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KIEV, Ukraine — They had driven hundreds, sometimes thousands, of miles from all across Russia, through mountains, steppe, and taiga, to the biker rally in the Crimean naval redoubt of Sevastopol.
Around 100,000 fans cheered as they rolled into the arena wearing black leather jackets, camouflage fatigues, and a Russian admiral’s uniform, flying flags of pro-Russian rebel groups in eastern Ukraine from their motorcycles.
A red Soviet star lit up the night sky beside an active duty Russian battleship. A heavy metal anthem vowing to reestablish Moscow’s rule in Sevastopol played over the loudspeaker.
“We won’t give up our cities,” it sang. “We’re united by our blood and our faith.”
Long considered an amusing, if slightly troubling, carnival sideshow to Russian politics, the Night Wolves are a motorcycle gang known for their outlandish historical reconstructions and fervent devotion to President Vladimir Putin. Their latest show struck a defiant chord for a new breed of Russian nationalism over the weekend, with a grandiose, neo-Soviet spectacle that was the starkest, strangest illustration yet of the Kremlin’s ideological hardening over the Ukraine crisis.
Part Hell’s Angels performing circus, part Mad Max-style militaristic display of power, the rally pitted goosestepping, torch-wielding Nazis against motocross riders performing acrobatic stunts to the heavy metal strains of Metallica and Ronnie James Dio.
Broadcast live on state television and held with Putin’s personal seal of approval, the event’s 80 actors, 30 pyrotechnicians, and 5,000 bikers staged a reenactment of the Ukrainian conflict that glorified the Moscow-backed rebels and portrayed the pro-Western government in Kiev as Nazi puppets of the perfidious capitalist West.
The sentiments expressed were not entirely new. For months, Russian officials and state TV news anchors have repeated ad nauseam claims that the Western-backed government that took power in Kiev after protests overthrew a pro-Russian president in February is under the thumb of a fascist vanguard hell-bent on persecuting Russians.
The Night Wolves, for their part, have long gathered at political hotspots to promote pan-Slavic values and Russian nationalism, and claim a special resonance with Sevastopol, which is home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet and saw some of the fiercest fighting on the eastern front in World War II. Their 2012 rally, which Putin attended, was dedicated to recognizing it as a Russian city; this year they toured the peninsula after Russian special forces seized it. They are also fond of historical reenactments: last year’s rally was dedicated to the anniversary of the battle of Stalingrad.
The sheer scale and pomp of the biker rally, however, showed the Kremlin has no intention of backing down over Ukraine as fears of a Russian military intervention in the east rise.