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Putin’s leaders of the pack

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How has a motorcycle club managed to entangle itself so closely with Russia’s political and religious elite?

 

Ksenia Babich
14 July 2015

Politics in Russia can take on the most unexpected forms, and the latest media heroes are a motorcycle gang who call themselves the Night Wolves.

The gang’s origins are shrouded in mystery. Their website describes the club as coming out of a Moscow motorcycling movement, but gives no precise dates or names. This isn’t merely a historical oversight: this ordinary bike club has morphed into a profitable political and ideological project led by Aleksandr Zaldostanov, a failed medical student, who goes by the name of ‘The Surgeon’.

A brief history of Russian bikers

Russian bikers first appeared as an identifiable group in Moscow (though not in other parts of Russia) between the late 1950s and early 1960s, initially as part of a motorcycle sport movement.

At the time there were not more than a dozen heavy bikes in the whole of Moscow, most of them ‘trophy’ machines captured from German troops at the end of the war. There were plenty of lighter bikes and scooters however, and young men from various districts would set up informal teams, and in May each year they would hold races through the streets of the capital with flags and banners.

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Night Wolves commemorate 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two at Treptower Park, Germany. (c) Florian Boillot / Demotix

‘Lots of schools and colleges had motorcycle clubs and teams’, says Viktor Vvedensky, a champion racer who won trophies in Europe and the USA. ‘It wasn’t about image or style; it was more just a sports thing and there were no particular leaders or paraphernalia.’

‘The most common racing bikes in the Soviet Union were Ural M-72s, originally produced in the 40s for the military. In the 60s they produced new, improved models, including heavy machines with sidecars, although they were just for the police. But bikes were mainly used by young guys just as a means of transport’, Vvedensky tells me. ‘And in 1956 you couldn’t ever see any Western models even at exhibitions.’

The concept of ‘bikers’ as we know it today only began to appear in the mid 1980s. It was around this time that a young Aleksandr Zaldostanov was thrown out of medical school in Kirovohrad in Ukraine. He got into motorbikes and set up his own Chirurgia (Surgery) gang. But his main indoctrination into biking culture was in West Berlin, where he lived for several years (his first wife was German) and worked as a bouncer at the Sexton punk rock club, the prototype for a club he later opened in Moscow. And in the 90s he became interested in the outlaw motorcycle gang subculture, particular the Hell’s Angels.

‘When I came back to Moscow in 1986’, says Vvedensky, ‘I saw that things were changing, and the fact that the Night Wolves club was registered at about that time was a symbol of that change.’

There are never more than 15 ‘full wolves’ in the club at any time, and all the others are just an entourage who can wear a gilet with certain patches sewn on. The club has very strict rules, with exacting ideological and religious constraints; and Zaldostanov’s word is law.

The club rules, as published on its site, include a definition of a proper ‘night wolf’, but as Vvedensky notes, ‘There are so many rules that only the Surgeon knows them all and hardly anyone has any idea of how someone can become a “full wolf”’. He also remembers Zaldostanov even trying in the early 2000s to impose his own rules about jacket patches on anyone who got anyway involved with the biking movement.

The club has very strict rules, and Zaldonstanov’s word is law.

Bikers and the government

The Night Wolves links to Russia’s political elite go back years before their more recent rise to fame. According to one story, the leader of the Night Wolves was introduced to Vladimir Putin by the nationalist politician Dmitry Rogozin – another biker fan – in 1999; Rogozin was a regular at the Sexton club in Moscow’s Mnyovniki neighbourhood

There’s an annual bike show outside the walls of Sexton, and the club sells motorcycles and clothing. Since the 2000s, bikers have started doing shows in Kaliningrad, where they enjoyed the support of then-Governor Georgy Boos, another fan of motorcycles. In 2005, a Kaliningrad bike show was visited by Vladimir Putin and Gerhard Schroeder.

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May 2015: the Night Wolves ride past Poklonnaya gora, Moscow. (c) Evgeniya Novozhenina / VisualRIAN

In 2007, Boos and Zaldostanov jointly conducted the opening ceremony at one of these bike shows. In 2010, Zaldostanov also attempted to help the governor ‘establish order’ in other local clubs and was accused of using violent methods to do so.

Between 2007-2008, Aleksei Vaits, a noted political PR guru, was a member of the club.

After Boos was sacked in 2010, the night wolves failed to come to an agreement on hosting a new bike show in Kalingrad, and decided to host one down in the Crimean city of Sevastopol.

This is around the time that Zaldostanov began to associate more closely with Putin, with Putin first visiting the bike club. During the annual ‘direct line’ phone-in show with Putin in 2010, Zaldostanov sat in the hall at the press conference and asked Putin about the possibility of ‘uniting two countries and re-establishing the Soviet Union’.

As Sevastopol was at the time under Ukrainian control, the official theme of the bike show there was ‘unity of the Slavic peoples.’ A bike show was incorporated into the schedule of Vladimir Putin when he met with then-President Viktor Yanukovych. For the first show an abandoned quarry on Mount Gasfort was chosen, which formally belonged to a company called The Balaklava Holding Company ‘Gorky.’

All of these Sevastopol bike shows have gone ahead with the support of sailors from the Russian Black Sea Fleet. They not only provide security at the events, but also take part in demonstrations with the bikers. The upper ranks of the Black Sea Fleet have been present at every show in Sevastopol.

Themes for these shows included ‘friendship of Slavic peoples’ and ‘Russian-Ukrainian brotherhood,’ but also the slogan ‘Sevastopol is a Russian city.’

In 2012, the Night Wolves held a ‘Great Patriotic War’ themed show, and in autumn 2013 in Volgograd, The Surgeon spoke of his support for Stalin. That year he was awarded the Order of Honour for his ‘patriotic education of youth’ and was given state financing to further that aim.

Bikers and the Orthodox Church

Zaldostanov has himself stated on many occasions that he is a committed follower of Christian ideas, but the club’s open religiosity began when Zaldovstanov befriended the actor Ivan Okhlobystin, who made headlines in the West a few years ago when he proposed putting gays in ovens. Okhlobystin, who is ordained as an Orthodox priest, became the Night Wolves’ chaplain. According to one story, it was he who advised Zaldostanov in 2001 to place a church on the grounds of the bike club to prevent it from being demolished.

Since the start of the 2000s, the bikers have undertaken ‘cross-rides’ where they ride their bikes with orthodox icons. In 2013, in Siberia one of these rides was led by a biker-priest from a local motorcycle club.

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May 2015: Zaldostanov prepares to lead a rally in St Petersburg. (c) Yury Goldenshtein / Demotix

Both of the bike shows in Sevastopol in 2010 and 2011 went ahead with the blessing of Patriarch Kirill, and the bikers have been honoured guests at Church functions on many occasions.

Cash from the Kremlin

‘I couldn’t have imagined 15 years ago how the whole thing would develop,’ Viktor tells me. ‘And I don’t know how it will all end, but I do know that the Surgeon is earning big money with his restaurant and show – tickets for that are pretty expensive.’ 

Aleksandr Zaldostanov has admitted that he has 56m roubles (£655,000) in government grants at his disposal. These were ostensibly awarded to organisations he controls, and he claims everything was above board. ‘We would promote traditional Russian values and patriotism for free,’ he says. ‘We’re not in it for the money’.

Zaldostanov adds that his children’s shows are designed to instil ‘love for the motherland’ in their audience, but that they also have to be ‘really scary’ in order ‘to bring home to young people the threat Russia faces from the West.’

Other bikers recall that Zaldostanov’s first races and shows were financed by the general biker movement, and motorcycle racing clubs; he would ask bike collectors to lend him rare models for display. But from 1990 onwards, Zaldostanov concentrated on his own PR and the promotion of the Night Wolves brand.

Aleksei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation has published details of Zaldostanov’s state sponsorship: the 56m roubles were supposed to be funding two children’s New Year parties at his club (although these were not free events), and a stunt performer festival. News has emerged that Zaldostanov and Yevgeny Strogov (his co-leader) received 10.5m roubles (£123,000) for their Russian Motorcyclists’ Club. Strogov is also the part owner of the Motorcycle Touring Federation, which received a government grant of 9m roubles (£105,000) to organise a race.

Members of other bike clubs complain that the parties and shows organised by the ‘Wolves’ are run on a business footing and that until these facts came out no one had the slightest idea that the government was funding them.

Other biker clubs in Russia

The Night Wolves is merely one of an enormous number of biking clubs to be found in every region of Russia; and Zaldostanov isn’t seen as especially influential in this world.

A large part of the movement, for example, has no interest in politics. Viktor Vvedensky, who became the first president of the 1st Moscow Chapter of the HOG (Harley Owners Group) when it was founded in 2005, says that his club has no political or religious affiliation; it is mainly a marketing tool, which by definition excludes anything to do with politics or religion. Also, anyone from a Harley-Davidson club in another country can use the club in Moscow, and people can take part in its races on any brand of bike. Other European and American biker clubs – Bandidos MC, Outlaws MC – have attempted to set up branches in Russia over the last 15 years, but without much success.

Zaldostanov himself never rides a Harley-Davidson, although he says he owns one. This year he has even declared war on foreign clubs and all ‘Western values.’

‘A few words about recruitment to “the best” foreign bike clubs’, he writes in a declaration on foreign clubs, ‘this strategy has been rolled out in many countries, including those of Eastern Europe, but in Orthodox countries it has usually misfired; it’s not taking off so well in Bulgaria, and in Serbia it’s a complete non-starter.

‘These countries have not forgotten their Orthodox roots and are in no hurry to cover themselves in openly Satanic symbolism. People have also not forgotten the American bombers during the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s; Goran, one of our Serb Night Wolves, lost a leg then, though it hasn’t stopped him riding his bike, and other Serbian and Macedonian brothers also fought there. Evidently the ‘best’ biker clubs are keen to be friends now, but Serbians have no wish to sign up to the forces of Beelzebub and buy into the American Way of Life.’

Journey to Berlin

Victory Day and the Great Patriotic War are very popular in Russia, and many say they are the glue that holds the country together. For the last 10 years Victory Day (which in Russia is celebrated on May 9) has become an increasingly lavish ceremony and the government spends significant funds on it.

The Night Wolves began exploiting this back in 2013. The Surgeon signed up to the patriotic programme ‘We won’t abandon our cities’, and the Night Wolves went to Volgograd to do a patriotic bike ride for about 250,000 people. 

Following this, patriotic bike rides on ‘triumphant’ motorcycles became a regular occurence. For the 70th anniversary of Victory Day, bikers from the Night Wolves decided to do an international motorcade called ‘the road of glory’ carrying Soviet victory banners. Given the recent annexation of Crimea and the conflict in eastern Ukraine, and with political relations between the West and Russia at a nadir, this was viewed by many as an inflammatory project. 

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Night Wolves meet for 70th anniversary of the end of World War 2 at Brandenburg Gate, Berlin. (c) Madeleine Lenz / Demotix

The Night Wolves attempted to gain the support of foreign bike clubs and hoped to recreate roughly the Soviet Red Army’s journey from Moscow to Berlin.

But by 27 April, it became clear that Poland would not permit them entry, and that Finland and Lithuania had also closed their borders. Thus they managed to go through Hungary but they were again denied entry at the German border, detained and then sent back.

A small number of Night Wolves, however, were permitted to enter Berlin on May 9. The motorcade was finally completed in Luhansk on 16 May. Zaldostanov called the city a ‘symbol of resistance.’

Expansion

Zaldostanov has a defined aim: to increase the representation of the Night Wolves in Russia’s regions and even expand into Europe, and the development of its recently acquired land in Sevastopol.

The club’s first headquarters was opened in Mnyovniki, a north-western district of Moscow, in 1999, and has now moved to the Sexton Club in the same area. Both buildings are owned by Aleksandr Zaldostanov, and are also the registered addresses of the ‘Russian Motorcyclists’ interregional organisation, and Sexton Ltd, a wholesale foodstuffs merchant. 

The bikers’ building was due to be demolished as part of the development of a Parliamentary Centre for Russia’s two legislative assemblies, the State Duma and the Federal Council. In early May, the Moscow city authorities came to an agreement with the club over compensation, and assistance in building a new headquarters in another outlying district of the capital

On May 13, the Night Wolves woke up to more good news; in Sevastopol the local authorities announced that they had allocated 227 hectares (about 560 acres) of real estate to the bikers to promote sports and “military-patriotic education.” Sources in the city’s local assembly say the project involves a ‘patriotic centre’, a sports camp for children and adolescents, and a professional motorcycle track for racing.

It pays to have friends in high places: the Night Wolves is leasing the land on the cheap, paying just 0.1% for a property that is valued at roughly 1.2 billion roubles ($24.4 million).

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