outpouring of charity, the handouts, the freebies were beginning to grate on Russian pride. When a Putt-Putt golf course here threw a benefit bash for them, the Russians failed to show up and perform free. The money was given away to local charities. "These are people who have never had to sing for their supper before," said one of the promoters. "It made them uncomfortable."

They were also mourning their animals. One trucking company parked the animals up north for nonpayment. That's where Humane Society officials determined the lions and dancing bears were "living like sardines" in tiny cages meant only for transport. Soon, U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors paid a visit and concurred. They were moved to roomier digs, say officials.

But the Russian Revolution was well under way in America. Yuri Turkin said he began doubting the ability and honesty of promoters as he explored a way out. While hunting a theme park gig in Kentucky he says the promoters suddenly appeared and threatened performers with immediate deportation unless they boarded buses out of town.

"They told the Russians that there was a plane on the runway to take them home unless they got on the bus," says Laurie McCleod, a truck driver who had been with the troupe all along. Stallion denies the charge. However it went down, a band of Russians did defect to Vegas and the Landmark Hotel.

Are they having fun? "Are you kidding? We're in Las Vegas, man," says Andy Trueman, a former rock-and-roll manager now acting as the defectors' tour director. "If I were a gambling man, I'd put a dollar on the people in Vegas. I wouldn't bet on Mr. Turkin."

"There's a pool at the hotel and they've got great suntans, pal," says Stallion. "They're working out at local gyms and learning capitalism from the inside out."

Here, back in Marietta, the Russians managed to buy a little time, thanks to Kio the Illusionist, who pulled a $100,000 loan from a Japanese friend the other day to keep the circus afloat. On July Fourth he was celebrating financial independence on Independence Day at Ron Williams's Lake Lanier home.

It was an old-fashioned cookout featuring hamburgers, hot dogs, water skiing, swimming, Russian dancing, beer and camaraderie. "None of this mess has affected how I feel about America," says Iolanta Kio, the parrot lady, gazing around at her comrades lounging about in bathing suits and drinking beer. "We've also learned America stands for love and friendship."