IN Julia Hilpatrick's Russian-language ``Scarlett's Secret,'' the heroine of ``Gone with the Wind'' reveals a startling mystery she had been recklessly hiding from Rhett Butler for years: She once gave birth to an illegitimate daughter.
The dashing Rhett, who already saddened millions of Russian readers by admitting he was a professional train robber in ``Rhett's Secret,'' takes the news in stride.
But in ``Scarlett's Last Love,'' his strained relationship with Russia's most beloved Southern belle worsens. When Rhett dumps Scarlett for good, the protagonist of at least five sequels to Margaret Mitchell's classic - and one ``prequel'' - could cope no more.
``We killed Scarlett off so the story line wouldn't drag on forever,'' says Miroslav Adamchik, director of BADPPR (Belarussian Association of Detective, Popular, and Adventure Novels), which publishes the unauthorized tomes. ``We have too many Scarlett books on the market already.''
When ``Gone with the Wind'' appeared in Moscow movie theaters in 1990, working-class Russian audiences were captivated by the American Civil War epic - and, like Americans, have eagerly sought sequels to the story of Tara.
But the plots of these popular pulp novels aren't much like that of the authorized sequel, ``Scarlett,'' by Alexandra Ripley.
``Scarlett'' has been distributed in 40 countries - including Russia - and sold millions of copies since first appearing in 1991. Ripley has reportedly received $9 million for the television rights to the novel, which will air as a CBS miniseries this fall.
But in Russia, where an insatiable appetite for all things Western has caused publishers to flood the market with less expensive - and often shoddy - imitations of the real thing, ``Scarlett'' is taking back seat in book sales to its distant BADPPR cousins. Faux Tara Books Run Wild in Russia
These back-room spinoffs have enticed millions of readers with spicy story lines and racy hardback covers. And as Russians are now experiencing civil wars of their own, the Scarlett series is especially beguiling.
What about the obvious violation of international copyright laws? Frankly, as Rhett might say, Mr. Adamchik doesn't ``give a damn.'' ``Our books don't violate any laws. We're not plagiarizing; we're making a parody,'' he said in a telephone interview from Minsk. ``The books are written by citizens of Belarus, and Belarus has no copyright laws. So we have rights without limits.''
Russian and US analysts say at least 90 percent of all films, videos, music books, and software sold in Russia are pirated, costing world businesses more than $200 million in annual lost sales. But although Russia is pushing for legislation compatible with the Bern Convention on Copyright Protection, enforcing those rules may be impossible.
``If these books ap-peared in the States, they would be shut down immediately. There would be an injunction against them, and the courts would not let them proceed with sales,'' says attorney Tom Selz of the Manhattan-based law firm Frankfurt, Garbus, Klein, and Selz, which defends the legal successors to Margaret Mitchell's interests.``One of our concerns is to maintain the integrity of the original. But when you do quickie rip-offs, the quality goes out the window,'' he says. ``Unfortunately, the Russian legal situation is in such a way that there's not much we can do about it.''
BADPPR, which can produce novels in a matter of days, is in the forefront of the pulp novel business, according to Adamchik. A prequel about Ms. O'Hara's parents titled ``We'll Call her Scarlett'' that was supposedly written in 1947 by M. Mitchell (M for Muriel) is also reaping profits, as well as ``Maggie: The Sequel to the Thorn Birds'' by D. Caroline. Exact sales are a ``commercial secret.''
The authors' names, Adamchik says, are pseudonyms for an anonymous group of romantically minded Belarussian men, who spend about three weeks dictating each novel into a tape recorder. The notes are then typed up, slapped together, and thrown onto the Russian market - complete with English noms de plume and prefaces claiming they had been translated into Russian.
``If we write `translated from the English,' our books are more popular,'' says Adamchik. ``That's the law of the market.''
Gennady Kuzminov of the Moscow-based weekly Knizhnoye Obozreniye (Book Review), which has published several articles against BADPPR's practices, says the authors are scared to reveal their real names because they don't want to be taken to court.
He says there is an excellent chance that the books are actually written - and published - in Moscow. ``They're very cunning and are using Belarus as a cover because it's one of the former Soviet republics that has no real copyright laws,'' he says. ``But the books are impossible to read. Sometimes they just take two novels and compile them into one.''
Management for AST, the trading company that distributes the books in Russia, says they are aware that the hardbacks violate copyright laws. But profits are so good they are reluctant to halt distribution. ``We told them in Minsk that it isn't worth it in the long run, but they keep printing them,'' says AST manager Nikolai Naumenko. ``Copyright laws are like all laws in Russia. We have them, but nobody ever abides by them. It's getting to be an epidemic.''
Mr. Naumenko adds that AST has plans to distribute the unauthorized sequel to ``War and Peace,'' along with written follow-ups to several wildly popular Mexican soap operas shown on Russian television. He expects they will meet with as much success as the faux Scarlett series. ``We also publish good books by good authors, but nobody buys them,'' he says. ``They prefer to buy this trash.''