Masked men with torches goose-stepped in the formation of a swastika as drummers spewed fake blood onto their instruments and pounded an ominous beat. Giant robotic hands featuring an American seal raised a burning outline of Ukraine over the marching neo-Nazis, who soon began throwing rocks and setting Berkut riot police officers on fire.
Suddenly, armored personnel carriers bearing Ukrainian flags rolled out, firing AK-47s indiscriminately.
Such was the spectacle at an annual "bike show" held last August in Crimea, five months after its annexation by Russia. The production, organized by the Night Wolves, the country's largest motorcycle club, stands as arguably the most vivid and surreal enactment of the Kremlin's propagandist portrayal of Ukraine's Euromaidan demonstrations, which led to a pro-Western government in Kiev that Russia has maligned as a "fascist junta."
"Eternal lackeys of Europe, her spiritual slaves, you have perverted the history of your fathers and sold your ancestors' graves," declared Night Wolves leader Alexander "The Surgeon" Zaldostanov, the event's creator and master-of-ceremonies, as he admonished Ukrainians in a low growl. "A foreign land is dearer to you than your motherland, and for that reason you're destined to know only the will of your master, and to bow to him forever."
A farcical battle between pro-Western and pro-Russia factions ended with the Night Wolves entering the arena on their motorcycles, waving the flags of the Russian navy and the separatist republics in eastern Ukraine as the choir of Russia's Black Sea Fleet sang the Soviet national anthem.
The hulking Zaldostanov read a message to the audience from President Vladimir Putin in praise of "faithful friends fused by the brotherhood of the motorcycle" and celebrating "Crimea's reunification with Russia." The following day, he presented a Russian warrior trophy and a T-shirt with a picture of Putin in sunglasses to the direct-to-video action star Steven Seagal, a noted Putin fan who performed at the rally with his blues band.
Vladimir Putin and Alexander Zaldostanov in 2012. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)
The Night Wolves chief, a former facial reconstructive surgeon, has gone from helping to introduce Western biker culture to Russia to being one of the leaders of a wave of anti-Western posturing and patriotic fervor in the country. This year, Zaldostanov started an "Anti-Maidan" movement to protect the Kremlin from dissent in the mold of the Euromaidan protests that rocked Kiev, which he believes the United States incited to overthrow pro-Russia Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.
He also has the ear of his close friend Putin. In his first sit-down interview with an American publication, he told VICE News that he had been encouraging the Russian president to take over Crimea for years.
To that end, members of his bike club helped to storm a natural gas facility and naval headquarters in Sevastopol shortly after unmarked Russian troops took over Crimea in February and March. Several of the club's Ukrainian members are now fighting with Russia-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine, according to Zaldostanov.
"My goal was to do everything so that Sevastopol would be returned to Russia," he said, referring to the port city in Crimea that had hosted a naval based leased by Russia since 1997. "That was my small contribution to all this. I now have something to go to God with."
It was about 2 AM on a weeknight, and Zaldostanov was sitting down to a dinner of boiled shrimp and bean-and-pomegranate salad in a Russian folk-themed restaurant housed by the bike center that he owns in Moscow. As usual, he was wearing his leather Night Wolves vest decorated with the Order of Honor that Putin personally awarded him in 2013. His long dark hair was pulled back with a black scrunchie.
'We're ready to fuck someone up, but not because of some drugs or something. We have different values. We're for the motherland.'
With its green, red, and blue backlighting and oversized sculptures of motorcycles, wolves, and birds, the bike center looks like a spooky theme park ride — albeit one with an indoor and outdoor bar and a rotating cast of thick-necked motorcycle enthusiasts. A tanker truck labeled "Mad Max" hints at the inspiration behind the design, which also informed the rally's apocalyptic display. Zaldostanov said that the Mel Gibson film reminds him of Russia's decay after the fall of the Soviet Union.
He first met Putin in 2009, when the Russian leader visited the bike center while serving as prime minister. Zaldostanov, who was organizing his first bike show in Sevastopol at the time, recalled hanging up when he first received a call from the prime minister's office, thinking it was a prank. The receptionist called again, telling him coolly to get back to Moscow. The next day, he gave Putin letters and presents from locals in Sevastopol and told him that the city should become part of Russia.
Putin riding a three-wheeler alongside Zaldostanov in 2011. (Photo by Ivan Sekretarev/AP)
After their meeting, Putin prevented Moscow officials from evicting the bike center. Zaldostanov says that he has since helped advise the president on the best motorcycles to buy. Putin famously rode a three-wheeled Harley-Davidson next to Zaldostanov at a 2010 Night Wolves bike show in Sevastopol and again at a 2011 show in Novorossiysk, where he thanked the bikers for holding such "vital patriotic events."
The bike leader has also appeared at Putin's events, most recently addressing the crowd shortly before the president spoke at a giant rally outside of the Kremlin last week to mark a year since Crimea's annexation.
Over the years, Zaldostanov has evolved from a renegade street-fighting biker into an energetic political partisan who promotes extremely conservative views and unfailing support for Putin. Zaldostanov has often ranted against "faggots," and has barred homosexuals from joining the Night Wolves. Although he blames Ukrainian "nationalists" and "fascists" for ruining their country and inciting its ongoing war, his praise for Russia's special character and dissimilarity to the West is itself highly nationalist.
'I'm not a provocateur, and neither is Anti-Maidan, but we will not be pushovers.'
He has worked with other far-right speakers like the conspiracy theorist Nikolai Starikov to establish the Anti-Maidan movement, which in February sent its members to shout down an anti-war rally and later held its own protest against the Ukrainian "coup," where demonstrators waved signs reading "We Don't Need Your Western Ideology and Gay Parades." Echoing Putin, Zaldostanov has argued that Russia's pro-democratic opposition movement harbors "fifth-columnists" seeking to undermine the country.
Starikov and Zaldostanov also recently held a press conference to argue that pro-democratic opposition leader Boris Nemtsov had been killed by his "American curators" in a plot to provoke unrest and regime change in Russia.
Shortly after the press conference, a high-ranking officer of a Chechen police battalion known for its loyalty to regional leader Ramzan Kadyrov — who has been accused of many killings and human rights violations over the years — was charged with Nemtsov's murder. Zaldostanov is good friends with Kadyrov, whom he joined to watch a mixed martial arts match this month in Chechnya's capital of Grozny. He said that Kadyrov is in the process of being inducted into the Night Wolves as a formal member, though he candidly admitted that the Chechen leader doesn't ride a motorcycle all that well.
Zaldostanov was born in Kirovograd, Ukraine, and grew up mostly in Moscow, but he went to summer camp each year in Sevastopol until he was 15, where he was introduced to the "cult" of the Black Sea Fleet. His father was Ukrainian, but he primarily spoke Russian at home. Zaldostanov told VICE News over dinner that he "never had a serious view of the Ukrainian language," which he considers a Russian dialect. He also thinks of Russians and Ukrainians as "one people," and argues that Ukraine is an "artificial country" that is essentially Russian.
Though he has been accused of Russian chauvinism, Zaldostanov said that he only wants to stop the "forced Ukrainization" of Ukraine and give Russian-speaking areas a chance to join Russia. The only way out of Ukraine's economic crisis and separatist conflict, he insists, is voluntary integration with Russia.
"Russia is their mother; Europe will be a stepmother," he said. "You can't substitute a stepmother for your own mother, even if she's richer and more successful."
Zaldostanov seated next to Putin at a ceremony in 2013. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)
Zaldostanov studied medicine in Moscow like his mother before him, and was such a successful surgeon in the 1980s that he was invited to work at a prestigious institute specializing in post-traumatic facial reconstruction. Work was plentiful thanks to the war among criminal interests that arose as the Soviet Union began to fall apart. His patients had wounds from bullets, knives, and in one case, a shovel.
By then he had already bought his first Czech-made motorcycle and was riding around the city at night, arriving at work in the morning through a back door so that he wouldn't frighten patients with his wardrobe, which he said was "100 times worse" than his current leather-heavy look.
"I had a parallel life… negative for the government, for the police," Zaldostanov said. "I was in the opposition then. We had our own club, and I was a constant participant in fights."
Zaldostanov got his first taste of Western biker culture while working as a bouncer in West Berlin in the mid-1980s. He says now that he had a "romantic image of Western civilization" when he was younger, and that he never liked the Hells Angels for religious reasons. (He didn't always reject the biker gang — a video on YouTube includes footage of a young Zaldostanov showing German Hells Angels around Moscow.)
Although Zaldostanov played a key role in bringing Western biker culture to Russia, he argues that the Night Wolves are focused on patriotism and faith rather than the crime and violence characteristic of other clubs. The Night Wolves make a motorcycle pilgrimage to holy Russian Orthodox sites several times a year.
"We're going from Satan to God — we're driving the other way," he said. "We're ready to fuck someone up, but not because of some drugs or something. We have different values. We're for the motherland."
His admiration for the motherland extends to Joseph Stalin, whom he often quotes during his bike shows and considers a hero.
"The people who yell about repressions are those who destroyed more people than Stalin did," he remarked. "Across the world, American democracy killed more people — everywhere they brought to life new wars, the new theory of controlled chaos. They use technology as a weapon, they destroyed the governments of Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Serbia.… Not one of these wars brought something good."
Zaldostanov described his motorcycle club as a patriotic organization that works to foster positive values by putting on motorcycle tours and shows. He noted that it has collected humanitarian aid for the breakaway republics in eastern Ukraine, and added that he had arranged for four apartments around Moscow to accommodate refugees from the region.
But Zaldostanov's primary political project today seems to be the unquestioning promotion of Putin as a leader strong enough to stand up to the West. His standing is such that some suspect that the Kremlin has been grooming the Night Wolves to be a kind of private militia of fiercely loyal bikers, with Zaldostanov a possible candidate for office who can help direct nationalistic fervor to the Kremlin's own ends.
He denies that Putin has political designs for his group, however, and says that he will not stand for election. He prefers to continue planning Night Wolves activities and using the club to protect the motherland from supposed fifth-columnists and dark Western plots.
"I'm not a provocateur, and neither is Anti-Maidan, but we will not be pushovers," he said. "We won't allow ourselves to be humiliated. If they don't use violence against me, I won't use it either. But if they try to rape us, they will get an even worse response."
Follow Alec Luhn on Twitter: @ASLuhn