By Jonathon Van Maren
We stared up at the enormous steel gates as our Uber headed back into the chilly Moscow night. I’d never seen anything like it. A huge metal eagle with the head of a wolf hung from the arch, wings outstretched, talons grasping for prey. An entire MiG fighter jet was welded to the compound wall, and a Red Army tank perched atop it. An artillery gun sat nearby, and on an enormous stone near the road was an ornate Russian Orthodox cross with a snarling wolf crouched in front of it, with strategically-placed lights making it appear almost alive. A large unsmiling fellow stood at the gate dressed entirely in black, a bullet-proof vest making him appear even bulkier than he was. He took our bags from us and rummaged carefully through each pocket. After checking them thoroughly, he looked up sharply. “Guns?” We shook our heads, but he checked the bags again anyway. He handed them back, grunted, and jerked his head towards the courtyard and the compound within. Welcome to the lair of the Night Wolves.
I should probably back up just a bit to explain how we ended up here. Several years ago, the Danish journalist Iben Thranholm, who I’d interviewed for my radio show several times, brought up a passion project of hers: Creating understanding between orthodox Christians—Catholics, Orthodox, and conservative Protestants–due to the fact that faith and family are under attack across the Western world. The resurgence of the Russian Orthodox Church, she said, was an untold story—and preliminary research gave me a sense of how little we in the West understand about Russia. They see themselves as moving away from Marxism precisely as the West moves towards it and view the Western obsession with sexual minorities with overt contempt. It is an incredibly complex story, and after over a year of phone calls, arrangements, and research, I headed to Russia with a friend to work on the project. Iben arrived a few days later with a Danish filmmaker. Our first interview, I learned to my surprise upon arriving in Moscow from St. Petersburg, would be with a member of the infamous Russian motorcycle club, the Night Wolves.
The Night Wolves began in the 1980s as rebels fighting censorship in the Soviet Union, a group of bikers and metalheads who held illegal rock concerts, ran protection rackets, got into brawls, and harassed the police. They pushed the limits, and found themselves pushing at an open door—Russia was changing as Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of perestroika introduced new freedoms and eased suffocating restrictions. The Night Wolves soon began to go more mainstream—in August of 1991, members of the motorcycle club even helped man anti-tank barricades around Russia’s parliament buildings to block an attempted coup by Communist hardliners against Gorbachev. The undisputed leader of the Wolves, Alexander “the Surgeon” Zaldostanov, received a medal for these efforts from Boris Yeltsin.
It is impossible to understand the central role the Night Wolves are playing in the New Russia without understanding the Surgeon, a man that Rolling Stone described as a “charismatic showman with a penchant for provocative bombast” as well as “Russia’s most recognizable nationalist star…he has transformed a once underground biker gang into a self-styled vanguard of patriotic holy warriors, reportedly 5,000 strong, with close ties to the Kremlin.” It was the Surgeon (the moniker comes from the fact that he once worked as a dentist) who created the fusion of Russian nationalism and Russian Orthodoxy that now defines the Night Wolves and their mission, which includes motorcycle pilgrimages to Russian holy sites and massive biker rallies that promote patriotism and the Orthodox Church.
The Night Wolves decided to formally transform themselves into the defenders of Russian Orthodoxy in 2006—the Surgeon says that he became an Orthodox Christian after meeting a priest at a burial service for a member of the club. Ever since, he insists, the biker gang has been transformed into sheep in wolves’ clothing. The narrative that the Night Wolves now champion is a simple one with enormous appeal in the former Soviet Union: Holy Mother Russia stands as the preserver of tradition and faith against the godless liberal West. “I am a warrior,” the Surgeon told Iben in 2016. “The West is not only post-Christian, but anti-Christian.” That particular point seems rather difficult to argue with, but it is nationalism, not religion, that got the Surgeon and his Night Wolves barred from many Western countries—Canada officially sanctioned the group in June of 2015 (when I asked one of the Wolves about this, he dismissed it with a short reply: “We are not interested in politics.”)
A year earlier, in December 2014, the United States announced sanctions against the Night Wolves for their apparent involvement in recruiting fighters in Donbass, Ukraine, as well as joining an attack on the Ukrainian naval headquarters in Sevastopol (the Surgeon has an apartment there) and attacks on a gas distribution station in Strikolkove. In February of that year, just before the Russian takeover of the Crimean Peninsula began, the Surgeon was seen boarding a flight to Crimea. When he arrived, the Night Wolves began collaborating with pro-Russian militia groups to set up roadblocks in Sevastopol—the following month, the U.S. government claims that they stormed the naval base, with the Surgeon personally working with Russian forces to confiscate Ukrainian weapons. Vladimir Putin, a friend of the Wolves who has visited their club, attended their motorcycle rallies, and even ridden with them, awarded the Surgeon a medal for his services.
The Surgeon, incidentally, was not at the Night Wolves club—which he dubbed the Sexton—when we arrived, although he usually sleeps on a pullout couch somewhere in the bowels of the sprawling compound, which is a maze of steel (an enormous metal Christmas tree stands in the middle of the courtyard), lights, and strange vehicles—including a truck fashioned like a evil-looking wolf with bared teeth. Yevgeny Strogov, who is not only a member of the Wolves but also the chairman of the Russian motor-tourism federation, told us that Zaldostanov was currently in Crimea, promoting a film on the history of Russia. Crimea, Strogov informed us with a slight slur but decent English, was “very stable now.” He knows this because he’s been there “over a hundred times.”
We entered the Sexton through huge convex steel doors that could probably withstand a bomb blast easily. Just inside, our coats were collected, and we filed past another security guard in a bullet-proof vest into one of the most bizarre places I have ever seen. The lights—green and red—created a surreal atmosphere that was accentuated by the fact that wolves were everywhere. One entire wall was two enormous yellow wolf eyes, and in one of the four large rooms filled with oak tables and enormous high-backed wooden chairs I counted at seven mounted grey wolves, often positioned crouched and snarling. There were also wolf pelts, wolf skulls, and the skulls of other animals I couldn’t identify. One particularly creepy specimen that I noticed halfway through the interview was a wolf’s head emerging from between the wall and the rafters—it looked like it was furiously struggling to free itself.
There were Russian Orthodox icons, too, as well as swords and daggers. Fir trees lit up and glowing green nestled along the walls, and sometimes sprouted out of them. The lights made things appear as if they were emerging from the mists of Russia’s dark forests—or her past, where paganism struggled with Christianity to gain a foothold. The twisted steel, the savage wolves, the eerie green lights and swords and enormous murals of Russian warriors charging through the forest—the whole environment seemed apocalyptic—or perhaps post-apocalyptic. The Night Wolves want to give the impression that they are warriors on the vanguard of Primeval Russia emerging from a century of wreckage and slaughter to see her rise again. Strogov, sitting on a chair made entirely of deer antlers, told us firmly that he and his “brothers” are on a mission together: “Serving our country, serving God, serving our own church, serving our president.” He pointed to a map covered in red lines marking the routes of motorcycle pilgrimages with a signature scrawled across it. “Putin signed that.”
Strogov has a friendly face and looks a lot less fierce than some of the other fellows wandering about the compound, burly bikers with thick black leather vests, shaved heads and pony tails (they greeted each other with some sort of special handshake that involved back-thumping and grunting in Russian). He was wearing a bulky silver ring with a large cross and a jean jacket with cut-off sleeves that featured the club emblem, a flaming wolf head, on the back. What he wanted to talk about was the motorcycle pilgrimages, which he oversees—a huge tour of 1,200 miles through Serbia, Bosnia, and Herzegovina is coming up soon, featuring stops at Orthodox churches and monasteries. The Wolves often bring icons along to give as gifts when they visit these places, and also search out icons that were carried out of Russia to other countries for safety by fleeing clergy after the Bolshevik Revolution.
These pilgrimages, like the club itself, fuse religion with patriotism. Another primary goal of the Night Wolves on these journeys is to locate lost and forgotten grave sites of Russian soldiers who died fighting the Nazis in what Russians call the “Great Patriotic War.” Once these graves are discovered, they can be marked and venerated. “We are looking for the places of Russian history,” Strogov told us. “We rediscover them and recover them for the Russian people.” They often ride for up to 300 kilometres, Strogov told us, and then speak with Orthodox priests (there are several affiliated with the Wolves, as well as a number of monks) and find a place to pray, with monasteries being the preference. Russian Orthodoxy is essential to the Wolves, Strogov says. “It comes from the heart, and it is beyond words.”
The motorcycle pilgrimages are open to anyone—the Wolves use them as a way of promoting both Russian history and Orthodoxy, and connecting people to nation. These road trips complement something else the Night Wolves are famous for—their massive dramatic performances, which have been attended by crowds of over 100,000. They feature Russian fairy tales, epic battles between Soviet soldiers and German invaders, and other scenes from Russia’s past. They are often narrated by the Surgeon, his gravelly voice echoing over the crowd as they are regaled by tales of Russian heroism and tragedy. Some of these shows are geared towards children to inspire patriotism and teach them history, and are often accompanied by massive light shows and fireworks displays—although a pamphlet advertising upcoming shows given to us by Strogov also featured several scantily-clad women and seemed far more rebellious than religious.
Strogov wasn’t eager to talk about the fact that the Wolves are banned from an increasing number of Western jurisdictions, with one pilgrimage being blocked from entering the European Union at the Polish border. Russian Orthodoxy, Strogov said firmly, should unite people: “Christ is not Russian or Danish. He is a person of all humanity. He unites people.” Unity was a theme that continued to crop up, especially in response to questions about the West, which the Surgeon regularly accuses of soullessness and even Satanism, a malevolent force that threatens the Orthodox Church and threatens Russia—which are, of course, inextricably intertwined with each other. The Surgeon has said that he would die for Putin if necessary, and Strogov, for his part, informed us that Putin “is very Orthodox. I know he has faith in his heart. He is for Russia. I support him.” When the filmmaker asked him if he had a message for the West on the eve of what would surely be Putin’s re-election, he smiled and shook his head. “I don’t think so.”
The warrior, Strogov told us, is the ultimate Russian symbol. He began to tell stories, lapsing into his own language several times. One Russian warrior, he said, went into battle and died on his horse—“This is the Russian spirit and the Russian soul.” It reminded me of the Cossack anthem: “My God above me, my horse below me.” As the interview wrapped up, Strogov handed us little Russian Orthodox prayer booklets, which the Night Wolves take on the road with them for their pilgrimages. It was a rather stark contrast with the non-family friendly promotional pamphlet for their nationalist theatre dramas. My friend and I asked if we could get a photo with him, and Strogov agreed. We stood in front of a sweeping mural of a Russian warrior charging forward on his steed, with wolves dogging his path. The shadow cast by the horse, when I looked more closely, was actually that of a wolf.
The mounted warrior, it turns out, is a 14th century Russian Orthodox warrior-monk named Alexander Peresvet. Peresvet, who seems to serve as a sort of informal patron saint for the Wolves, is recorded by many sources as having met the Tatar champion Temir-murza of the Golden Horde in single combat on September 8, 1380, at the opening of the Battle of Kulikovo. As was the sometime tradition, each side selected a champion before the battle began, and the Russians chose Peresvet. Both champions killed each other on the very first run, although Russian legend has it that only Temir-murza fell from the saddle—Peresvet died atop his horse, a symbol of “the Russian soul.” This is the sort of hero that the Wolves venerate: A warrior-monk and figure who embodies both the Russian nation as well as the Russian Orthodox Church, and a man who is willing and able to commit violence to defend both from outside foes.
Throughout my evening at the Sexton and our interview with Strogov, I’d struggled to find a comparison to the Night Wolves that would work in helping to understand them. On one hand, they’ve operated as a paramilitary group for Vladimir Putin, and are more than capable of violence if they deem it necessary and justified. On the other hand, they have appointed themselves the protectors of Russian history and culture, seeking lost icons in Orthodox churches outside Russia and hunting down the lost graves of soldiers who died fighting the fascists. Their religious beliefs are firmly and deeply rooted in Russian soil, and the relationship between the two is nearly impossible to disentangle. It is a potent combination, and their notoriety is well-earned. But perhaps the mural of Peresvet is the key to the puzzle—or at least to understanding how the Night Wolves view themselves.
As tensions between Russia and the West rise and the Night Wolves rally thousands to make Russia great again, it is more impossible than ever to predict how the next stage in Russian history will play out. What seems likely, however, is that the Wolves, a complex and complicated Russian Orthodox biker gang , will be front and center.