Vladimir Putin's friend Alexander "The Surgeon" Zaldostanov is the leader of the Night Wolves nationalist motorcycle club, a hardcore Motherland-loving campaigner for "resistance to the global Satanism" and "all this homosexual talk." He can also put on quite a musical! Perhaps you'd like to feast your eyes on some highlights from the Night Wolves' first and second annual theatrical extravaganzas, complete with acrobats, fireworks, unauthorized Nirvana covers, revisionist historical reenactments, and sick-ass bike tricks:
The first shows took place two summers in a row on a rugged Mad Max-style set at the Night Wolves' "patriotic extreme sports center" in Sevastopol, Crimea, the annexation of which isn't recognized by the majority of the world's countries and councils. There, the biker gang is renting land from the Russian government at a 99% discount. The show was funded by $1 million worth of government grants for "cultural programming," courtesy of the Ministry of Culture, and broadcast live on Russian state TV. Ah, the perks of Putin's friendship!
The 2014 show featured good ol' anti-Maidan propaganda: Maidan protestors were played by fascist ninjas, goose-stepping in a swastika formation, setting shit on fire as they overthrow the pro-Russian president, so orchestrated by a set of giant metal "puppeteer" hands representing Western and American moneyed influencers, yanking the ninja-fascists' strings. There was also an Illuminati pyramid, "bloody" drum beating, terrible rock musicians doing patriotic numbers, and the Surgeon doing some spoken word readings about "traitors to Russia" and "slaves to America." This fit the narrative of "rejoining" Crimea "back" with Russia perfectly. One hundred thousand people reportedly attended.
Last summer, with the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II coming up, the performance was "set" mostly during World War II. A replica of a fighter plane—the clubhouse's decorative fixture—glittered with controlled explosions. Women and children in historical costumes ran around and cried. Soldiers fell and died. A metal maiden in a billowing dress rose over a sea of fallen soldiers with the help of a crane, and kept beating at the show's big motif with her serenade: "Motherland, look at me! My open palm has become a fist."
"Russia! Remember! Wide open arms are convenient for crucifixion," one of the performers crooned ecstatically in front of a chorus of sailors. "Russia! Remember! You are the best on the planet. You are an eternal empire." That's some time before a fire-breathing steel mill worker dance number and after the Surgeon, a cartoonish giant in paramilitary gear, read poetry from a tall pedestal: "People who went through hell are holy. There are no atheists on the battlefield." After that, bikers did jumps, donuts, and flips to some sort of Limp Bizkit scatting over hard guitar riffs while a giant cross lit up with fireworks.
The Night Wolves also terrified children on New Years in another government-funded musical production where our beloved Snegurochka (Russian Santa's beautiful daughter) is kidnapped by "evil" people "across the ocean" including a tight-dressed Statue of Liberty trying to ruin everything forever.
Before he was a founding president of the Night Wolves, "The Surgeon" was an actual facial reconstruction surgeon. Before he came out as a government tool who would "do anything to keep any creature from getting up close to" Putin, he was a different kind of bad boy. According to the club's self-curated history, the Night Wolves came up out of the Soviet underground in the 80s, putting on illegal rock shows and "cultivating the philosophy of personal freedom." In the 90s, they became Russia's first official motorcycle club. Things were never the same after the Kremlin became interested.
Putin invited the Surgeon to hang out. They had a lot in common. They both loved Russia, God and "family values," hated liberal values and US "soft powers," and seemed to embrace performative masculinity. Putin started joining the Night Wolves' very photographed rides on his own three-wheeled Harley and catapulted the Surgeon's already rising political celebrity, a celebrity blossoming with militant patriotism and rebel aesthetics all over state television. The club's had some financial interests—owning several rock clubs, tattoo shops, and a clothing line—and now, government benefactors. The Russian opposition (and many Russians in general) considered them a bunch of leather-clad clowns, but the Night Wolves were a thing now, and their warrior posturing became real.
According to US government reports, the Night Wolves as a club are "responsible for or complicit in, or has engaged in, directly or indirectly, actions or policies that threaten the peace, security, stability, sovereignty, or territorial integrity of Ukraine." They directly aided in the annexation of Crimea by setting up roadblocks, recruiting separatists fighters, fighting alongside pro-Russian separatists, storming a natural gas facility in Strikolkove, and coordinating "the confiscation of Ukrainian weapons with the Russian forces" from a naval facility in Sevastopol. There's a sad mini-doc on the Guardian about their base in Luhansk, a self-proclaimed state in east Ukraine (annexed along with Crimea) where members are "waiting for action," shooting targets, drinking beer and pontificating on how they found their life's meaning in this God-loving Harley-straddling "Motherland"-"liberating" militia.
On May 9th, a few of the Night Wolves crashed the Soviet War Memorial in Treptower Park, Berlin, ending their annual 3,728-mile motorcade recreation of the Red Army march to Berlin to, as the Surgeon says, "remind Europeans that it was Russia that saved them from the fascist hell." For all their antics in Ukraine, they were sanctioned by the US and several NATO countries. The bans, especially Poland's, made for a bumpy ride. But in Russia, they were awarded medals for "liberating Crimea." They were invited to roll through the Red Square in the military Victory Day parade, along with the gear and equipment, brigades and airplanes. Many Russians are tired of this dick-waving army parade pageantry, but the Night Wolves definetly fit in.
They rode in with striped orange and black flags, the colors of a ribbon that traditionally held a medal commemorating the victory over Germany in 1945. As Julia Ioffe noted in her 2014 piece about Putin co-opting the country's memory of World War II, that victory "has been used to justify the annexation of Crimea and to fight opposition to Putin at home." The orange and black ribbons "are now a symbol of pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine and of Putinists in Russia." That theater magic. It's everywhere.
Supercut video by Erika Audie.