Canada recently expanded economic sanctions against Russia, targeting a dozen new entities deemed complicit in violating Ukrainian sovereignty. These included state energy behemoth Gazprom, a key lever of Russian foreign policy, various Russian defense companies, and the Eurasian Youth Union, a group known for espousing an anti-Western, imperial ideology and rallying support for Ukrainian separatists.
Another new addition to the Canadian sanctions list that may seem out of place to a casual observer is a Russian motorcycle club called the Night Wolves. What would free-spirited, tattooed bikers, usually lovers of anarchy and the open road, have to do with a geopolitical showdown between major world powers?
The answer lies in the fact that the club’s leader Alexander Zaldostanov, better known as “the Surgeon,” is no ordinary outlaw, but rather personal friends with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In recent years, Russia’s largest motorcycle club has ridden into the political spotlight.
In 2008, the Night Wolves joined the crowd on Red Square celebrating Dmitri Medvedev’s presidential victory, in a public display of loyalty that caught the Kremlin’s eye. Putin then visited the bikers’ central clubhouse, located in a Moscow suburb, for a televised chat with Zaldostanov in 2009.
Presumably, Putin’s team saw something they liked in the Night Wolves, or at least something they thought could be of use. After that first meeting, Putin called off city officials threatening to evict the bikers from their clubhouse, signaling his willingness to become a patron of the motorcycle club.
Since, the unlikely partnership has only grown. Putin famously rode alongside Zaldostanov, albeit on a three-wheeled Harley, at a 2010 bike show in Sevastopol, and again at a 2011 show in Novorossiysk. In 2013, Putin awarded Zaldostanov the prestigious Order of Honor medal for his “active work on the patriotic education of youth” and for his help in preserving the memory of fallen Second World War soldiers. The state medal now prominently adorns the Surgeon’s leather club vest.
The Night Wolves have also made other friends in high places.
The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, has received Zaldostanov to discuss patriotic events organized by club, and Night Wolves’ leaders have be known to attend church services led by Kirill, such as this year’s Christmas Eve mass at the Christ the Savior Cathedral.
The club has also made public displays of support for the Russian Orthodox Church. In April 2012, the bikers joined a rally in defense of the Orthodox Christian faith outside Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral. “We wanted to support the Russian Orthodox Church, to show our solidarity, and to stress that we are with them and not with those crazy [antichurch] people,” Zaldostanov said at the time, taking a shot at Pussy Riot’s “punk prayer” two months earlier.
The Night Wolves have even acquired a degree of global infamy in recent years.
As Russian troops seized control of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in early 2014, the bikers helped storm a natural gas facility and the naval headquarters in Sevastopol, a strategic city on the peninsula home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet.
Then, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March and the start of the armed conflict between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine, the Night Wolves staged a massive summer show in Sevastopol.
The spectacle, broadcast live on Russian state TV, treated a crowd of about 100,000 to a choreographed mix of nationalist rock music, pyrotechnics, and an interpretive reenactment of the Ukraine crisis. Replete with Nazi imagery, the reenactment portrayed Ukraine as a country overrun by fascists and controlled by Western puppeteers. The show closed, of course, with a Russian and rebel victory over chaos, fascism, and Western imperialism. This over-the-top production helped bring to life the narrative pulsing through state-controlled media to justify the Russian annexation of Crimea and Moscow’s support for the rebels in eastern Ukraine.
The club’s high-profile involvement in the international crisis centered on Ukraine that has plunged relations between the West and Russia to a post-cold war low has not gone unnoticed.
In December 2014, the United States slapped sanctions on the motorcycle club for its complicity in violating Ukrainian sovereignty and stability. In addition to participation in the seizure of Crimea, the U.S. Treasury Department also cited other activities by the bikers. These included smuggling a former senior Ukrainian official out of the country and helping to recruit separatist fighters for the conflict in Ukraine’s east.
Zaldostanov reacted to his inclusion on the American black list, which freezes any U.S. assets and prohibits dealings with American citizens, with derision. “I would very much like to thank Obama for recognizing my modest services to the motherland,” Zaldostanov said. “I promise that I will do all I can so that his concern for me only grows.” Recently, the unrepentant Zaldostanov stated that several of the club’s Ukrainian members are fighting with the rebels in eastern Ukraine.
In April, the Night Wolves clashed with European Union officials. This time, the controversy was sparked by the club’s planned ride across Europe, from Moscow to Berlin, to commemorate the 70th anniversary of World War II. In a highly publicized affair, a group of Night Wolves bikers were turned back at the Polish border with Belarus after Poland’s foreign ministry banned the bikers from entering the country.
The Night Wolves’ transformation from tattooed, rock music-loving Soviet outcasts on motorcycles to a prominent symbol of Russian patriotism and a potent tool of Kremlin policy is a decades-long story.
The group first came together in the early 1980s by way of the underground rock scene in Moscow, according to the history posted on the club’s website. Many underground rock bands at the time broached taboo social topics while venturing into the darker sides of Soviet life, and their concerts, considered subversive and outlawed by Soviet authorities, often devolved into mass brawls. Within this underground world, a group of motorcycle enthusiasts banded together to form what would eventually become the Night Wolves.
In 1989, the Night Wolves established Russia’s first motorcycle club. They adopted a patch depicting a wolf head trailed by flames overlaying a full moon.
In the early nineties, the bikers helped found a Moscow rock club called “Sexton,” an obscure term for a church’s gravedigger. Today, the nightclub and restaurant at the main clubhouse in western Moscow carry on this name. The clubhouse, which opened in 1999, now boasts a bar fashioned out crushed Harley-Davidsons and is decorated with gigantic crosses crafted from old bike parts.
The Night Wolves also began organizing annual motorcycle shows in the nineties, holding Russia’s first bike show in 1994, which several hundred people attended. By 1995, the club had set up a tattoo parlor and a custom bike shop, launched the clothing line “Wolf Wear,” and received official state registration.
In the 2000s, the Night Wolves established regional chapters throughout Russia, as well as in Belarus, Ukraine, Latvia, Macedonia, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Germany. Today, the Night Wolves remain Russia’s biggest biker association with over five thousand members.
The public face of the club is Alexander Zaldostanov, who has been its leader since 1989. Zaldostanov, better known as “the Surgeon,” was once actually a surgeon. He worked at a prestigious institute specializing in post-traumatic facial reconstruction. Zaldostanov’s nickname also has to do with his skill at knife fighting, rumor has it.
Zaldostanov was born in Ukraine and spent part of his childhood in Crimea before studying medicine in Moscow. Despite his professional success in the 1980s, Zaldostanov gravitated toward the Moscow underground, riding around the city at night on a Czech-made motorcycle. “I had a parallel life… negative for the government, for the police,” Zaldostanov told Vice News in a recent interview. “I was in the opposition then. We had our own club, and I was a constant participant in fights.”
As the Night Wolves grew into a major association following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Zaldostanov steered his club in a different direction than infamous criminal motorcycle gangs in the West, such as the Hells Angels. “We’re ready to fuck someone up, but not because of some drugs or something. We have different values. We’re for the motherland,” Zaldostanov explained to Vice News.
Leading club member Alexey Weitz has also helped shape this unusual evolution. “For a while I’d been seeing visions, religious visions,” Weitz told British journalist Peter Pomerantsev in 2013, explaining his decision to abandon an acting career on the personal journey that brought him to the club. “I could see devils and angels on people’s shoulders. I could see serpents wrapping themselves around people as they spoke, their true souls.”
After finding a home in the Night Wolves, Weitz has imbued the club with religious zeal. “We only have a few years to rescue the soul of holy Russia,” Weitz told Pomerantsev.
The budding partnership between the Night Wolves and the highest levels of Russian officialdom is a relationship based on mutual interest.
For Putin, the club plays many useful roles. The bikers directly assisted the covert operation to seize Crimea and have supported the Russia-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine. Club-staged events like the spectacle in Sevastopol have reinforced Russian propaganda and made for great television. Putin’s rides at the head of a motorcycle column have boosted his domestic popularity among certain groups.
The Night Wolves also joined with war veterans and patriotic politicians to form the “Anti-Maidan” movement in early 2015. Anti-Maidan is essentially pro-government street muscle that can be quickly deployed against popular unrest like that witnessed in Ukraine’s “Maidan” revolution. “If an unsanctioned mass event is planned, then all members of [Anti-Maidan] will arrive… there will always be more of us than them,” Russian senator Dmitry Sablin explained. Anti-Maidan resembles a more militant version of the pro-Kremlin youth groups like Nashi created after Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2005 to build a similar protest-busting capacity in Russia. In December 2011, however, when the Putin regime found itself facing mass protests for the first time, organizations like Nashi exerted little or no influence on events. The Kremlin seems to be more serious about assuring control of Moscow’s streets the next time around.
For the Night Wolves, the motivation is simple. In Russia, you can’t have better placed friends than President Putin and Patriarch Kirill.
After Zaldostanov’s first meeting with Putin in 2009, Moscow city officials threatening to evict the group from their clubhouse got a call from the Kremlin and dramatically changed their tune. According to evidence assembled by anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny, the Night Wolves have received as much as $1 million in government money since 2014. About a third of these funds were apparently for the elaborate show in Sevastopol, courtesy of the Ministry of Culture. Local authorities in Crimea have also reportedly leased over 500 acres of prime real estate on the cheap to the bikers for use in promoting “military-patriotic education.”
Having such powerful friends also helps the bikers maintain their dominant position in Russia. At times, the club has clashed with international biker gangs hoping to establish outposts in Russia. In 2012, a Night Wolves member was shot and killed in a run-in involving the Bandidos, an international outlaw motorcycle gang originally founded in Texas. The Bandidos and other groups have yet to establish a strong presence in Russia, however.
So will the unusual partnership between Putin and the Night Wolves continue to flourish?
Upon reflection, it is actually not that surprising that Putin is making use of tattooed bikers. Throughout his time in power, Putin has utilized diverse groups to further his interests.
Putin raised Dmitri Medvedev to the presidency to please Western leaders, international businessmen, and middle-class Muscovites clamoring for pluralism and modernization. He has embraced the Russian Orthodox Church to solidify his domestic legitimacy. He pulled out the ideology of Novorossiya to support his foreign policy course in Ukraine. To stabilize the restive North Caucasus republic of Chechnya, Putin famously forged an alliance with Ramzan Kadyrov, who is best described as an Islamic warlord.
In short, Putin uses whatever means necessary to accomplish his goals. This logic suggests that the Night Wolves will stay relevant as long as they remain useful.
As for the Night Wolves, they appear to be enjoying their new access to money and power. While some more free-spirited bikers may be turned off by the new political prominence, Putin’s favorite motorcycle club is clearly in tune with the patriotic fervor sweeping Russia today.