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The Profitable Patriotism of Vladimir Putin's Biker Bromance

The Night Wolves ride their growing renown all the way to the bank. Image edited by Kevin Rothrock.

The Night Wolves ride their growing renown all the way to the bank. Image edited by Kevin Rothrock.

With a name like theirs, you expect big things from the “Night Wolves,” the Russian motorcycle gang that’s become internationally famous for its peculiar patriotic events and diehard support for Vladimir Putin and Russia’s recent foreign adventures in Ukraine.

Putin’s biker bromance admittedly isn’t radically new. With much fanfare, he first joined the group for a ride in August 2011. In the years since, Putin has met with the Night Wolves not infrequently, sometimes showing up late to meetings with foreign heads of state, as a result.

Since Russia reclaimed Crimea and started supporting separatists in eastern Ukraine, the Night Wolves have become a more overt political organization, with the group’s head, Alexander Zaldostanov (known commonly as “the Surgeon”), opining that his gang has become a “state-recognized instrument of public diplomacy.”

In March earlier this year, the Night Wolves announced plans to ride from Moscow to Berlin in honor of the 70th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s victory in World War II. The motorcycle convoy was scheduled to leave Moscow on April 25 and follow the Red Army’s route through Belarus, Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Austria, before arriving in Germany on May 9.

Poland’s Prime Minister, calling it a provocation, immediately condemned the stunt, citing the Night Wolves’ support for Russia’s activities in Ukraine. On April 27, the Polish authorities duly stopped about a dozen Night Wolves at the border with Belarus. Three days later, however, Zaldostanov announced that some of the group’s members succeeded in entering Poland, and the convoy ultimately made its way to Germany.

On May 6, after some hesitation, German officials ruled that there was no legal reason to deny the Night Wolves the right to ride through Berlin, which the group did on May 9, when Russia celebrates Victory Day.

The Night Wolves have attracted significant attention on social media, where Internet users flocked to communities on VKontakte dedicated to the biker gang to wish them safe travels, and applaud the convoy to Berlin. Others expressed indignation about the bikers’ treatment abroad, viewing it as an affront to memory of Russia’s war dead.

Zaldostanov says he plans to take his group to western Ukraine next, where he’s promised to restore the World War II monuments supposedly destroyed by Ukrainian nationalists.

It’s not all love for the Night Wolves online, however. On May 5, a day before the bikers got the green light to drive through Berlin, anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny published evidence that the Night Wolves have received as much as 56 million rubles ($1.1 million) in government money since 2014. About a third of these funds went to a motorcycle show in Sevastopol in July 2014, courtesy of Russia’s Ministry of Culture.

On May 13, the Night Wolves woke up to more good news in Sevastopol, where the local authorities allocated 227 hectares (about 560 acres) of real estate to the bikers to promote sports and “military-patriotic education.” The group is leasing the land on the cheap, paying just 0.1 percent for property that’s valued at roughly 1.2 billion rubles ($24.4 million).

How profitable patriotism can be! The “Night Wolves” have been given 227 hectares of land in Crimea.

Kevin Rothrock contributed to this text.
  • Guest

    These “patriots” prefer riding Harley-Davidson, rather than national-made crap.

  • GLV

    I see, your envy has no holiday… And what have you done to show your respect for your greatgrandparents who did their best in that wild war in order to give you an opportunity to live a long and happy life???

  • rwscid

    During WWII I believe the Germans learned that invading a foreign country was a very, very bad idea.

    Apparently some Russians, including Putin, have been unable to learn that same lesson.

    That’s OK. I’m sure they’ll figure it out the hard way.

  • rayfin3

    The Night Wolves are the perfect image for Putin’s Russia: riding on Western technology, they wrap themselves with flags and icons to intimidate Russia’s “enemies,” all the while collecting revenues from their Kremlin handlers. As Russia has one of the highest vehicle mortality
    rates in the world, perhaps this problem will resolve itself naturally.

  • Update (in Russian)

    The authorities of Sevastopol suspended the land transfer procedure.

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