Not Waco: Being Putin's favorite motorcycle gang has its perks

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Carol Hills: I’m Carol Hills and you’re tuned to The World. A few weeks ago, there was an outcry in Poland because a Russian motorcycle gang known as the Night Wolves wanted to travel there. The Night Wolves call themselves outlaws, but they’re actually tight with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and their motto is “Wherever the Night Wolves are, that should be considered Russia.” So, you can understand why other countries don’t want them to visit. Writer and NYU professor Mark Galeotti wrote about the Night Wolves and their close relationship with the Kremlin for the Moscow Times.


Mark Galeotti: They’re not necessarily the typical stereotype of the outlaw motorcycle gangster. Their head, Zaldostanov, actually was a former cosmetic surgeon. They’re a mix. In part, they’re wanna-be bikers; in part, they are real thugs. But the main thing is that really they represent the kind of person who wants the thrill of feeling like a biker, with all the studded leather jacket and everything else, but doesn’t actually wanted to run up against the state. They are kind of “house-trained safe” outlaw motorcycle gangsters.


Hills: So, we’re not talking kind of a Russian Hell’s Angels?


Galeotti: Not really. They look it when you first see them; precisely, their long hair, big studded leather jackets, massive chrome motorcycles and such. But when you actually look at what they do, it’s always with an eye to the Kremlin’s favor.


Hills: How did their connection to the Kremlin start?


Galeotti: Well, when they first formed way back in the 1980s, they were a counterculture group. But through the 1990s, they became increasingly really informed by quite nasty nationalism, even racism. When Putin came into power, the mood, the ideology of the nation changed. Increasingly, the Night Wolves actually fit in with that. Putin himself first came across them in 2009; he went and visited one of their garages in a very sort of carefully planned photo-op. And it’s been clear that basically from that point there was sort of a perfect little marriage. Putin likes anything that helps him foster his macho bad boy image, and obviously going for rides with motorcycle gangsters works for that. And likewise, the Night Wolves got a patron that gave them a lot of freedom, a lot of liberty, and actually a lot of money--I mean, more than a million dollars so far in grants have been allocated to them.


Hills: Besides the money, what’s the appeal of Putin to the Night Wolves?


Galeotti: Well, in a way Putin embodies so much of what they wanted to see in the Kremlin. He’s an outspoken Russian nationalist. Again, I mentioned this chap, Zaldostanov, who heads the Night Wolves--for a long time, he has been campaigning for Crimea to be brought back to Russia. So, when they have a leader who finally does that, they think it’s their dream come true. Secondly, it gives them a lot of freedom. We’ve had cases in which Night Wolves have, for example, clashed with rival gangs. In one case, actually there was a fatal shooting. The Night Wolves always seem mysteriously to get let off, whereas the other gangsters end up going to prison. So, this is something that basically means the Night Wolves get to have their fun and yet not have to worry about the cost.


Hills: Are there any dangers for Putin of hitching his political wagon to a motorcycle gang?


Galeotti: Well, apart from looking increasingly ridiculous as he gets older and older--there’s a limit to how old you can be and wear a leather jacket and pull it off--not really. The Night Wolves, they’re not that huge or powerful an organization. It’s not like they’re ever going to become a tail wagging the state dog or anything else. It’s more that the increasing way that Putin relies on groups like the Night Wolves, like the militias who are fighting in the Donbass, who are kind of sort of under state control and sort of not, it means that actually he gets deniability but he also has less real control.


Hills: Mark Galeotti wrote about the Night Wolves in the Moscow Times. Thanks a lot, Mark.


Galeotti: Pleasure.