Vladimir Putin is Hog Wild for the Night Wolves

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Aaron Schachter: I'm Aaron Schachter and this is The World. Russian President Vladimir Putin sure does like his hogs. We're talking about motorcycles. And when he dawns his leather jacket and goes for a ride these days, he's usually flanked by a motorcycle gang known as the Night Wolves. Simon Shuster is the Russia correspondent for Time Magazine. He writes about Putin and the Night Wolves in the current issue.

Simon Shuster: The Night Wolves are your pretty standard motorcycle gang with the leather, chains, beards, tattoos, Harley Davidsons and so on, but they stand out somewhat for their very vocal espousal of Russian patriotism, Slovak pride and a great respect for the Russian Orthodox Church. Now, all those values, Vladimir Putin has certainly highlighted in his rhetoric since he took a third terms as president last May, so that made them natural allies in a way. Putin has started attending their rallies and their motorcycle rides regularly. His preferred vehicle is a three wheeler, I guess, for the sake of safety, also, a Harley Davidson and he likes to ride at the front of their columns and speak at their patriotic rallies that they hold.

Schachter: The Night Wolves have a reputation, from what I understand, very similar to the Hell's Angels in the United States, sort of badasses/hoodlums. How did they become kind of a mainstream political force?

Shuster: There are a couple of factors at play: Vladimir Putin is very fond of various macho stunts, be it you know, shirtless horseback riding or harpooning whales. And this plays into that kind of macho image that he tries to project, but I think that more ideologically, they're espoused at least ideology of Slovak unity really jives with his idea of uniting the former Soviet Union into a new Eurasian union, an economic free trade zone and a military block with Moscow, of course, at the center.

Schachter: Where do the Night Wolves fit into that?

Shuster: The Night Wolves interestingly fit into a kind of Kremlin soft power in that they have chapters really across the Slovak world to Macedonia, Serbia, Ukraine. There is Baltic countries and they hold rallies in these countries to promote the use of the Russian language, which many of these countries have abandoned since the fall of the Soviet Union, and to really reconnect Russian culture with its former Soviet satellite states.

Schachter: Now you mentioned Vladimir Putin rides a three-wheel Harley. What does this say about Russia today if their version of Hell's Angels have to ride American motorcycles?

Shuster: Yeah, that's a good question and a running joke. In Russia, Russian cars are, well, pretty crappy. Even Russians are first to admit that.

Schachter: Still?

Shuster: I gotta say, yeah, still. My grandfather has one here in the suburbs of Moscow just because he's a model patriot, but mostly people strive to have foreign cars. And you know, that says something about Russia's industrial prowess at the heights of engineering, and science and technology that the Soviet Union did pull off. Remember, the Sputnik satellite, the first man launched into space was a Soviet. And those kinds of achievements that really get the attention and the respect of the international community have not been achieved under Putin or really after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Schachter: So, Simon, what is the preferred bike of the Night Wolves?

Shuster: Certainly the Harley Davidson. I mean they talk a good game about the United States being an aggressor trying to take over all of the countries of the world, and being Russia's geopolitical foe, but they sure do love that Harley Davidson.

Schachter: Simon Shuster from Time Magazine, thank you.

Shuster: Thank you.