February 06, 2022

Biking with Style, with Putin: The Night Wolves

Biking with Style, with Putin: The Night Wolves
This is called "male bonding."  Press Service of the President of Russia

In America, we might encounter motorcyclists, or bikers, on long car trips, nodding a curt hello to them at gas stations. Maybe we eyed with curiosity their leather vests, or scraggly beards, or beer guts, or apparent desire to fly down the road at seventy-five miles an hour without a helmet. They're grizzled and ornery and tough as nails, smelling like sweat and oil and the open road; romantic scofflaws, to a man (or woman).

But this is not a solely American phenomenon. In fact, Russia has its own biker club/gang: the Night Wolves. And it might surprise you to learn that, rather than being rebellious, anarchist wanderers, they're best buddies with VVP himself.

We're not making this up.

putin on a bike
Oh, to be the guy in Putin's sidecar. | Press Service of the President of Russia

The Night Wolves formed during the 1980s, holding for then-illegal rock concerts and later coming together to motorcycle. Their leader, Alexander Zaldostanov, joined in 1989, first as a hobby to fill his free time when he wasn't doing his day job as a surgeon. Later, Zaldostanov would quit his job to become a biker-gang leader full-time.

Rather than turning to the devil-may-care attitude of stereotypical American biker clubs, Zaldostanov instead made the Night Wolves into a tool to promote his political ideology: pride in Slavic and Russian culture, promotion of masculinity and family values, veneration of the Russian Orthodox Church, a distrust of the West, and, above all, loyalty to the Russian state (including, of course, Putin).

The modern Russian state, apparently, has seen some value in the activities of Zaldostanov; namely, that young people infatuated with motorcycles and biker culture will want to participate while also supporting Putin's agenda. To this end, the Night Wolves began putting on motorcycle shows, rides, and displays with explicitly pro-Putin and anti-Western themes.

As a result, besides likely receiving hefty sums from the Russian government, Zaldostanov was inducted into the Order of Honor in 2013, receiving a medal from Putin himself in what must have been a surreal event.

Zaldostanov getting his medal
If I ever meet Putin, this is what I'll wear. | Press Service of the President of Russia

Around this time, Zaldostanov offered the Night Wolves as a kind of militia to Putin, should the need arise. When Crimea was illegally annexed by Russia in 2014, Zaldostanov and crew were sent in to keep the peace, blockade roads, and spread Putin's influence. After all, biker gangs aren't military troops. That's a nice loophole right there.

Among their more remarkable activities in 2014 was an August bike show which is difficult to describe. In essence, the show portrayed Ukraine as under the influence of America-backed Nazis, in need of salvation by Russian forces who could rebuff the insidious Western meddlers and preserve true Russian/Slavic/Orthodox nationhood. While bikes were involved, the meat of the show included pyrotechnics, drums, dancing, poetry readings, Steven Seagal, puppetry, and even two APCs. Check out a delightful write-up of it on Buzzfeed (of all places!) here.

Reflecting on this, Zaldostanov said, "For the first time we showed resistance to the global Satanism, the growing savagery of Western Europe, the rush to consumerism that denies all spirituality, the destruction of traditional values, all this homosexual talk, this American democracy." For this, Zaldostanov received the Medal for the Return of Crimea (quote-unquote "return").

On the flip side, the United States, Germany, and other Western countries have explicitly sanctioned Zaldostanov and his group since 2014 for their involvement in Crimea. This has not stopped them from trying to enter the European Union to link up with foreign chapters of the gang, although they were turned back at the border.

Also in 2014, Ramzan Kadyrov, President of Chechnya, was officially invited to join the group. He holds the position of honorary leader of the Grozny branch of the organization.

These days, the Night Wolves continue to host pro-Russian bike rallies which draw enthusiasts and participants from an estimated forty-five chapters worldwide. Their regular shows, held in their home arena and targeted at kids (per Zaldostanov, "When the kids come to us, we don't cut costs on special effects or efforts to convey to the children a feeling of true drive and danger"), look like an experience, to say the least. Here's the poster from their 2022 New Year show:

Night Wolves biker show
I see robots, Grandfather Frost, and fire. Looks like a good time. | Night Wolves website

In 2019, Putin celebrated ten years since the Night Wolves' first show in Crimea, traipsing with them through the freshly-annexed peninsula before giving a speech. He called the Night Wolves

a good idea that unites technology lovers, motorcycle enthusiasts, and everyone who treats our Motherland with heart and soul. You have a wonderful tradition associated with maintaining all the best that can be in the heart of a Russian, Russian person, associated with our wonderful, heroic history. I am very pleased that such courageous, tough guys set an example.

Putin between bikers
Putin sings the praises of the Night Wolves, modern, leather-clad heroes of Russia. | Press Service of the President of Russia

The Night Wolves are evidence of what some scholars might call "sharp power": not explicitly military activities that still promote Russia's place in the world, assert its superiority, and embody its values. Yes, it might be tacky, but so far, they've proved valuable to Putin and his allies as an arm of propaganda for Russia's unique right-wing, nationalist, populist, religious, historical-revisionist ideology. Chances are they aren't going away soon, and, as tension with Ukraine simmers, we might even see more of them in the days to come.

Hey, as long as they stick around, we hope they continue to produce gems like this:

goofy night wolves meme
"There is God in heaven, and Russia on earth..." | A meme by the NIght Wolves


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