Putin Russia bikers
Vladimir Putin rides with Alexander Zaldostanov, leader of Nochniye Volki (the Night Wolves) biker group.REUTERS/Ivan Sekretarev

Until recently the biggest Russian motorcycle club Nochnye Volki, or the Night Wolves, was almost unknown in Europe. That all changed this spring when a group of affiliated bikers decided to ride to Berlin to mark 70 years since the end of World War II.

In just a few days, first the Polish border guards denied them entry and then a German court invalidated their visas, rocketing the group to international notoriety. Backed by the Russian Foreign Ministry and some fellow-thinkers in Europe, the bikers split and some of them eventually made it to Berlin by 9 May, the Russian Victory Day.

It might seem weird that a motorcycle club engages in such public activities, but only if you don't know who the Night Wolves, and their leader, are.

The Night Wolves formed back in Soviet times around the young, charismatic leader Alexander 'The Surgeon' Zaldostanov (a former physician). Gradually the club developed into the biggest of its kind in Russia, and opened branches abroad, mainly in Eastern Europe and the CIS (the coalition of countries formed after the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991).

Alexander Zoldostanov
Alexander 'The Surgeon' ZoldostanovWikipedia

The group did what you'd expect a motorcycle club would do: organize rock concerts, tattoo conferences, motorcycle shows and exhibitions. In a word they were nonconformists, a self-contained subculture, and Zaldostanov enjoyed indisputable authority among his fellow-bikers.

However, in 2008 the Wolves made their first public appearance in a political rally that marked the victory of Dmitriy Medvedev at the Presidential elections. After they made their allegiance clear, Mr Zaldostanov started receiving more media attention.

He was received by the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, to discuss the patriotic events organized by the bikers. In 2011, then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin attended the Wolves' home base in Moscow and rode a bike alongside The Surgeon. It wouldn't be his last visit.

Since then, the Wolves have set up numerous bike shows they call patriotic, and even stopped identifying themselves as 'bikers', preferring 'Russian motorcyclists' instead. Mr Zaldostanov and his brand have gone political.

This new nationalist, patriotic Orthodox Christian image, so different from the freedom-loving rebels of 'Easy Rider' or 'Harley Davidson And The Marlboro Man' that inspired many Wolves to take up biking in the first place, has mixed with The Surgeon's aggressive PR campaign to create a split in the bikers' community. This became obvious during the recent motorcycle season opening in St Petersburg, when the Night Wolves, headed by Zaldostanov, had to try hard to gather a decent crowd, and still it was scanty.

"Almost none of the 30 motorcycle clubs [in the city] joined the column [of bikers] due to one reason: we do care about who's in the front" says Roman Yudin, a member of the local MotoSovet motorcycle club, in an interview with Gazeta.ru.

Another biker, Igor Boroda, says he and many of his friends didn't like the Night Wolves' European raid.

"It would have been okay if they went across the European cities without doing interviews and self-promotion, just to lay flowers to the monuments [to the Soviet soldiers]" Boroda said. "But it turned out that they used the day when we commemorate our ancestors to advertise themselves."

Meanwhile, the famous Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalniy recently posted evidence that between 2013 and 2014, in just 18 months, Zaldostanov and his affiliates received RUB56m (over $1.1m) in government grants. This money was meant to be spent on such vital enterprises as the research that would help define how "the experience of Russian motorcyclists [...] can be used to foster love towards the country, its history, traditions, and the people in the youth".

Putin Zoldostanov
Zoldostanov receiving a medal from Putin in 2013.Wikipedia

The money was earmarked for public events such as the 2015 New Year Tree festival at the Wolves' home base, the 'Sexton' club. This told an alternative story of Crimea's reunion with Russia, and featured an animated Statue of Liberty that came to Russia to bribe people with grants, as well as an evil foreign military commander who was upset the Black Sea was guarded by the Russian ships, and ordered to print dollars "to poison, separate and kill the Slavic peoples".

Honestly, I can't remember such fierce anti-American rhetoric from my Soviet childhood, but Alexander Zaldostanov clearly does. He is happy to strongly align himself against the West, which he identifies with feminism and gay rights.

"We have to burn out all the feminism and homosexuality from our Orthodox Christian country with hot steel," he said in an interview with the Russian NTV channel.

Indeed, Zaldostanov is a charismatic person who says things straight. Despite his clear pro-Putin orientation and radical rhetoric he still enjoys great support among the Wolves, who appreciate that he kept the organisation afloat during the 90s. Nevertheless, when it comes to the brothers who disagree, the Wolves still appear to believe the old-fashioned punch in the face and bullet are still the best argument.

In October 2012, one of their gang members was killed in a shooting when the Night Wolves came to a garage of their former friends Three Roads MC who later associated themselves with Bandidos MC from Texas, USA.

The visitors, who numbered over 40 in 16 cars, claimed they came to invite their former affiliates to the motorcycle season closing party and try to reboot the friendship.

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The Three Roads tell a different tale: they said they had been constantly threatened and bullied by the Wolves who wanted to subsume them into their own organisation.

As a result of the shooting, a member of the Three Roads MC, Yuriy Nekrasov, was detained and spent a year in prison awaiting trial for murder, but was released after the court changed the charge to a lighter one.

In a commentary to this incident, the Night Wolves vice-president Aleksandr Benyush said they were not going to take revenge on Nekrasov. "He is not our enemy. Our enemy is the ideology that the Bandidos MC and Mr Nekrasov fell victims to," he said.

Recently, Vladimir Putin's favourite dog and a loyal friend, a Labrador named Cony, died. I bet I know who wants to put on the vacant dog-collar.