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 maneuvers 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 percent 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.”