Canada has added the name Alexander Zaldostanov to the list of Russians under sanctions because of the war in Ukraine. But unlike the other prominent Russians targeted, he is not a senior military officer or the CEO of a major oil company.
The 51-year-old Zaldostanov, nicknamed "The Surgeon," is the head of Russia’s biggest biker club, the Night Wolves. And his elevation to the ranks of Russia’s power elite says a lot about the country Russia has become under President Vladimir Putin.
Born as an underground group of heavy metal and motorcycle aficionados in the dying days of the Soviet Union, the Night Wolves have become one of the props of the Putin establishment. According to the U.S. State Department, they sent members to fight in Ukraine and took part in storming the naval headquarters in Sevastopol.
Last August, the Night Wolves staged a sound and light show in Crimea to celebrate the territory’s annexation by Russia. The leather-clad Zaldostanov told an audience estimated at 100,000 that "enemies who hated us killed the Soviet state and took away its territory and its army."
"We are celebrating our sacred victory at a time when fascism, like putrid, poisonous dough, has overfilled its Kyiv trough and begun to spread across Ukraine. The new battle against fascism is inevitable. Stalin's 11th strike is inevitable."
The event was carried live on Russian state television.
Ties to the Kremlin
Around the same time, Ramzan Kadyrov, president of Chechnya and a close ally of Putin, became a full-patch member of the club.
Putin has appeared with Zaldostanov at numerous public events, as well as riding with the club on his own Harley-Davidson three-wheeler on more than one occasion. In 2013, Putin presented Zaldostanov with the Russian Medal of Honour for "activity in the patriotic education of youth." Zaldostanov was also a torch-bearer for the Sochi Olympics.
In one recent speech, Putin told the assembled bikers, "You do not just ride your motorcycles; you also perform military-patriotic work. Historical memory is the best cement that binds people of different nationalities and religions into one nation, in one powerful country — Russia."
The Night Wolves, in turn, have offered their 3,000-strong membership to the state as an unofficial militia.
Zaldostanov joined a group of Russian nationalist politicians in setting up a pro-Putin movement called "anti-Maidan," a reference to the protests in Kyiv that led to the fall of the previous, Russia-aligned Ukrainian government last year.
At the group’s inaugural event, the Zaldostanov warned that his bikers would crush any attempt to launch a "colour revolution" street protest against the Putin regime on Russian soil.
"The ‘orange beast’ is sharpening its teeth and looking to Russia," said Zaldostanov, suggesting the anti-Maidan group could adopt "Death to Fags" as an alternative name.
Defenders of Orthodoxy
Zaldostanov’s Night Wolves have moved so far from their outlaw rebel roots that they now proclaim themselves protectors of the Russian Orthodox Church, which enjoys close ties to the Kremlin in Putin’s Russia.
Following the arrest of members of the punk-rock group Pussy Riot, who shot an allegedly blasphemous video in a Russian Orthodox church, Zaldostanov led a parade of bikers through Moscow carrying balloons with Orthodox symbols and pledged his bikers would defend holy sites. "I am against the ‘possessed’ who humiliate the believers," he said.
The Night Wolves have also announced a definitive rupture with the international biker movement, declaring on their website: "We do not want to belong to foreign bikers’ traditions that are not able to give good fruits to our Slavic Orthodox country! We Night Wolves are proud that we were born in the land of the great people, the land of Slavs, the rebellious Russians, land of undefeated heroes, the land which does not let the rest of the world sleep since the Roman Empire or even earlier."
Zaldostanov, who was already sanctioned by the U.S. in December, has welcomed his new status as a pariah in the West.
"I would very much like to thank [U.S. President Barack] Obama for recognizing my modest services to the motherland. And I promise that I will do all I can so that his concern for me only grows."