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Russian Bikers: From Kremlin Ally to PR Liability

© Photo : Courtesy of "Night Wolves"Night Wolves
Night Wolves  - Sputnik International
On October 20, 2012, a Three Roads biker shot and killed a man from President Vladimir Putin's favorite motorcycle club.

On October 20, 2012, a Three Roads biker shot and killed a man from President Vladimir Putin's favorite motorcycle club.

Details are murky. It was dark; the Three Roadsters were outnumbered eight to one by the Night Wolves – though they were not outgunned; both sides claim self-defense and have the injuries to show for it.

The Russian public was quick to recognize the setup of a Jack Nicholson-style outlaw biker story, and it caused a real buzz. A few pithy and self-righteous comments from both motorcycle clubs circulated in media for days, along with photos of a shotgun-blasted garage door.

But no one was more shocked than the Russian bikers.

The motorcyclist community in post-Soviet Russia rumbled along peacefully for two decades, chaperoned by the Night Wolves, a super-sized ur-club with Kremlin affiliations.

Despite the hard leathers and the roaring choppers, the majority of Russian motorcyclists were successful middle-class men more likely to do charity work than push drugs or engage in casual violence on their club time.

But the community swelled as ever more people became able to afford motorcycles during the oil boom of the 2000s – and not all newcomers subscribed to the old-school ideals of brotherhood and strict club discipline. Moreover, the Night Wolves’ own romance with Putin put off many bikers, the middle class being the main seat of anti-Kremlin feeling.

Defectors multiplied and alternative power centers began to emerge, including the worldwide “one-percenter” clubs that have a criminal history, such as Hells Angels and Bandidos, which are finally edging into the long-untapped Russian soil.

Now war may be on the horizon, even though no one seems to want it, many bikers say. And whether the government has the ability – or will – to do anything to stop it is anyone’s guess.

“The gunplay story felt unreal, like watching a movie,” said biker Sergei “Skywalker” Loskutov. “It just may be a turning point for us all.”

For God, Putin and the Fatherland

“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, trading it for McDonald's,” said Alexander “Surgeon” Zaldostanov, the president of the Night Wolves.

“The Night Wolves are a phenomenon – bigger than a motoclub, something that makes presidents come to us and the Patriarch [of the Russian Orthodox Christian Church] give us his blessing,” Zaldostanov, a former medical professional who embraced motorcycle culture in the 1980s, told RIA Novosti.

Indeed, there is no club like the Night Wolves. Founded in 1989, it was the only motorcycle club in the country for years and, at 5,000-plus members and close to 40 chapters across the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, remains the biggest biker association in Russia.

In the beginning, the club was closely modeled on Hells Angels, and actually labeled itself MG – a “motorgang” – not MC, or “motorcycle club.” But now Zaldostanov lambasts their past role models for their criminal affiliations.

“You've got to hand it to the West, we've taken something from them,” he said, as he recalled “packs” of 300 to 500 bikes blasting through Moscow at night, leaving traffic police helpless.

“But we've rethought it and took a completely different path,” he said.

Indeed, the club has become a polar opposite of this “outlaw past,” especially since 2009, when Putin, then the Prime Minister, first attended their bike show.

Putin has returned to the Night Wolves every year since, and gave his public debut on a three-wheeler at the head of a biker column during the club’s 2010 festival in Sevastopol, Ukraine, reinforcing his alpha male status in the eyes of many Russian voters.

The Night Wolves have also sided with the Russian Orthodox Christian Church, denouncing “Satanism” in public statements in another apparent dig at Hells Angels. The club even staged a rally in April to show their support for the church, which had come in for criticism from opposition media over the alleged wealth of its hierarchy.

Zaldostanov even pushed to produce his own made-in-Russia motorcycle, a new take on the Ural, a Soviet classic, though the deal fell through after the 1998 economic recession. Now the Night Wolves ride Harley-Davidsons and BMWs.

The Night Wolves' domination of the country's motorcycle community appears similar to the command that the Kremlin's party, United Russia, still wields over the country's political scene – to the point where the club had a shot at becoming an umbrella labor union for all Russian bikers, other motorcyclists say.

Instead, new clubs began to emerge in the 2000s, first with Night Wolves' endorsement – the only way of achieving proper “MC” status is to have it bestowed by a “senior” club.

There are now 345 motoclubs and organizations across the country, including over 30 in Moscow, according to Moto.ru, an aggregator website for the community. The list is incomplete, missing, among others, Hells Angels Moscow; the number of “freeriders,” or bikers without affiliation, is also anyone's guess.

Orphans & Skeletons

A life-sized skeleton named Valera is mounted on a bike inside the bar that serves as clubhouse to M8, the motorcycle club of Mytishchi, a city of 170,000 outside Moscow.

Valera is a club prospect, but it is too early for him to acquire full membership, club president Tigran “Dentist” Galustov explains in a deadpan tone, to grins from the club members nearby.

Wood panels are decorated with bear skins, animal heads and Nevada license plates, and when the skeleton and leather-clad patrons are factored in, the place boasts an archetypal biker vibe – even though the speakers blast out Modern Talking and their perestroika-era Soviet rip-offs.

“The bar's open to everyone,” Galustov said. “Some people stumble in occasionally, look around and back away, but others feel right at home.”

The bar helps foot some of the club's bills, especially on days when the occasional Russian heavy metal star drops by for an unadvertised concert, packing hundreds into a place intended for a couple of dozen visitors. But the club primarily lives off membership fees, Galustov said.

Other clubs may take a slightly more proactive business stance: Wolf Brothers MC from northwestern Moscow – a member of which drops by on his SUV during the interview – run a motorcycle service center, as did the Three Roads, at least before the shootout. The Night Wolves are capable of employing most of their members in Moscow full-time on the premises of their own clubhouse, the Sexton.

But most club members are already well-off and not in it for the money: Galustov is a dentist – the M8 bar sits behind a dental clinic – and Wolf Brothers MC’s member Alexei “Doctor” Denisov is a practicing emergency surgeon, a handy job in biker circles.

The club is picky about members. “Many people request membership, but can only mumble when we ask them, not what can the club do for them, but what they can do for the club,” Galustov said.

He does not elaborate on the membership requirements, but indicates that psychological compatibility with the rest of the M8 brotherhood is crucial, perhaps even more important than actually having a motorcycle.

Club activities are mainly “events,” including, but not limited to, the start- and end-of-the-season parties (few people ride in the snow season); formal visits to and from friendly clubs; and charity work – a sine qua non for most established clubs.

M8 work with orphanages and churches, the Wolf Brothers MC teach road safety lessons to high schoolers, and the Night Wolves actually won 3.7 million rubles ($120,000) this month in government grants for Christmas parties for children in care.

Once the M8 were actually allowed to ride into a young offenders’ institution; Galustov describes the inmates as “little beasties” who, whoever, “thawed out” at the sight of grizzled men on choppers.

But he nods as Denisov – a big, confident bald man – solemnly confides that the Wolf Brothers MC have had to cut down the amount of time they spend working with orphanages because “when a little nine-year-old stares at you, it's just too hard.”

Alone by Putin’s Side

The one thing established club people do not talk about is politics. Galustov refuses to comment on Night Wolves' affair with Putin, noting only that Zaldostanov's merits before the Russian biker movement cannot be overstated.

However, not a single motorcyclist interviewed by RIA Novosti endorsed the bikers’ alliance with the Kremlin, with several other club leaders saying in private conversations that the biker community was supposed to stay out of politics.

Freeriders were more outspoken. “The Surgeon really discredited himself and the Night Wolves by teaming up with the government,” said Dmitry “Garfield” Novikov, referring to Zaldostanov by his nickname.

“He sold out, becoming a government puppet,” agreed biker Loskutov, though he added that “the club doesn’t end with the Surgeon.”

Zaldostanov could have even been coerced into cooperating with the Kremlin, surmised an old-school biker, speaking on condition of anonymity. The Night Wolves have much to lose, including property and employment for members, should a governmental crackdown transpire, he pointed out.

Putin has a prodigious track record of PR stunts, down to diving for ancient amphorae and shooting darts at whales from a crossbow. He has also been accused of exploiting some of his allies for PR gains, most prominently the Orthodox Christian church, which came under attack from the opposition after endorsing his presidential bid earlier this year.

“I'm not a hundred-dollar bill to be liked by everyone,” Zaldostanov said in response to criticism.

“As for Putin, I'm not betraying my friends,” he added. “And I've not seen him doing anything that I'd be ashamed of so far.”

The Bandidos Come to Town

The clash of clubs on October 20 was in fact an act of patriotism too – more specifically, an attempt to stop a global drug cartel from setting foot in Russia, the Night Wolves claimed.

“We've reason to believe that the conflict was caused by the intervention of criminal groups working in drug trafficking who tried to involve the Three Roads club in their activity,” read a statement on the Night Wolves' website.

“I'm not selling out my fatherland. And I'll do all I can to ensure we don't have this garbage here in our homeland,” Zaldostanov said on Dozdh online TV station last week.

The “criminal group” in question are the Bandidos – a “one-percenter” club with an outlaw attitude, occasional problems with the law and chapters across the world, including in Ukraine, though not Russia.

The Three Roads, based in Zelenograd, a prosperous Moscow suburb, were on amiable terms with the local chapter of the Night Wolves – but threw in their lot with the Bandidos earlier this year.

The Night Wolves were planning to “unsew” their former allies, stripping them of club colors, in what is the worst affront imaginable to bikers, according to most biker sources outside Zaldostanov's club.

The Bandidos could not be reached for comment: the club has no official chapter in Russia, and attempts to contact them through their numerous Ukrainian branches proved unsuccessful. The club has no formal criminal record in Russia, although its members stand accused of staging a brawl at the Goblin Show festival in Odessa earlier this year.

True to their outlaw nature, other “one-percenters” also showed no interest in media exposure. “We don't care shit what people say about us,” said a spokesman for Hells Angels Moscow, Konstantin. He promised to “ask around” to see if any club members would be willing to give an interview, but then stopped returning calls.

Three Roads members went underground after the shootout, claiming they feared for their lives, and could not be reached for comment.

Their acquaintances, including sports biker Loskutov – who used to spend time with the Three Roadsters and the Night Wolves at the Three Roads’ hangout in a garage cooperative on the outskirts of Zelenograd – and a private guard there, said they were “nice guys” who never acted like troublemakers and who have never been linked to anything illegal, such as the drugs trade.

The Zelenograd clash would not have been the first “unsewing” incident involving the Night Wolves: the group's chapters in southern Russia attacked people from the Saratov-based Free Brothers club in 2010, the latter's president Sergei Pozharnik said.

That conflict was triggered by Night Wolves members on the ground and left club president Zaldostanov genuinely surprised – which is likely also the case in the Zelenograd dispute, Pozharnik said.

Biker clubs are highly territorial and rarely share a city unless it is an urban center like Moscow, one veteran motorcyclist said on condition of anonymity.

“We're okay with informal [motorcyclist] associations. But we would not allow another full-fledged MC on our turf,” he said, requesting to not specify their club's location on Russia's vast map.

The New Breed Has Arrived

And yet, for all the talk of politics and territorial disputes, dirty money may also be a factor in the growing tensions – at least with some clubs, in some places.

Drug pushing is common among motorcycle clubs in the regions, claimed a Hells Angels Moscow affiliate – though not a member – who asked not to be named. A Zelenograd biker spoke about a friend who joined an MC that was involved in the protection racket and the illegal gun trade.

Evidence is anecdotal, and police have never published any statistics on motorcycle clubs' illegal activity. There are also no reasons to single out the Bandidos, Hells Angels and other global “one-percenters,” which simply increased their ranks thanks to the rising dissent triggered by the Night Wolves' ham-fisted propaganda, Pozharnik said.

However, even legal businesses run by clubs can be worth fighting over – and there has already been speculation in the media that control over the Three Roads' own motorcycle service might have been a factor in the Zelenograd conflict, although the Night Wolves denied it.

A bike can be had for as little as 80,000 to 100,000 rubles ($2,500 to $3,100), making them pretty affordable, even for young people, said Yury Greshnik, who runs the Biker FM internet radio station. The average salary in Russia stood at 26,400 rubles ($840) in September, according to the State Statistics Service.

However, statistical averages do nothing to illuminate the vast income gaps between Russia's well-off regions and poorer provinces such as Smolensk region or the Republic of Mordovia, where the average salary hovers around 15,000 rubles, compared to Moscow's 50,000 rubles.

Russia is also notorious for its poor social mobility, with a dismal business environment and nepotistic, corrupt bureaucracy seen as leaving scant career opportunities for ambitious young people, especially in the regions.

This imbues “outlaw” biker lifestyle with the same attractiveness in the eyes of the disenchanted that it had in postwar America, several old-school motorcyclists said.

Most bikers are already packing weapons such as baseball bats, knives or air guns, which are legally accessible to the general public in Russia and which can be as lethal as any Magnum or Beretta, Greshnik said in an interview a week before the Zelenograd shootout.

These are primarily for self-defense, given the irrational hate and jealousy that many Russian motorists feel toward bikers, Greshnik said, insisting that they are barely ever used – a claim that became harder to sustain in the wake of the Zelenograd clash.

Motorcycle clubs are better organized than minor racketeering or drug dealer gangs, said Denisov of the Wolf Brothers MC.

If biker groups turned criminal they would have an edge over their rivals because they can easily mobilize dozens of “fighters” at a moment's notice, said a veteran biker from Moscow who asked for anonymity.

Hazy Future

In M8’s Mytishchi den, cigarette smoke hangs low, and beer mugs appear at the table. The interview deteriorated into a war council, with club presidents and their adjutants grimly mulling what could come now that the first blood was spilled in the community.

M8 and the Wolf Brothers MC are on friendly terms with the Night Wolves, and neither has the slightest wish to fight. But they cannot stop going over news and not-for-publication rumors and wonder if their peace will last.

And what worries them more than a possible attack is what the government may do with the Russian biker community should it become a PR liability.

“They may ban it all outright.” M8 president Galustov said grimly. “Just prohibit anyone from riding in club colors, or closer than 40 meters to each other. And what are you going to do?”

The question remains, as the authorities maintain a cryptic silence. A request to Moscow traffic police concerning the biker movement in the capital, faxed on October 9, went unanswered by the time of publication.

(RIA Novosti reporter Yevgeny Ionov contributed to this article.)

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