Windblown faces, the smell of leather and tobacco and the screech of tires are the trademarks of the Night Wolves, a motorbike gang that dominates the streets of Moscow by night.
Founded in May 1989, Russia’s Night Wolves — mostly heavily-bearded, beer-bellied men in blue jeans and leather vests — grew out of the anti-Soviet rock culture of the 1980s, a time when they regarded themselves as freedom fighters.
For many years, the Night Wolves was the only motorbike club in the country. Today, it is Russia’s largest club, with more than 5,000 members.
Alexander Zaldostanov, Night Wolves' leader. Source: ITAR-TASS
The Night Wolves’ manifesto rejects all laws and instead puts its trust in the power of the Brotherhood. The club was modeled on the Hells Angels.
However, one of the major differences between the Night Wolves and their American brethren is that the club is ideologically close to the authorities and is known to be close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Putin first visited the Night Wolves at their bike center in western Moscow in, in 2009 — something that that skeptics viewed as just another of his macho media stunts.
The images of Putin, in a leather jacket, surrounded by burly bikers have made the rounds in the press several times.
But the president’s support for the club seems sincere.
Last July, Putin even kept Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich waiting for four hours while he had met with Alexander Zaldostanov, the tattooed head of the Night Wolves known as The Surgeon. And earlier this year, 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 missing World War II soldiers.
Zaldostanov also organized a biker festival in Volgograd as part of a wider ceremony commemorating the Nazi bombing of the city, then known as Stalingrad, on August 23, 1942
For his part, Zaldostanov makes no secret of his warm relations with Putin and praises the president for his patriotic attempts to "return Russia’s greatness."
“I want us to remain a patriotic club, to be an example for the young, to do something for our Fatherland – which we basically lost by buying jeans and chewing gum, selling out for McDonald's,” Zaldostanov said. “The Night Wolves are a phenomenon – bigger than a motorbike club, something that makes presidents come to us and the Patriarch give us his blessing.”
The Night Wolves supported the Orthodox church last year during the Pussy Riot controversy. After the feminist group performed their “punk prayer” in Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral in February 2012, the club publicly expressed outrage and then promised to help guard Orthodox cathedrals from any further “hooliganism”.
Not everyone is suited to the Night Wolves lifestyle. Some of their nationalist statements and as well as their anti-feminist and anti-homosexual attitudes put off the middle-class men who can afford up-market bikes.
And even those who want to join the group aren’t immediately accepted. One club member known as Felix says that a wolf-to be needs to spend five years riding with the club and participating in its activities to become a member.
The relationship between the Wolves and the Kremlin may also have become a problem for other biker clubs.
Last year the Wolves were involved in a shootout with a rival gang, the Three Roads, that resulted in the death of a biker. The fight allegedly began over the Wolves’ support for the Kremlin.
Yevgeny Vorobyev, the leader of the Three Roads, later said that his gang had angered the Night Wolves by ending an alliance with them and instead establishing ties with the U.S. motorcycle club, the Bandidos, that recently edged onto Russian soil but keeps a low profile.
"We just didn't like the public activity of the Wolves – all that official stuff. Our ideals are music, bikes, free time and girls, after all. The Wolves have become too politicized," Vorobyev said.