Are Russia’s Bikers the New Cossacks?

For hundreds of years, the Russian Cossack troops defended and expanded the Russian empire.  Part regular guards, part terror troops, part horsemen marauders, they were an important weapon in the arsenal of defense and enforcement, even if many of the ethnic Cossacks were the victims rather than the instruments of Russian oppression.  The Cossacks were the troops that stopped waves of Tatar invasions, harried Napoleon’s troops, and helped make Stalingrad a living hell for the Germans.  They were both outsiders and central to power.

 22._Kozak_z_golovoju_tatarina[1]Cossack with the head of a Tatar

This week, the Night Wolves, a Russian outlaw motorcycle gang who also happen to be Vladimir Putin’s riding buddies, have entered the Crimea and participated in the takeover of the peninsula.  This shows A: that anything that can possibly happen is happening in this increasingly chaotic situation, and B: that is it still possible for a group to be anarchically outlaw and ultranationalist.

 Night wolves

Night Wolves leader Alexsander “The Surgeon” Zaldostanov

This has the bizarre feeling of an emperor sending his personal guard who are above the law into an unruly quarter of his empire.  It is indeed a darkly clever move to utilize existing outlaw biker rage against his enemies, to turn a problem into a tool of the state.  Of course, it is unclear how much the Night Wolves are acting on their own or under orders.  The evolution from criminal gang to irregular troops to inner circle seems bizarre but is not unprecedented and certainly not beyond the pale for Putin.

It is unlikely that a handful of outlaws will prove decisive in what looks like it may quickly become a shooting war.  But this is psychological, too.

Small towns may fear an incoming horde of bikers just as they would fear the horsemen 500 years ago, and that fear is many times worse when they have the imprimatur of the state.  Anarchistic destruction is bad enough without a petty tyrant behind it.