In the Moscow compound of the Night Wolves, the Russian equivalent of the Hells Angels, ships’ conrods have been refashioned as crosses ten feet high. Broken plane parts have been bolted to truck engines to make a giant stage; crushed Harley-Davidsons have been beaten into a bar; boats’ hulls have been moulded into chairs; and train parts into Valhalla-sized tables. The crosses are everywhere, wrenched together out of old bike parts and truck shafts and engines. The Night Wolves, or Nochnye Volki, are bikers who have found a Russian God. In an act of patriotism they have changed all the words on their leathers from Latin lettering to a gothic Cyrillic. One of the Hells Angels symbols, a ‘1 per cent’ inside a diamond, is still etched on a great stone at the entrance to their kingdom. In Hells Angels lore it stands for the 1 per cent who are outlaws. But the Night Wolves have engraved a new text around the diamond, transforming its meaning: ‘In heaven there is more joy at the 1 per cent of sinners who confess than the 99 per cent who have no need of salvation.’

‘We only have a few years to rescue the soul of holy Russia,’ Alexei Weitz said. ‘Just a few years.’ Weitz is a leading member of the Night Wolves. There are five thousand of them in Russia, five thousand Beowulf-like bearded men in leathers riding Harleys. It’s Weitz who has done most to turn them from outlaws into religious patriots. For the past few years, Vladimir Putin has posed for photo-ops with them, dressed in leathers and riding a tri-bike (he can’t quite handle a two-wheeler). They defended the ‘honour of the church’ after the Pussy Riot affair, roaring in a cavalcade through Moscow bearing golden icons of Mary the Mother of Christ on the front of their Harleys. The Kremlin gives them several hundred million rubles a year and they work to inspire loyalty across the country with concerts and bike shows that fuse flying Yamahas, Cirque du Soleil-style trapeze acts, Spielberg-scale battle re-enactments, religious icons, holy ecstasies, speeches from Stalin and dancing girls (there are booths for go-go girls next to the great crosses). At the last concert in Volgograd, 250,000 locals turned up, a world record for a ‘bike show’. Evander Holyfield was meant to come, to introduce a boxing match that went with the patriotic fireworks, but he had to pull out at the last minute – there was a problem with his visa. Everyone sang the anti-communist perestroika anthem ‘We Want Changes’.

‘Why Stalin?’ I asked. ‘Didn’t he murder hundreds of thousands of priests?’

‘We don’t know why he was sent by God. Maybe he had to slaughter them so the faith could be tested. We don’t know. It’s not for us to judge. When you cut out a disease you have to cut out healthy flesh too.’ As we spoke, Weitz – who is of folkloric size, bearded with glasses – was changing from his office clothes into leathers. He took me to a little wooden house on the territory to have something to eat. There were icons everywhere. We drank tea brewed with spicy medicinal herbs picked by shamans in the Russian far east. Weitz dropped six lumps of sugar into his goblet and told me his story. ‘I trained as an actor. I received the classic Stanislavsky method acting training. My teacher used to say I can be both tragic and comic at the same time. It’s a rare gift.’ He broke off to quote a line from a famous Russian movie version of The Cherry Orchard, replicating the original perfectly. He paused, waiting for me to clap. ‘My breakdown came in 1994. I was starring in The Cherry Orchard, we were on tour in London – we were staying in a hotel at Seven Sisters. You know it? Nice area – and I just couldn’t take it any more, there were just too many roles. Too many me-s.’

‘You mean too many theatre roles?’

‘Oh no, that was fine. I’m a professional. Something else. For a while I’d been seeing visions, religious visions. I could see devils and angels on people’s shoulders. I could see serpents wrapping themselves around people as they spoke, their true souls. I could see the things others can’t. People’s auras, the colours round them … You’re looking at me like I’m crazy. I just have gifts. I had been interested in religion for a while. Yoga and shamanism. But I was finding my way to the true faith. I couldn’t be both an actor and a man of God.’

When he came back from London, Weitz gave up acting. He became more devout. But he still needed a job so a friend found him a position at a new political consultancy. Using the Stanislavsky method he started training politicians ‘to manipulate public consciousness’ with ‘verbal and non-verbal forms of influence’. ‘I applied the principles of method acting. First they had to decide where they were headed. What they wanted … Where are you headed, Peter?’ he suddenly asked.

I didn’t know.

‘You’re headed to death. We’re all headed to death. That’s the first thing I would make them realise … That’s the thing about us bikers. We live with death every day. We’re a death cult. We know where we’re going.’ Biking had been Weitz’s passion since his Soviet teens. The biking movement in the USSR had sprung up in the late 1980s, utterly anti-Soviet, pro-freedom, pro-Steppenwolf, and by association pro-American. In the 1990s and 2000s it remained a fringe subculture, though connected to biker gangs in Europe and beyond. The patriotic shift came late. The legend goes that Aleksandr Zaldostanov, the Surgeon, the Night Wolves’ leader, met a priest on the road who told him he needed to change his life, help save Holy Rus. Weitz helped give that impulse form. The Night Wolves are a top-down organisation: if the Surgeon and Weitz say they are now Orthodox, everyone follows suit.

But there may also be a pragmatic aspect to their new faith. In the 2000s international biker gangs began to consider spreading their influence in Russia. Most prominent among them were the Bandidos, who offered to make the Night Wolves their local chapter. The Night Wolves wanted to rule by themselves, and to keep their own bikers in line they needed their own creed. So they started to build up a nationalist siege mentality. They changed their insignia to Russian and began to spread stories that the Bandidos wanted to flood Russia with drugs. When the Three Roads, a small Russian biker gang with a dozen members who had always been loyal to the Night Wolves, joined the Bandidos, a group of Night Wolves descended on their base to strip them of their colours – a ritual humiliation. The Night Wolves were armed with chains and wrenches. They probably only wanted to scare the Three Roads, punish them for treachery, but one of the Three Roads panicked and shot a Night Wolf who later died in hospital. The man who shot him has been put away for life.

It’s hard to fathom how real the foreign threat to the Night Wolves is. There are thousands of Night Wolves and no more than a few dozen Bandidos in Russia. But to hear Weitz speak of it they are surrounded on all sides. ‘The Bandidos are the biker aspect of the American assault on Holy Rus. This is the last bastion of true religion. Stanislavsky used to say: “Either you are for art, or art is for you.” That is the difference between the West and Russia. You are imperialists, you think all art is for you and we think we are all for art. We give, you take. That is why we can have Stalin and God together. We can fit everything inside us, Ukrainians and Georgians and Germans, Estonians and Lithuanians. The West wipes out small peoples; inside Russia they flourish. You want everything to be like you. The West has been sending us its influencers of corruption. The kabbalah of the usurers. A Russian who is trained in a Western company starts to think differently: self-love is at the root of Western rationality. That is not our way. You have been sending us your consumer culture. I don’t think of Washington or London as being in charge. Satan commands them. That is why you want to bomb Syria, the homeland of holiness. The devil wants to take the road to Damascus, but Putin is defending it. You have to learn to see the holy war underneath the everyday. Democracy is a fallen state. To split “left” and “right” is to divide. In the kingdom of God there is only above and below. All is one. Which is why the Russian soul is holy. It can unite everything. Like in an icon. Stalin and God. Like everything you see here in the Night Wolves, we take bits of broken machinery and mould them together.’

He stopped for a moment. I must have been looking at him strangely, my goblet of tea held in mid-air. The switch from Stanislavsky to the kingdom of God had happened so smoothly that I didn’t have time to readjust my face. ‘Or at least I’m trying to piece everything together,’ Weitz said, more quietly. ‘It’s a work in progress. Maybe we won’t be able to manage it.’ A few years ago the Night Wolves came into contact with Vladislav Surkov, at that point the Kremlin’s head of ideology. At first they just wanted support for their patriotic bike shows. Surkov was enthusiastic. And so the great showmen in the Kremlin took up the Night Wolves and funded their mega-concerts, broadcasting them at prime time. The Night Wolves advise the president on matters of faith and Harleys, they are social-policy players, they make regular appearances on chat shows. Now that they have the Kremlin’s protection, no other biker gang would dream of challenging them.

The Kremlin needs the bikers, and movements like them. The things Russia’s dictatorship once depended on to give it an air of legitimacy – its cheerleaders and its fake opposition, the pro-Putin youth groups and tame political parties – no longer hold sway the way they did. Only 5 per cent of Russians think the government ‘very effective’. Putin’s popularity is at an all-time low: an approval rating of 60 per cent is high for a democracy but in a system built around one man it raises eyebrows. Apathy rules: only 30 per cent bothered to vote in the Moscow mayoral elections. The system needs new stars and the Night Wolves are just the type that’s wanted. Where until recently political players talked about ‘modernisation’ and ‘innovation’ the buzzwords are now ‘religion’, ‘traditionalism’, ‘Eurasia’, ‘God’. Among the new religious nationalists are the black-clad Union of Orthodox Banner-Bearers, who have burned Harry Potter books on the embankment by the Kremlin to protest against J.K. Rowling’s Satanism, and Dmitry Enteo, a wan-faced youth with a goatee, who has made speeches on TV about his plan to throw bricks at the windows of Western department stores. Even the Night Wolves think Enteo and the Banner Bearers clinically unwell.

And there is Maxim Martsinkevich, a neo-Nazi, now a star with his ‘Occupy Paedophilia’ project. Max and his friends go online and pretend to be underage gays looking for older men. They arrange dates. When the men arrive Max is there with a camera to make them admit they are paedophiles, force them to drink urine and suck on dildos. He then posts his candid camera stings online. The videos are ably shot and cut together; ‘Welcome, my little lovers of extremism,’ he says at the top of his segments. His YouTube channel is a massive hit and the advertising revenue impressive. Martsinkevich denies he is also sponsored by the Kremlin but he is obviously encouraged: he appears as a guest on Jerry Springer-like chat shows that you don’t get invited to without an official nod. People like Martsinkevich and the Night Wolves keep the TV spinning: oohs and aaahs about gays and God, Satan and paedophilia. They don’t reflect any actual popular movement: only 3 per cent of Russians regularly go to church; there is no Russian Tea Party, no Khomeini figure in the wings. Rather, the Kremlin has learned to fuse pop culture and authoritarianism to keep the 140 million-strong population entertained, distracted and constantly exposed to nightmarish threats which, if repeated often enough, become infectious.

In the Duma the familiar Kremlin-run pseudo-parties are threatened with being shut down. Their ratings are plummeting: in the Moscow elections the Liberal Democrats and A Just Russia could barely clear 3 per cent, despite the backing of the main TV channels. It’s every Duma deputy for himself. The challenge is to propose a law so flamboyant in its patriotic burlesque that it will get you noticed. Vitaly Milonov is now a celebrity thanks to his ‘anti-gay propaganda law’; Elena Mizulina performed beautifully with her proposal to ban ‘untraditional’ sex – for the next week the news was dominated by talk of oral sex and whether it would be made illegal. The point isn’t whether these laws ever get enacted: the point is to fill up the conversation. Evgeny Fedorov, a member of the ruling party, United Russia, explains that the Duma and the government are in the pay of the CIA and that Russia pays ‘Dane-geld’ to the US. Putin, Fedorov says, knows this but he can’t force a way out.

When you look through the careers of Milonov, Mizulina and Fedorov you find that, in some cases very recently, they were all once committed democrats and liberals, pro-Western, preaching modernisation and the importance of Russia’s European course. Their latest incarnations could be just a new get-up in the Moscow political masquerade. But something about their delivery makes them different from the usual Russian demagogue like Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who performs his rants with a knowing wink to show that it’s all a cabaret act. (His latest idea is to ban English words like ‘manager’ and ‘performance’ from the Russian language. There’s a little dig at Putin there, known as the ‘effective manager’. Zhirinovsky wants ‘manager’ to be replaced by the old Russian word for ‘stall-holder’.) The new Duma stars speak with utter seriousness in a dead-eyed monotone. Some members of the Duma seem to have been turned and twisted in so many ways by the Kremlin that they’ve spun themselves into something like insanity. (And then there is the rumour, repeated in hushed tones in the cafés round the Kremlin, that Putin himself has ‘lost touch with reality’. In Moscow’s palace culture if Putin has lost it then all the courtiers in the Duma must act deranged too, muttering sex-obsessed dirges to fit in.)

Corruption, too, is taking on mind-bending new forms – though ‘corruption’ is the wrong word, suggesting bungs or a bit of nepotism. The latest economic scheme is the ‘hyperproject’, massive financial undertakings which can act as vehicles for siphoning off large parts of the budget. The projected cost of next year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi has risen to $50 billion, making them $7 billion more expensive than the Beijing summer games, $36 billion more expensive than London, and five times more expensive than the next most expensive Winter Olympics. Some $30 billion are thought to have been ferretted away already. Each year $1.5 billion are spent on the development of Skolkovo, the gated Russian IT utopia that is meant to be the next Silicon Valley, though nothing has been built other than a ‘hypercube’ standing in an empty field. There is also a new ‘hyperbridge’ that swings between Vladivostok and Russky Island, a virtually uninhabited, roadless place: the economic benefits are almost zero, the opportunities for graft great. The next planned hyperproject is a tunnel between Russia and Japan. The USSR’s mega-projects made no macro-economic sense but fitted the hallucinations of the planned economy; the new hyperprojects make no macro-economic sense but are vehicles for the enrichment of those whose loyalty the Kremlin needs to reward fast.

The result of all this delirium (economic, cultural, ideological) is a curious sense of weightlessness. Words don’t seem to mean anything, the figures on budgets correspond to no reality. It’s like living inside one of Weitz’s monologues. The Russian protest movement, which has ebbed and flowed in little sobs and gasps over the last two years, has reached for a kind of straight talking that is found nowhere else. ‘Don’t Lie and Don’t Steal’ was the slogan for the anti-corruption campaigner turned politician Alexey Navalny’s bid last month to become Moscow’s mayor. It sounds priggish and matronly in English but in Russian ‘ne vrat i ne vorovat’, with its vibrating Vs and rolling Rs, sounds like an angry Old Testament growl (maybe ‘thou shalt not lie, thou shalt not steal’ is a better approximation). And the slogan struck home, capturing in five words the connection between intellectual and financial corruption, and the urge for something solid at a time of confusion.

The reason Navalny was allowed, indeed encouraged, to run was that the Kremlin is trying out a new version of its political system: ‘managed democracy’ is being replaced with something called ‘competition without change’. The mayor’s office claimed that the elections would be Russia’s first ‘honest elections’ (thus admitting that previous ones had been falsified). Navalny was not allowed on the all-important federal TV channels – and he still faced a five-year prison sentence, having been found guilty in July of ‘embezzlement’ – but there would be no blatant vote-rigging. It was a win-win situation for the Kremlin: Navalny’s presence on the ballot allowed Moscow’s incumbent mayor, the Putin appointee Sergey Sobyanin, to become the most ‘legitimate’ politician in Russia and so a potential – and very loyal – successor to his patron. The polls predicted that Navalny would get less than 20 per cent of the vote, Sobyanin more than 60 per cent. But there was a catch: Russian polls are based on many-layered formulae drawn on the results of more than a decade of falsified elections. In the first honest election they were disastrously wrong. Navalny got 28 per cent and Sobyanin barely cleared the 50 per cent needed to stop a second round. But he won, and the Kremlin has Navalny exactly where it wants him. As he spoke to the happy thousands after the results came in, all Navalny’s revolutionary rhetoric was toned down, along with the threats against Putin. Instead he spoke of becoming a ‘constructive opposition’ in the upcoming campaign for the municipal Duma. He’s playing the game now.

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