Crimean land dispute: Who are Russia’s Night Wolves and what do they stand for?

Moscow's Night Wolves motorbike club president Alexander Zaldostanov, aka “The Surgeon” (left), Vladimir Putin attending the motorbike show outside Sevastopol, on July 24, 2010. Source:  Alexei Druzhinin / RIA Novosti

Moscow's Night Wolves motorbike club president Alexander Zaldostanov, aka “The Surgeon” (left), Vladimir Putin attending the motorbike show outside Sevastopol, on July 24, 2010. Source: Alexei Druzhinin / RIA Novosti

In late May, the Night Wolves biker group was involved in a controversial dispute in Crimea over the allocation of a land plot without a tender, with the club’s leader challenging the head of Sevastopol’s legislative assembly to a duel over the matter. The scandal was merely the latest in a series of incidents involving the bikers, who are well-known for their close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. RBTH examines the history of the Night Wolves group, its philosophy, and its links to the Kremlin.

No stranger to controversy, Russia’s nationalist biker group Night Wolves made the headlines again recently when its leader Alexander “The Surgeon” Zaldostanov challenged the head of Sevastopol’s legislative assembly Alexei Chaly to a duel after Chaly refused to allocate the bikers an expensive parcel of land in Crimea without a tender.

The Sevastopol government had allotted the land to the Night Wolves for the construction of a “patriotic sports center” at a discount of 99.9 percent on May 12, but on May 22 the decision was revoked following objections by Chaly, who business daily Kommersant reported as calling for a “public discussion” on the matter.

The following day the bikers came to the building of the Sevastopol Legislative Assembly and challenged Chaly to a duel. On May 25 the Speaker gave his final reply: He invited the bikers to participate in the official tender for the construction project.

This is not the first time the Night Wolves have attracted media attention in recent months. On the eve of the 70th anniversary of the Allied victory in World War Two the bikers tried to ride through Europe and visit all the places associated with Soviet military glory. It was not easy since a number of European countries – notably Poland – tried to prevent the ride, describing it as a provocation. The West's reaction was hardly surprising – the bikers act under the patronage of Russian President Vladimir Putin and are openly engaged in politics.

 

Dissidents turned nationalists

The Night Wolves originally began their movement as Soviet dissidents, but eventually reoriented themselves to become staunch defenders of conservative values. The club was founded in 1989 by doctor-rocker Alexander Zaldostanov, nicknamed “The Surgeon.” The club has a strict hierarchy, principles and conservative traditions, excluding drug addicts, drug dealers, Satanists and homosexuals.

During the decline of the Soviet Union "the wolves" opposed the official government. They maintained order during rock concerts, acted as bodyguards to businessmen and in general tried to cultivate "the philosophy of a free man." This continued until eventually Zaldostanov became disillusioned with the West.

"We were all brainwashed, bought for some chewing gum and jeans... and all the talk about some democracy and some other things is just for losers," he said in an interview with the Ekho Moskvy radio station in 2013. Today the club has about 5,000 members and Zaldostanov actively tries to protect the foundations of Russian conservatism: Orthodoxy and deference to the government.

However, the transformation of Zaldostanov’s organization into active supporters of the Kremlin has seen it receive plentiful media coverage in the West, resulting in both “The Surgeon” and his group being included on the sanctions list imposed by the U.S. and Canada against Russia. Meanwhile, on May 19 the Ukrainian Security Service filed a criminal lawsuit against Zaldostanov for financing terrorism (the biker had supposedly financed the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk “republics” in eastern Ukraine, which Kiev has described as terrorist groups).

 

Obvious dividends

It is not easy to determine when precisely the Night Wolves entered politics. It is considered that the first time they started "making noise" was in 2008 when they rode out in a column to a concert organized in honor of Dmitry Medvedev's presidential win. Four years later, “The Surgeon” had already become a trusted supporter of Vladimir Putin during the 2012 presidential elections.

“Zaldostanov was attentive to Putin's interest – from then on his project became more than just a bike club,” says independent political analyst Alexei Vorobyev. “The goal is clear – to receive dividends. Political, social and of course, financial."

The dividends were obvious. The administrative resources helped organize large-scale bike shows and social projects (Christmas trees and festivals for children). These projects helped the Night Wolves obtain multi-million ruble grants and in May 2015 they were allowed to rent a 266-hectare lot of land in the Crimean city of Sevastopol at an incredible price of just 1.4 million rubles ($26,350) – a 99.9-percent discount. However, following Alexei Chaly's decision, the bikers will now have to participate in an official tender.

The grants were noticed only at the beginning of May, when opposition figurehead and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny's foundation estimated that the Night Wolves and various structures linked with their leader had received 56 million rubles ($1 million) of state financing since the middle of 2013.

“Everything is true,” Zaldostanov confirmed on the Wolves' website. “The only thing is that we had been fighting for our ideas for 25 years without any grants… And if we were to speak about the amount, I must frankly say that it is insufficient, we need more.”

 

‘Consolidating the nation’

"The fact that they receive grants means that the government views their activity as beneficial to national interests and as a form of consolidating the nation," says Leonid Polyakov, a pro-Kremlin political analyst and professor in the Political Sciences Department at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow.

In recent years the Night Wolves have participated in a number of high-profile events in support of conservative and so-called “patriotic” values. There was the enormous bike show in Sevastopol in 2010, at which Putin himself rode a Harley Davidson. Then there was the motorbike ride "in support of Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church and the traditional values of Russian civilization" (motivated by the scandal surrounding the punk band Pussy Riot, which in 2012 sang a song in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior with the words, "Mother of God, drive Putin away").

VIDEO: Night Wolves and other Russian bikers flooded the streets after a long winter

The Wolves are also credited with defending the building housing the Sevastopol city administration during protests organized by supporters of Kiev's Maidan movement in January 2014. The biker group was subsequently placed on the list of sanctions imposed by the West against Russia for its active support of Russia's annexation of Crimea in March 2014.

 

A political party, not a motorcycle club

However, the Night Wolves' political agenda does not always have a positive effect on their image. Grigory Kudryavtsev from the Shtrafbat motorcycle club says that what is irritating is not the Wolves' political activity but their focus on “patriotism.”

“They try to turn each ride into a demonstration,” says Kudryavtsev, who explains that the bikers have dedicated processions to Victory Day and to the victims of the fire at the Odessa union building that occurred on May 2, 2014, among other causes. “Whoever does not want to participate is immediately considered an enemy of Russia," he says.

“We are sad for the people who were burned in the Odessa building but we don't want to demonstrate because of it," he says, adding that the Wolves now resemble a political party rather than a motorcycle club.

"Conservative values, patriotism that is close to nationalism, anti-Westernism, sympathy for Stalin – that which is characteristic of the Wolves – is today's mainstream in Russia," says Igor Mintusov, president of the Russian Association of Political Consultants and member of the European Association of Political Consultants. And it is precisely this, according to Mintusov, that "that the political administration is encouraging in some sense at the moment."

By promoting a political agenda it is easier to reach your objectives, according to President of the Institute of National Strategy Mikhail Remizov. This is what the Wolves are doing, in his opinion – receiving dividends from a fruitful collaboration with the government.

"Since the 90s there has been a stereotype that the active layers of civil society are those that adhere to a liberal-western model," says Remizov. But the situation is changing, he believes. Today Russia’s is providing fertile ground for conservative nationalist groups, which Remizov believes the government needs at least to maintain a balance.

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