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Putin’s Angels: The Ride of Russia’s Night Wolves

The country’s largest motorcycle gang is backed by the Kremlin, fighting in Ukraine and hellbent on restoring the empire.

The president of Russia’s most infamous motorcycle club emerges from a purifying swim in the still waters of a former slurry pond. He cuts a striking figure: tall, tattooed, plated with muscle. His hair, a leonine mane, clings to his back in dark ringlets. A silver crucifix dangles from his neck. “He goes to the lake, swimming for an hour, to maintain himself in a moral state,” says one of his lieutenants, a stout, chain-smoking­ Kazakh named Arman.

The leader’s name is the Surgeon, and he is the president of the Night Wolves, the largest motorcycle club in Russia. He is a busy man. Over the past week, he has been composing the script for the Night Wolves’ signature event: an annual bike show held here in Sevastopol – a city on the coast of Russia’s recently reacquired Crimean Peninsula – combining motorcycle stunts, military manoeuvres and strident nationalist pageantry. One evening, I was told, he also met with Argentina’s vice president. Several weeks before that, he challenged a local lawmaker to a duel. The official had objected to a dubious government land deal that would rent a sprawling, defunct gravel factory, where the Night Wolves hold their bike show, at a 99.9 per cent discount. (The official declined the challenge.)

After his swim, the Surgeon strides over to a replica World War II fighter plane. A battle tank, imported from a film studio in Kazakhstan, sits parked nearby in the scrub grass. Both would be incorporated into the Night Wolves’ bike show in several weeks – a phantasmagorical spectacle celebrating the Red Army’s victory over Hitler and intended to feed Russia’s growing Soviet nostalgia. “I’m very excited by the topic of war at the moment,” the Surgeon says. “I’m not fucking interested in show just for show. I’m a warrior. I’m fighting for my country, for my history. I’m talking about what Russia is facing now. Especially America, putting the shit on it.”

Above the Surgeon’s head, a pair of outsize metal puppet hands hang from a rusted conveyor chute. They featured prominently in the previous year’s show, waggling malevolently above the stage and appearing to orchestrate goose-­stepping “pro-Western” demonstrators below – the Surgeon’s reinterpretation of the 2014 Maidan revolution in Ukraine that toppled the pro-Russia president. The Surgeon’s narrative echoed the Kremlin’s own version of events: Ukrainian fascists overthrew a legitimate government, with secret Western backing, and installed a junta with villainous plans for ethnic Russians. One of the puppet hands had sported a ring, now absent, emblazoned with an eagle logo suspiciously similar to the U.S. presidential seal. “Not Americans,” Arman assures me. “It’s world evil, international evil.”

“All this has meaning,” says the Night Wolves’ leader, a 52-year-old former dental surgeon whose real name is Alexander Zaldostanov, gazing around at the props of war. “All this is made by Night Wolves. All my vision, everything I have in my head, will be reflected here.”

I had travelled to Russia in July to learn about the vision of the Surgeon and his fellow Nochniye Volki. A charismatic showman with a penchant for provocative bombast, the motorcycle club’s leader is perhaps Russia’s most recognisable nationalist star. Over the past decade, 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. In the Russian media, he can regularly be heard trumpeting the country’s greatness while warning that its enemies – America, Europe, homosexuals, liberals, traitorous “fifth columnists” – intend to undermine Mother Russia. He and the other Night Wolves often hold motorcycle rallies to promote Russian patriotism and Orthodox Christianity, making rumbling pilgrimages to churches and holy sites. He has vowed to defend the Kremlin from Maidan-inspired protesters and has pledged to die for Vladimir Putin, the country’s president. He has famously declared that “wherever the Night Wolves are, that should be considered Russia”. Recently, the club held a three-day anti-­NATO rally in Slovakia. Lately, the Surgeon has taken to praising Stalin.

Western reporters have dubbed the Night Wolves either “Russia’s Hells Angels” or, because of their muscular patriotism, a crucial source of “Russian soft power”. But such descriptions fall short. In late February 2014, at the beginning of Russia’s takeover of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, the Surgeon was spotted on a flight to Crimea. On the day of his arrival, the Night Wolves were working alongside pro-Russia militias, setting up roadblocks in Sevastopol. In March, according to the U.S. government, they stormed a naval facility, with the Surgeon personally helping to coordinate “the confiscation of Ukrainian weapons with the Russian forces”. On March 18th, Russia formally annexed the peninsula. Whether the Night Wolves’ leader acted on his own initiative or on orders from Russian officials remains unknown, but it seems unlikely the Kremlin would not sanction, at least tacitly, an operation of such consequence. (The Surgeon soon received a medal for “the liberation of the Crimea and Sevastopol” in Moscow, Russian media reported.) After fighting broke out in eastern Ukraine weeks later, a Night Wolves chapter joined pro-Russia militias battling the country’s army – a grinding conflict that continues and has killed nearly 8,000 thus far. The Night Wolves have been running “humanitarian convoys” into the region and, I witness, serving as a police force in Luhansk, one of two self-declared separatist republics.

“For the first time, we showed resistance to the global Satanism, the growing savagery of Western Europe, the rush to consumerism that denies all spirituality, the destruction of traditional values, all this homosexual talk, this American democracy,” the Surgeon proudly declared in March.

Vladimir Putin with the Surgeon in Moscow, 2009. The Kremlin has granted more than $1 million to the club. In 2013, Putin awarded the Surgeon an Order of Honour for his “patriotic education of youth”.

The gang’s rhetoric echoes both a growing wave of nationalism in Russia and a sharp rightward turn in the country’s politics. Under Putin’s tenure, the Kremlin has jailed journalists and opposition figures, banned “gay propaganda” and crafted ersatz political parties that provide a veneer of self-governance. It has deployed its vast propaganda apparatus – state-­controlled radio and newspapers, but above all, television – to fan patriotic fervour. “Russia is like the Kingdom of the Crooked Mirrors,” a liberal Muscovite tells me over dinner one night, referring to a Soviet-era fairy tale in which a king uses warped looking glasses to brainwash his people.

The Surgeon and his Night Wolves have flourished in this nationalist ecosystem. The club has reportedly received more than $1 million in grants from the Kremlin to support patriotic performances like the Sevastopol bike show. On several occasions, Putin himself has famously mounted a three-wheel Harley and ridden alongside the Surgeon. In 2013, Putin awarded the Night Wolves’ leader an Order of Honour for his “patriotic education of youth”. In June, the Russian press announced a cosmonaut would carry the club’s flag into space. Putin, according to Mark Galeotti, a Russia expert and NYU professor, turned the club into “auxiliaries of the state” as part of a broader push to turn potential adversaries into compliant allies. However true, these assertions shed little light on how a once-countercultural­ motorcycle gang has come to wield a position of such power and prominence in modern Russia – and, now set loose, what it hopes to achieve.

“We are the army of Russia,” the Surgeon tells me. But, he continues, “I don’t want to meet any foreigners, as they won’t write anything good.” (He had agreed to be interviewed, begrudgingly, only after a fellow member in Moscow provided a recommendation.) “I will always be bad in their eyes. I’m bad, I’m Putin’s gang – fuck it. But this gang is met with flowers. You will see how we will be welcomed in Sevastopol.”

The Surgeon trundles a golf cart ­toward a derelict four-storey concrete building – the local chapter’s headquarters – then disappears. He is due on a flight, business class, back to Moscow in two hours. Soon, the Night Wolves’ leader re-emerges in full biker regalia: black boots, black jeans, black vest bearing the club’s flaming wolf’s head emblem. Dmitry Simichein, the leader of the Sevastopol chapter, ushers the Surgeon into a tricked-out pickup truck, and we race toward the airport. As Simichein veers in and out of oncoming traffic, occasionally flicking on blue lights on the truck’s grille to bully slower cars from our path, I ask about Global Satan.

“The easiest example is the sexual-abuse escalator,” the Surgeon replies. “What was considered a sin before, pedophilia” – he means homosexuality – “now it’s legalised. They even allow them to take marriage in the Catholic Church! The priests are not just traitors, but Satanists themselves. When these marriages are allowed, tomorrow pedophilia will be fine, then sex with dead people, then eating the shit, and if we don’t stop, we will see the abyss of hell.”

Ten minutes from the airport, the truck’s engine boils over. Simichein pulls off to the shoulder. In the West, the Surgeon has attained outlaw-pariah status – the U.S. recently placed him on its international sanctions list, citing the club’s close ties to Russian special services and involvement in Ukraine’s conflict – but to some Crimeans, apparently, he is a hero. A woman, along with her young daughter, immediately recognises our famous passenger. “Just look who is here!” she exclaims in Russian, hurrying over to the window. “Night Wolves! Surgeon!” Star-struck, the woman demands a memento. “It’s not often I’m so lucky to have a photo with such a person,” she gushes. Smiling gamely, the Surgeon poses with the pair. “We wish you all the health for your patriotism,” the woman says before we depart. “From all people from Sevastopol, from Crimea!”

Born of Moscow’s anarchic underground scene in the 1980s, the Night Wolves were originally a loose gathering of metalheads and bikers headquartered in the boiler room of a Moscow apartment building. President Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika policy had begun easing Soviet strictures: Western music, drugs and an ethos of counterculture rebelliousness were slipping into the capital. The group members relished the newfound freedom. They barrelled around Moscow in decrepit Soviet Dneprs and Czech Jawas. They hassled police and brawled with the “Lyubers”, working-class bodybuilders from a nearby suburb. They partied to local rock bands. “We would get together every night, 50 to 100 motorcycles,” Ed Ratnikov, a close friend of the Surgeon’s from that era, told me. “Can you imagine? Traffic police would shit their pants.”

The Night Wolves’ early members included a musician, a mechanic and a massage therapist. Zaldostanov had a residency as a dental surgeon at a Moscow clinic and lived a double life – staying out all night, then climbing into the back window of the clinic to change from leathers to medical dress. (Roos Turin, another founding father of Moscow’s early biker scene, says Zaldostanov originally wished to be called “the Dentist”, but then deemed it insufficiently menacing.) Early on, the club provided security for local bands and ran protection rackets for black-market businesses hoping to avoid shakedowns from police and gangsters – an enterprise the Surgeon casts in benevolent terms.

“We were Robin Hoods,” he says today. “Commercial activities started – numerous tiny shops, stores – and we were protecting them as our friends, but then it became the business. They wanted only Night Wolves to protect them, as we were the dons.”

As a dental surgeon and biker in the late Eighties (left) and attending services at the Christ The Saviour Cathedral in Moscow (right). “I’m doing exactly what God saved me for,” he says.

By the early 1990s, the Surgeon – who was charismatic and ambitious – had established himself as the Night Wolves’ leader. He was considered the “king of the Moscow scene”, according to Hilary Pilkington, a British sociologist who studied the city’s counterculture. The Surgeon had been travelling between Moscow and West Berlin, where he found work as a doorman at the Sexton, a legendary rock club in the city. He lived in a squat and soon married a German woman. (They later separated.) He revelled in the rowdy, unrestrained underground world of Berlin and learned about motorcycle culture from members of the local Hells Angels chapter. “He loved the feeling of freedom here,” the Sexton’s former owner recently told a reporter. “In his soul, he was punk.” By chance, Vladimir Putin – future president of Russia and Night Wolves patron – was working as a midlevel KGB agent on the other side of the Wall in Dresden.

Around 1991, the Night Wolves began to shed their outlaw origins. That August, members helped man barricades against tanks surrounding Russia’s parliament building – part of a failed coup by Communist hard-liners against the reform-minded Gorbachev. His successor, Boris Yeltsin, awarded the Surgeon a medal for his efforts (an honour he now abhors). Soon after, the Night Wolves had a business manager and offers to star in advertising campaigns. “By the summer of 1991, Khirurg [Surgeon] himself was more often to be seen on youth television programmes, video clips and in the papers, than at his former notorious hang-outs,” Pilkington wrote.

“The country needs new patriotic stars, and the Night Wolves are helping the Kremlin rewrite the narrative.”

Russia’s transition to a Western market economy in the 1990s brought widespread unemployment and organised crime for much of the next decade. The Night Wolves, however, managed to flourish. In 1992, the Surgeon opened the Sexton in Moscow, a rock club modelled on his old haunt in West Berlin. Three years later, the Night Wolves had a tattoo parlor, a bike shop and a “Wolf Wear” clothing line. Their first annual bike show attracted thousands of fans. “Sometimes I can see the surgical table in my dreams,” the Surgeon tells me in Sevastopol. “But I understand now I’m doing exactly what God saved me for. So I’m kind of paying my debt. But I have never been so happy in my life as I was with my first motorcycle, a Jawa.”

Motorcycle clubs are often a peculiar mix of anti-social defiance and democratic governance, with members making decisions as a group according to a system of voting rules. In the mid-1990s, the Sexton in Moscow burned down and, a few years later, the Surgeon – through a company he owned – acquired two buildings on the outskirts of the city that could accommodate a new club and biker headquarters. According to Russian journalist Nataliya Telegina, who investigated the deal, many members assumed the new space would be common property. But the Surgeon gave himself exclusive ownership, Telegina tells me. A former member says that the Surgeon also rewrote the club’s charter, creating a centralised structure that gave him more power.

“It was like Hitler times in Germany – Hitler was a person who took power in a democratic way,” says Ivan, a member of the Moscow Hells Angels chapter. “The same story was in the Night Wolves. What Khirurg asked from the club was special status to have not one, not two votes, but to have the vote to make any decision.” (Rejecting these claims, a club spokesman states that the Surgeon is “very democratic”.) Ivan, a stocky Angel who goes by the name Hippo, and another member named Sascha had agreed to meet at a restaurant in downtown Moscow. Both were former members of the Night Wolves and both had quit in 2001, outraged by what they viewed as the Surgeon’s growing megalomania. Along with about eight other former Night Wolves, the two men soon formed the Hells Angels chapter in Moscow.

The Surgeon appears to have flirted with modelling the Night Wolves on the notorious Western motorcycle club – early on, they reportedly operated according to a word-for-word Russian translation of the Hells Angels’ rule book. But he has now become an outspoken detractor of so-called outlaw clubs. In the Russian press, he has called them “arms dealers”, “demons” and “drug cartels on wheels”. In June, the Surgeon asked Russia’s parliament to include both the Bandidos and Hells Angels on the government’s new list targeting “undesirable” foreign organisations.

Since Ivan and Sascha’s departure, the Night Wolves have entirely left behind their counterculture past. There were the Surgeon’s appearances with Putin and financial grants from the Kremlin, but also regular rallies at Orthodox religious sites. There was a “Wolf” holding company providing security and plans for a youth competition combining motorcycles with elements of “combat in ruined buildings, martial arts, possession of firearms and bladed weapons”. In January, the Surgeon helped co-found Anti-Maidan, a patriotic group to counter any pro-democracy movements that might take hold in Russia.

“We don’t consider them a motorcycle club,” Ivan says. “We don’t have political organisations. There is quite famous phrase in Russia: If you heard the word patriotism, it means that someone steals something.

“Someone smart said the twisted mind is a good field for the creation of monsters,” Ivan continues. “He wanted to be number one. In his world, that’s the guy who had more possibilities, more money, more influence or more power. So he just started to construct his world, and he’s really successful. He is the minister of biker culture.”

The Night Wolves’ Moscow headquarters sits on a desolate river flood plain outside the city, where Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev once dreamed of building a Russian Disneyland. The Sexton has become a mecca for Russian bikers, and the property contains a dance club, several bars and a restaurant serving sushi and “Crimean Tea”. The Surgeon, I had read, sleeps on a pullout sofa somewhere in the sprawling compound.

The property has a Mad Max Bartertown aesthetic, but also a strongly martial vibe. In the courtyard, two howitzers flank a stage resembling a warship. A Soviet tank sits parked nearby. The Night Wolves have taken a particular interest in educating Russia’s youth, and the Sexton also doubles as the venue for the club’s Kremlin­-funded holiday shows for children. In the 2013 performance, a character resembling the Statue of Liberty attempts to kidnap the snow princess Snegurochka. The Night Wolves thwart her plan. “We set a goal to create an alternative to foreign domination,” the Surgeon told a Russian paper. Children “need to see that evil is really scary”.

The club’s character became notably nationalist around 2009. That July, Putin, then prime minister, followed a meeting with President Obama with a trip to the Sexton. Russian media reported that Putin gave the Surgeon “a huge Russian flag, expressing his hope that the flag would ‘protect’ them on their way” to the upcoming bike show in Sevastopol. From then on, according to Elizabeth Wood, a Russia scholar at MIT and co-author of the upcoming book The Roots of Russia’s War in Ukraine, the two men met frequently: “Zaldostanov brought Putin letters and souvenirs from Sevastopol; Putin encouraged Zaldostanov to create pro-Russian shows in Crimea.”

For his part, the Surgeon tells me the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. had left him deeply embittered. “All the values were lost, everybody started kicking their history, spitting on their own granddads,” he says. “All these pretenders I always hated – they painted themselves so quickly from Communists to capitalists.” His disillusionment, he explains, led to a time of desert wandering, a search for answers. Eventually he identified those responsible: proponents of democracy, liberalism, Wall Street. Behind them all lurked the hidden hand. “This democratic system is the same as communism. I see no difference, the same lies, the same fuckery,” he says. (He became religious, the Surgeon claims, after meeting a priest at a fellow member’s burial service.) Eventually, the Surgeon refashioned the Night Wolves to combat these dark forces – the motorcycle as vehicle of liberation. “The model was born in the USA,” Evgeny Strogov, the leader of the Night Wolves’ Nomads chapter, tells me. “We take, but we make little bit different.”

Several Russian journalists, however, have identified another member, named Alexey Weitz, as most responsible for the Night Wolves’ turnaround. A former theatre actor, Weitz joined the club in the mid-2000s while also working for a nationalist think tank, and later became an apparatchik for Right Cause, a political party with a self-proclaimed “patriotic bias” that is supported by the Kremlin. According to British journalist Peter Pomerantsev, Weitz helped give form to the Surgeon’s religious and patriotic impulses. As the Kremlin initiated its widespread campaign to quash dissent while mobilising nationalist fervour, it found an ideal partner in the motorcycle club. “The country needs new patriotic stars, the great Kremlin reality show is open for auditions, and the Night Wolves are… helping the Kremlin rewrite the narrative of protestors from political injustice and corruption to one of Holy Russia versus Foreign Devils,” Pomerantsev writes in his recent book Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia.

“The third world war is still to come”, a rebel says. “U.S., Europe, Asia. Everyone will be involved.”

Weitz, who wears his hair pulled back in a ponytail and bears a striking resemblance to comedian Ricky Gervais, agreed to meet late one Wednesday night at the Sexton. When I arrive, he is sitting at a table quietly sipping tea. I explain that I am curious to learn more about his role within the Night Wolves. “History will tell my position,” he answers obliquely. If I want to understand the Night Wolves, he continues, I need to look into “the phenomena of the Russian soul”.

The Night Wolves’ relationship with the state is, in Weitz’s telling, not a case of cunning co-option but a marriage of convenience. “When people see Putin and the Night Wolves together, they think it’s political,” he says. “Right now, our interests and the interests of the government are the same. We’re going to defend the state because as soon as the state falls down, it’s going to be anarchy. There are plans by the Anglo-Saxons – European ideas and liberal lobbies inside the country – that are threatening the values of Russian people.”

Later, Weitz shows me a large painting in the Sexton featuring a 14th-century Russian Orthodox monk named Alexander Peresvet. By some accounts, Peresvet died in a heroic duel with a soldier from the Mongol empire. But in a larger battle that followed, a small Russian force defeated the Mongols’ much-superior army – a victory whose importance is disputed by historians but trumpeted today by Russian nationalists as the opening skirmish that freed the country from the Mongol “yoke”. Other Night Wolves had mentioned Peresvet, and I had even seen his image on one member’s T-shirt. He was, it seemed, their ur-patriot and patron saint. In the Sexton’s painting, Peresvet sits astride a horse – the gallant warrior-monk preparing to vanquish invaders and return the motherland to glory. The artist, however, gave the horse a strange feature: The shadow it casts is not equine but that of a stalking wolf.

In the summer of 2014, the Ukrainian military advanced on the pro-Russia militias that had taken control of the cities of Luhansk and Donetsk in the Donbass region. Hundreds of civilians were killed in the subsequent fighting. In Luhansk, electricity failed and water taps ran dry. Food became scarce. Many residents moved into their basements to avoid shelling, while others made tunnels between apartments to keep from venturing outside. A mortuary keeper in the city lived off chocolate bars and pig fat and played Thelonious Monk’s “ ’Round Midnight” on his saxophone to put his mind off the war.

Several months later, officials from Ukraine and the self-declared separatist republics signed a cease-fire agreement, but the fighting quickly resumed. The U.S. and other Western countries allege Russia is supporting the rebels with men and supplies, a claim Putin has denied despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. In late 2014, the Ukrainian government established an economic blockade of both breakaway republics, a move intended to break the rebels’ grip but one that also made food and medicine scarce for the already-suffering civilian population. In addition to killing thousands, the ongoing war has displaced more than a million residents in Ukraine and devastated entire neighbourhoods and villages.

‘The Surgeon’ leading the Night Wolves in May.

As we drive into the rebel-controlled Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) in mid-July, the scars from the conflict are quickly evident. Artillery has sheared off the corner of an apartment building. But for an orange-roofed Mr. Kebab stand, many of the businesses are shuttered. “Welcome to the rebel banana state,” says Taras, my minder from the rebel government, as we drive into the city’s downtown. “This is Ukrainian exterior design,” he says, pointing out a flattened building. “It was a vegetarian shop. A heavy military object for sure.”

Taras, 26, is the LPR’s youthful deputy minister of information. A former graphic designer, he joined the rebels in 2014, then set up a pro-Russian news channel and also conceived the LPR’s coat of arms: a red star framed by ears of wheat. Burly and profane, Taras wears a thick beard and is rarely without a cigarette. The Ukrainians have labelled Taras a terrorist, he says, but I find him affable and appealingly subversive. Fiddling with the stereo, he queues up Depeche Mode’s “Policy of Truth”.

“It’s a good soundtrack for propaganda worker,” he quips.

I had made the long journey to Luhansk to learn about the city’s Night Wolves chapter, which had largely avoided the media exposure of their comrades in Moscow. A few intriguing scraps had slipped out: On its sanctions list, the U.S. government alleged the motorcycle club had recruited fighters for the rebel militias and deployed members to the front lines of Luhansk and Kharkiv. Several, including a member named “Vampire”, were reportedly killed. The Night Wolves in Luhansk appeared to have crystallised into a more militant form – a modern incarnation of the warrior-­monk Peresvet.

As night falls, Taras drives to a hilltop overlooking the city. The rebel government imposes an 11 p.m. curfew, and residents have moved indoors. Luhansk, which had a prewar population of more than 400,000 people, is mostly black and still. Not far away, a steady stream of orange anti-aircraft fire arcs into the dark sky. “The advantage of the civil war is that all industry died,” Taras observes. “If the conflict will move another three years, it will look like Jumanji.”

In the morning, Taras and I visit the local Night Wolves’ headquarters, a defunct sports complex beside the blighted Olkhovka River. As we arrive, a backhoe lifts a bucketful of muck from the water, then deposits it into a dump truck. “I want to resurrect things that were artificially killed,” Vitaly, the club’s leader, says as we take shade from the sun under a tree. “I feel my inner voice, it is my mission to my motherland.” A few other Night Wolves mill around, but the compound is otherwise quiet. Many members departed earlier on a motorcycle run to Russia to promote the “independence of Donbass”.

Stern and laconic, Vitaly wears a sidearm and goes by the nom de guerre “the Prosecutor”. The motorcycle club, he confirms, is now acting as a special police squad; another member later tells me they guard gas stations and other sites and occasionally patrol the city for drunks and criminal elements. “We’re a part of the Ministry of Internal Affairs,” Vitaly says. “We are police, SWAT division.” The leader of another Night Wolves chapter had denied the club’s involvement in Ukraine’s conflict, but Vitaly is surprisingly forthright. “It’s no secret. We’re not ashamed,” he says. “The Ukrainian government is fascist. Here is Russia. That’s why we were staying and defending it.”

In 2014, as the Ukrainian military closed in on Luhansk, according to Vitaly, the Night Wolves helped blockade the city. They later fought in at least four villages and, backed by Russian tanks, laid siege with other rebels to the Luhansk airport held by the Ukrainian paratroopers – a devastating battle that left the facility in ruins. Around 40 Night Wolves took part in the war and at least three were killed. A member named Sergei Koptev was killed by a mortar. Another, nicknamed “Bison”, stepped on a mine. “Vampire” died in a burning tank. Photographs of the dead men, along with about 100 other rebels, were now memorialised in a glass display case in downtown Luhansk.

Since then, the Night Wolves appear to have transformed into an urban-­renewal regiment. They organise local concerts. They dredged tons of garbage from the Olkhovka and poured sand to create a beach for locals. In a park adjacent to their compound, they installed a sandbox and gazebos. Wrecked tanks and armoured military vehicles and casings from rockets litter their compound – what the club hoped to transform into an open-air museum of “broken Ukrainian art”. In a greenhouse nearby, the Night Wolves are growing tomatoes. “Our nation is crumpled, smashed from long years ago,” Vitaly says. “We are trying to say not everything fell apart. These good things were in a dark corner, but everything can be resurrected.”

At first, I take Vitaly’s notion of resurrection to mean restoring local parks – ­nation building writ small. But it becomes clear the sweep of his dream is much grander. The mission of Night Wolves, he declares, “is to resurrect the motherland – to connect the pieces that were killed off. We’re one land, one people. We were artificially divided. We have Night Wolves divisions in territories of former Soviet Union. Our mission is to bring the patriotism, orthodoxy, love for motherland and reunite.” There are, I suggest, a great deal of people in these republics with no wish to reunite. “Everyone has his own right to think different,” he replies. “And for those who don’t want to reunite, I have a question: Why do those countries keep them?” Vitaly’s vision of reintegrating former Soviet states is both bold and provocative, and sure to alarm these governments – at least one of which had already begun preparing militarily along its border for such an outcome.

As the Ukrainian military sought to reclaim Donbass from the pro-Russian rebels in the summer of 2014, a village outside Luhansk called Novosvitlivka saw some of the most devastating fighting. Small but strategically important, the town is situated on a highway connecting Luhansk to the Russian border about 30 kilometres to the east – a conduit between satellite and mothership. The Night Wolves, along with other rebels, battled the Ukrainian army for two weeks for control of Novosvitlivka. In the process, half the town was razed – scores of homes, a kindergarten, the hospital. The town’s House of Culture, whose facade bore an 18-metre mosaic panel called “Tree of Life”, was bombed into ruin. At least 100 civilians were killed.

“There was heavy fighting,” Vitaly recalls, speaking wearily of the battle. “Artillery and street to street. RPGs. A lot of people were killed in their basements.” Ukrainian soldiers also barricaded locals in the town’s church, he claims. “If someone resisted, they killed him.”

On a windswept plaza outside Novosvitlivka, the House of Culture still sits charred and abandoned. But the hospital has been rebuilt – backed by a singer from Donbass known as the Russian Frank Sinatra, rumour has it. Artillery has staved in the local church’s onion dome; its replacement sits on wood blocks nearby, ready to be fitted snugly atop the roof like a hat. Down the road, I stop at a white four-storey apartment complex. In a nearby cellar stairwell, someone had handwritten a plea on the wall: “Attention. Don’t put any grenades into basement!!! There are no terrorists. Only locals.”

During the fighting, many residents hid in the buildings’ cellars. “The Ukrainian army was there,” says Tamara, a retiree with hair dyed the colour of an eggplant, pointing at a nearby area. “The pro-Russian side was shelling to make them leave.” She and her husband, along with other residents, spent three weeks living in a dank warren of rooms in her building’s basement. Several soiled mattresses still lie on the dirt floor. “It was very cold. We ate what we had in our houses,” she says. Emerging from the basement one day, Tamara continues, she discovered a man sitting in his car. He had been decapitated by shrapnel from an artillery shell. “Sometimes we buried locals here in the garden, and after we transferred them to the cemetery,” she says, looking at a tangled bed of morning glories. But someone mined the cemetery, and so she and the others often left the bodies buried where they were.

The war in Donbass began to assume its own runaway logic. As civilian casualties mounted and both sides committed atrocities, people inevitably joined the conflict as much for reasons of ethnicity or national sovereignty as retaliation. Both sides pumped out propaganda: Pro-Kiev Ukrainians were “neo-Nazi fascists”; pro-Russians “terrorists”. There were reports of concentration camps, crucifixions of children. In Novosvitlivka, Russian media alleged Ukrainian forces had shot some residents and locked others inside the church, then mined the area. (The church’s priest tells me, however, the Ukrainians handed out meals, and no one was killed despite two direct hits from artillery shells.) In this distorted reality, it was as George Orwell wrote: “Everyone believes in the atrocities of the enemy and disbelieves in those of his own side.”

One afternoon, Taras and I drive into the rolling farm country outside Luhansk to an Orthodox church perched atop a hill. It had been built by Nikolai Tarasenko, an enigmatic Russian archaeologist who, inspired by divine instruction, had quit his profession in the 1990s to build a “temple” in the Donbass. The site has since become famous and, according to Taras, Tarasenko is also known as a hermit philosopher and sometime prophet who might offer tidings of the war. A member of the Cossacks, the legendary horsemen who once guarded the Russian empire’s remote frontier, he has been fighting since the beginning of the conflict.

“Before the war, we prayed and built,” says Tarasenko, who is in his late sixties with few remaining teeth and a rheumy eye, sitting at a long kitchen table. “And when war came we took the weapon, and now we are praying and fighting.” He has spent the past 20 years building the church, but it remains unfinished – the conflict appears to have entirely subsumed his work. Every week, a small detachment of locals – often including Tarasenko himself – travels to the front line about 65 kilometres away. The war has passed some point of no return, Tarasenko feels, and he cannot stop fighting. Kiev has “special teams” that would kill him and has deployed mercenaries – a story widely disseminated by Russian propaganda.

Rising from the kitchen table, Tarasenko leads us outside to see the church. Inside the bare sanctuary, he ascends a rickety ladder, then steps out onto a small balcony with a commanding view of the valley. “The great war is still to come,” he tells me. “According to the prophecies, the war will move north from Luhansk and Donetsk to the Russian Federation and west to Ukrainian territory. It’s the third world war – U.S., Europe, Asia. Everyone will be involved. I don’t want it, but I have seen it.”

In August, a long column of bikers rode into Sevastopol to inaugurate the Night Wolves’ 2015 multiday bike show, “The Forge of Victory”. Astride a motorcycle accented with crocodile skin, the Surgeon led the procession. Vitaly was close behind, along with hundreds of bikers from Grozny, Tatarstan, Belarus and Tajikistan, and even one group from Siberian Yakutsk that had travelled nearly 16,000 kilometres. The Surgeon had remained cryptic about the show’s content, but a few details had been revealed: The event would showcase the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany and, according to the club’s website, train “young people in the spirit of patriotism, on building a peaceful alternative to the Maidan to destroy Ukraine – an alternative to the ruthless terrorism and its sponsors.”

On the show grounds, thousands of fans erected camping tents around the slurry pond. There were recreational bikers, members of other clubs, teenagers, families with babies. There were stalls selling kebabs and beer and booths about animal husbandry. The Black Sea Fleet had a recruiting booth. The Surgeon was seemingly everywhere: posing for photos, signing autographs, unveiling a new prototype motorcycle dubbed the “Stalinets”.

Around midnight on August 21st, the main show began. An air-raid siren wailed ominously. A Nazi bomber, suspended from a building, rose above the crowd. Explosions followed, clouds of smoke. A Russian mother ran clutching her daughter in terror; a man on fire leapt from a balcony. Suddenly, the guttural voice of the Surgeon, from a crow’s nest above the battle, rolled over the crowd: “The great patriotic war was the war of good with evil, light with shadow, love with hate, paradise with hell.”

German panzer tanks and columns of SS soldiers appeared. They mercilessly executed several men and herded Russian women and children onto flatbed trucks. Then, from the shadows: a Red Army brigade. Firing their rifles and machine guns, they advanced forward. The SS began to fall one by one. There was a triumphant yell, a surging charge by the Russians. A Soviet T-34 tank, a museum piece brought in from Volgograd, rumbled forward. The Germans were finished.

From his perch, the Surgeon declared, “The Holy Grail of the victory with never-ending shine and eternal light, the same as the Burning Bush, was shining in the darkest years of Russian grief. From this Grail we were watering the faint sprout of the new state, Russian State, and it was growing among the droughts and gales.”

Various dignitaries from Crimea, including the governor of Sevastopol, watched from a VIP platform. The Night Wolves had invited Putin, but he chose not to attend. The president’s absence was perplexing, given his staunch support of the Surgeon, though the Russian press hardly mentioned it. Shortly after, however, Russian marines and tanks were spotted at a Syrian air base. Within weeks, Putin unveiled a major diplomatic push – more military aid, a possible peace plan for Syria – to shore up the country’s embattled president, Bashar al-Assad. Syria’s dire circumstances, many analysts speculated, had presented Putin with an irresistible gambit: bolster an ally and divert attention from the conflict in Ukraine, while also allowing Russia to once more reassert itself as a forceful presence on the global stage.

As the show continued, giant pneumatic hammers swung up and down and a small army of Soviet proletariat – metallurgists, factory labourers, dancing atomic-bomb makers – began to heroically rebuild the country. The show was an unrecognisable heir of the Night Wolves’ early productions. They had been loose, homespun affairs, bawdy and anarchic: Men dressed as knights jousting on motorcycles. Women stripteasing with snakes. One biker even waving an American flag. “I still have the freedom. I always have it – maybe not so much as before,” the Surgeon told me when we spoke in Sevastopol. “But now other things are more important for me: That is the struggle for my motherland, and I’m a soldier in this struggle. It’s my fight, it’s my war for my country.”

The spectacle reached its stirring climax. Fireworks erupted in the sky. A contingent of Night Wolves rolled out to greet the large crowd cheering for the performance that was a looking glass reflecting a Russia as it had been, as they might be persuaded to see it once more: unbowed, undiminished, fearsome. At least 100,000 people on the show grounds, with millions more watching the live broadcast on state television, looked upward as a gilded coat of arms bearing a Soviet star, a czarist double­-headed eagle and ears of wheat – a heraldic nationalist symbol of the Night Wolves’ own creation – rose high above the crowd in Sevastopol. It was an empire production.