More Bark Than Bite

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The scene unfolds every warm summer night in Moscow. Along a concrete bluff atop the Sparrow Hills, on one of the city's highest points, a group of shaggy-maned, leather-clad, tattoo-adorned toughs gathers for a celebration of noise, chrome and testosterone. It is the convocation of the Nochniye Volki, the Night Wolves the Russian cousins of the Hell's Angels and it can be a bad scene if you aren't one of the gang. Equity traders from L.A. and London who turn up on Japanese-made motorcycles and try to blend in are rudely scorned. "I've learned," says one American fund manager, "that it's safer to keep your distance."

But these days the Wolves, who first started roaring through Moscow's streets in the early 1980s, are more bark than bite. Though they still swear better, and more often, than the average Muscovite and listen to the heavy-metal band Motorhead, the Wolves are undergoing something of an image makeover from social rebels to civic-minded entrepreneurs. Once brash challengers of the Soviet status quo, the Wolves now staunchly support President Vladimir Putin and claim good relations with city governments. That has helped them boost their mainstream appeal: in recent years their number has grown from a few dozen to hundreds. Cruising on motorcycles has become a rite of the new, no-holds-barred, post-Soviet order.

The gentler face of the Night Wolves is embodied by the group's leader, who goes by the name of Khirurg, the Surgeon. The nickname derives not from the scars that decorate his face but from the fact that he once was, in fact, a surgeon operating in one of Moscow's busiest triage centers. (His specialty: reconstructing motorcycle accident victims.) The Surgeon dresses in black and a jagged tattoo crawls up one side of his neck. His nose looks as if it has been broken more than once. And yet he is a gentle soul, a visionary prone to mechanical metaphors. "Our club is the generator of the bikers' way of life here," he explains. "And the engine of its culture."

The Surgeon believes the Wolves are playing an even bigger social role in Russian life. "We're doing the work the state should be doing," he says. "We're helping Russia get off its knees." Last summer, in the wake of nato's bombing of Serbia and the rising anti-American tide in Russia, the Night Wolves helped launch the Russian version of a Harley Davidson, made at the Irbit Motorcycle Factory in the Ural Mountains. Naturally, the indigenous chopper has been christened the Wolf. Just 50 are made each month, but the Wolves, whose role is to publicize the bikes, insist the marketing angle will work: anyone can get a Honda or a Yamaha, but if you want something special, you buy a Wolf.

In the Wolves' world view, motorcycles serve as an instrument of urban development. The Surgeon points out that the people of Irbit, a working-class manufacturing town, depend on the motorcycle works there. "Half the city is looking to us to keep them employed," he says. "Why? Because we can save their city, and they know it." The Wolves are also working round the clock on their own "Bike Center" a sprawling lair on one of Moscow's grittier edges, replete with a cave-like bar and dance hall, outdoor stage, and tattooing salon. They even have a website: "Lenin promised a Utopia on Earth," quips the Surgeon. "But we're building it."

Not everyone shares the vision. To Moscow's traffic cops, notorious for sweating out a few rubles in "fines" from defenseless drivers, the bikers are the bane of their summers. "They're nothing but a horde of illegal bandit formations," says one cop, employing the phrase usually reserved for the Chechen rebels fighting Russian troops one and a half thousand kilometers to the south. "They may think it's fun to wreak havoc on our roads. But this is not California. You can't just do whatever you want."

To be sure, even these reformed Wolves are no angels. Some have done time. More have survived battles in Afghanistan and in Chechnya. "We've moved beyond protest, and so has Russia," says the Surgeon. "But we'll never lie down like puppies before the state."

What unites them, the Surgeon explains, is a sense of responsibility a rare trait in Russia these days. "No matter what the state, the cops or other bikers say or do, you take responsibility for your own life." As he speaks, a full moon hangs high above Moscow. It is nearly 3 a.m., and time for the Night Wolves to come out.