ATLANTA, OCT. 17 -- Fourteen members of a Soviet circus who were stranded when their troupe ran out of money asked the United States to grant them political asylum today because they fear harsh treatment if they go home, their lawyer said.
"We hear the Soviet government is mad as hell at this group for causing them international embarrassment. These people panicked and decided they didn't want to go back," Atlanta lawyer Dale Schwartz said.
The remaining members of the now-defunct Great Circus Bim Bom decided to defect after some of the 100-plus troupe members who returned to the Soviet Union telephoned and said they were treated harshly in reprisal for the widespread publicity on their American "time of troubles," he said.
"These people were great circus stars, and now they've been relegated to nonperson status or told they can only work in low-level acts," the lawyer charged.
The defectors are from five families -- two of them Jewish -- and include circus manager Yuri Turkin, 31, from Kharkov, Ukraine, and trapeze artist Vadim Stankeev, 30, a member of the Flying Stankeevs, officials said.
The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service has given the defectors "12-month employment authorization" and has agreed to "process this like any other request for political asylum," according to Schwartz.
The case apparently marks "the largest Soviet group to make a collective attempt to defect in the U.S.," he added.
Great Circus Bim Bom ran into financial trouble last spring when a Kuwaiti investor withdrew his backing after the start of its U.S. tour. The troupe's members, stranded in Atlanta, were evicted from their lodging for nonpayment of bills and had to rely on charity from the local Russian American community and others.
"Their first encounter with capitalism led to bankruptcy, and the performers who have thus far refused to return ... are being used as scapegoats by the Soviet government," Schwartz said. "They hope to make new lives... . They were afraid of persecution if they go back and they got tired of living off the charity of nice people."