Russia's Night Wolves ride alongside Putin
Russia's Night Wolves are very different to bikie gangs in Australia and the US. Once perceived as subversive, the club now promotes traditional values.
3 steps for those willing to become a Night Wolf:
1. Aspiring members – only (straight) men need apply – should be adventure-seekers, without work or family commitments which might prevent them from spending time with the club.
2. You need your own bike, for starters (and they don't always come cheap). Putin's three-wheel Harley, that he rode to a bike show in Sevastopol, for instance, costs more than $US 20,000.
3. Would-be Wolves need to demonstrate their loyalty and commitment to the club by waiting five years before they become members and can put club emblems on their leather jackets.
Founded in May 1989, Russia's motorbike club the Night Wolves sprouted from the anti-Soviet rock culture of the 1980s — a time when the club regarded itself as standing for freedom and against the establishment.
For years, this group of bearded, beer-bellied men in black leather and blue jeans was Russia's only bikie gang. Now, while one of many, it is still the country's largest motorbike club, with more than 5000 members.
The Night Wolves' manifesto rejects all laws and speaks of the power of the Brotherhood. It has not, however, tarnished its reputation, as the American branch of the club has, with criminal activities. With a few exceptions it generally has a clean reputation.
The Russian branch was modelled on the American Hells Angels club and was initially labelled an MG ("motorgang"), not MC ("motorbikeclub"). But the Night Wolves is very different to bikie clubs and gangs elsewhere.
Ideologically, the club has moved close to the Russian authorities and it has connections to President Vladimir Putin. The club's leaders are increasingly becoming known for their espousal of traditional values, nationalist rhetoric and conservative views.
Putin first visited the Night Wolves at their Sexton bikeclub in western Moscow in 2009 – something that sceptics viewed as just another one of the president’s colourful media stunts. Images of Putin on a larger-than-life bike, surrounded by burly Night Wolves members, did the media rounds during his premiership and later presidency.
Then, in July, Putin even kept Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovich waiting for four hours when he was having a meeting with Alexander Zaldostanov, the tattooed head of the Night Wolves - also known as "The Surgeon".
Putin has embraced and supported Russian patriotism and the strength of the Russian nation since he first became president in 2000, and so have the Night Wolves.
"I want us to remain a patriotic club," says Zaldostanov, "to be an example for the young, to do something for our Fatherland – which we basically lost by buying jeans and chewing gum and selling out for McDonald’s.
"The Night Wolves are a phenomenon – bigger than a motorbike club, something that makes presidents come to us and the [Orthodox] Patriarch gives us his blessing.”
Zaldostanov makes no secret of his warm relations with Putin and praises the president for his patriotic attempts to return Russia to its former greatness. Zaldostanov organised a patriotic motorbike club festival this year in Stalingrad, as part of a wider ceremony commemorating the Nazi bombing of the city on August 23, 1942. He is also increasingly becoming famous for his harsh anti-American rhetoric and criticisms of what he sees as Western values.
The Night Wolves expressed outrage at the controversial punk prayer performed by Russian feminist group Pussy Riot in Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral in February, 2012, and in doing so, showed their support for the Russian Orthodox Church.
They have taken a very different path from the ideals held at the club’s inception. Following the Pussy Riot controversy, the club later promised to help guard Orthodox cathedrals from any further "hooliganism", as they described it.
Their conservatism runs deep: the Night Wolves are openly homophobic and discriminatory and have said they do not allow gay men to join the club.
The Night Wolves’ new progovernment and pro-establishment stances have certainly raised some eyebrows among Russian bikies, particularly middle-class riders who may not share their conservative views.
There are still, however, middle-class bikies who bought their Harley-Davidson sand BMWs during Russia’s oil boom of the noughties who are keen to join the club. In 2013 Putin awarded Zaldostanov the prestigious Order of Honour for his "active work in patriotic upbringing of the young" and for helping search for the remains of dead World War Two soldiers.
Moreover, Zaldostanov’s club does not seem to have attracted bad media coverage after an incident in which a member was killed in a shoot-out with a rival gang last year, allegedly because the latter refused to endorse the Night Wolves’ support of the Kremlin.
Yevgeny Vorobyev, the leader of the Three Roads, a gang involved in the shoot-out, later said that his gang had angered the Night Wolves by ending an alliance with them and establishing ties with the US motorcycle club, the Bandidos, a club which recently edged onto the Russian soil but keeps a low profile.
"We just didn’t like the public activity of the Wolves – all that official stuff," Vorobyev said. "Our ideals are music, bikes, free time and girls."