ATLANTA, AUG. 23 -- Thirty-six performers with a Soviet circus, stranded here since May when its tour went belly-up courtesy of fly-by-night promoters, pulled down their big top Thursday and flew home to Russia. Their trip back was curiously financed by the U.S. impresario of a rival Soviet circus.

Their two-year American tour cut short, their animals and equipment seized by angry creditors, members of the Great Circus Bim Bom caught an Aeroflot flight to Leningrad. The circus filed for bankruptcy protection last month. Left behind Thursday were 11 members of the troupe who hope to negotiate the return of imprisoned equipment and animals, including two lion cubs born in the States. Also abandoned here: dreams of stardom, and fantasies of America as a land of easy opportunity.

Lawyers aim to liberate circus property and return it to the Soviet Union if a deal can be cut with creditors before a hearing Tuesday in federal bankruptcy court. Others with the circus left directly from Las Vegas earlier, where a splinter group failed to find financiers to set up their big top in a parking lot. Four members found temporary work with a Toronto circus, another four in Chicago, said Yuri Turkin, Bim Bom's managing director, speaking from a pay phone at New York's JFK Airport.

"We don't have anything against capitalism," he said. "We are as disillusioned with our own government for not helping {to bail us} out as with the con artists who took advantage of us here."

"I feel very bad," said Grisha Shevchenko, 35, an acrobat. "For five months, we didn't get to perform and we didn't get paid."

"It's a bad psychological hit," added translator Tigran Makarian, 28, "but they will bounce back. Their spirits are crushed, but not dead."

After their first promoter abandoned the circus in a Marietta, Ga., motel, leaving a trail of bad checks and vanished Kuwaiti investors, travails of the Great Circus Bim Bom came to mirror the sufferings of Dostoevski heroes. Backed by police, two motels evicted the stranded Soviets; donations and church suppers kept their bellies full until proud Kio the Magician managed a $100,000 loan from a Japanese friend.

Meanwhile, the circus's original promoters, an entourage that included a porno star and a businessman previously convicted of fraud, lured defectors to Vegas, where promises of mysterious investors never materialized, says Turkin. A transport company based in Newburgh, N.Y., refused to release chimps, parrots, horses and lions, including two cubs named Atlanta and Marietta. And a trucking company here held tight to trapezes and saws that Kio used to cut his wife in half.

In recent days, their money gone, most members had moved into local homes while a team of Atlanta attorneys headed by Richard Keck scrambled for new backers to put the show back on the road. He said the performers had fallen prey to "every swindler and crook in the country trying to pull a fast one on them."

Turkin appealed to the Soviet Ministry of Culture for a bailout but was rebuffed. "We have people in the bureaucracy who don't give a damn about the greatest artists in the Soviet Union who for years made millions of dollars for the government, and they wouldn't even help bring us home or get back on our feet. All we wanted was credit; we were going to pay them back."

"They were invited by American parties," a Soviet press attache told Variety. "The Soviet government is not responsible for their troubles."

Enter Steven E. Leber, 48, of New York, promoter of the successful Moscow Circus, in its fourth year touring the United States; he who offered to underwrite the performers' return, pay their back bills and get their animals and equipment out of hock.

"They were starving," he said. "They were being kicked out of motels and some were picking up odd jobs. This is no way to treat Soviet artists."

He conceded the American market was not big enough for both circuses, but said the bailout, which could cost him up to $200,000, was simply a "gesture of goodwill." He said he hopes to be repaid by the Soviet government. Even if the circus remained here, its animals and equipment out of hock, he said, it would have been virtually impossible to plan, finance and launch a successful tour on such short notice.

"Unfortunately," he said, "these people learned the hard way: America isn't paved with gold."

He said the Bim Bom's performers were first-rate, and that he would consider sponsoring them in a future U.S. tour, if they ever regroup and get their act together.