Van Maren: Putin's Night Wolves blend Russian Machismo with Orthodox Christianity

Van Maren: Putin’s Night Wolves blend Russian Machismo with Orthodox Christianity

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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.

VIDEO: Journeyman.TV documentary on Russia’s Night Wolves [2014]

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.”)

This article continues at [The Bridgehead] A Night with Putin’s Wolves

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