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Putin’s Angels: Inside Russia’s Most Infamous Motorcycle Club

The president of Russia’s most infamous motorcycle club emerges from a purifying swim in the still waters of a former slurry pond. He cuts a striking figure: tall, tattooed, plated with muscle. His hair, a leonine mane, clings to his back in dark ringlets. A silver crucifix dangles from his neck. “He goes to the lake, swimming for an hour, to maintain himself in a moral state,” says one of his lieutenants, a stout, chain-smoking Kazakh named Arman.

The leader’s name is the Surgeon, and he is the president of the Night Wolves, the largest motorcycle club in Russia. He is a busy man. Over the past week, he has been composing the script for the Night Wolves’ signature event: an annual bike show held here in Sevastopol — a city on the coast of Russia’s recently reacquired Crimean Peninsula — combining motorcycle stunts, military maneuvers and strident nationalist pageantry. One evening, I was told, he also met with Argentina’s vice president. Several weeks before that, he challenged a local lawmaker to a duel. The official had objected to a dubious government land deal that would rent a sprawling, defunct gravel factory, where the Night Wolves hold their bike show, at a 99.9 percent discount. (The official declined the challenge.)

After his swim, the Surgeon strides over to a replica World War II fighter plane. A battle tank, imported from a film studio in Kazakhstan, sits parked nearby in the scrub grass. Both would be incorporated into the Night Wolves’ bike show in several weeks — a phantasmagorical spectacle celebrating the Red Army’s victory over Hitler and intended to feed Russia’s growing Soviet nostalgia. “I’m very excited by the topic of war at the moment,” the Surgeon says. “I’m not fucking interested in show just for show. I’m a warrior. I’m fighting for my country, for my history. I’m talking about what Russia is facing now. Especially America, putting the shit on it.”

Above the Surgeon’s head, a pair of outsize metal puppet hands hang from a rusted conveyor chute. They featured prominently in the previous year’s show, waggling malevolently above the stage and appearing to orchestrate goose-stepping “pro-Western” demonstrators below — the Surgeon’s reinterpretation of the 2014 Maidan revolution in Ukraine that toppled the pro-Russia president. The Surgeon’s narrative echoed the Kremlin’s own version of events: Ukrainian fascists overthrew a legitimate government, with secret Western backing, and installed a junta with villainous plans for ethnic Russians. One of the puppet hands had sported a ring, now absent, emblazoned with an eagle logo suspiciously similar to the U.S. presidential seal. “Not Americans,” Arman assures me. “It’s world evil, international evil.”

“All this has meaning,” says the Night Wolves’ leader, a 52-year-old former dental surgeon whose real name is Alexander Zaldostanov, gazing around at the props of war. “All this is made by Night Wolves. All my vision, everything I have in my head, will be reflected here.”

I had traveled to Russia in July to learn about the vision of the Surgeon and his fellow Nochniye Volki. A charismatic showman with a penchant for provocative bombast, the motorcycle club’s leader is perhaps Russia’s most recognizable nationalist star. Over the past decade, he has transformed a once-underground biker gang into a self-styled vanguard of patriotic holy warriors, reportedly 5,000 strong, with close ties to the Kremlin. In the Russian media, he can regularly be heard trumpeting the country’s greatness while warning that its enemies — America, Europe, homosexuals, liberals, traitorous “fifth columnists” — intend to undermine Mother Russia. He and the other Night Wolves often hold motorcycle rallies to promote Russian patriotism and Orthodox Christianity, making rumbling pilgrimages to churches and holy sites. He has vowed to defend the Kremlin from Maidan-inspired protesters and has pledged to die for Vladimir Putin, the country’s president. He has famously declared that “wherever the Night Wolves are, that should be considered Russia.” Recently, the club held a three-day anti-NATO rally in Slovakia. Lately, the Surgeon has taken to praising Stalin.

Western reporters have dubbed the Night Wolves either “Russia’s Hells Angels” or, because of their muscular patriotism, a crucial source of “Russian soft power.” But such descriptions fall short. In late February 2014, at the beginning of Russia’s takeover of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, the Surgeon was spotted on a flight to Crimea. On the day of his arrival, the Night Wolves were working alongside pro-Russia militias, setting up roadblocks in Sevastopol. In March, according to the U.S. government, they stormed a naval facility, with the Surgeon personally helping to coordinate “the confiscation of Ukrainian weapons with the Russian forces.” On March 18th, Russia formally annexed the peninsula. Whether the Night Wolves’ leader acted on his own initiative or on orders from Russian officials remains unknown, but it seems unlikely the Kremlin would not sanction, at least tacitly, an operation of such consequence. (The Surgeon soon received a medal for “the liberation of the Crimea and Sevastopol” in Moscow, Russian media reported.) After fighting broke out in eastern Ukraine weeks later, a Night Wolves chapter joined pro-Russia militias battling the country’s army — a grinding conflict that continues and has killed nearly 8,000 thus far. The Night Wolves have been running “humanitarian convoys” into the region and, I witness, serving as a police force in Luhansk, one of two self-declared separatist republics.

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