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.
Putin, who is expected to make a major policy speech before both houses of parliament in Crimea on Thursday, skipped this year's rally, but the Night Wolves still enjoy his patronage.
Bikers drove thousands of miles from all over Russia to attend, waving Russian flags and the flag of Sevastopol.
Because the Night Wolves are all about family values, the show kicked off with some happy child-rearing mothers.
Zaldostanov read mystical poetry in praise of Stalin from a place in the rafters.
Suddenly, air-raid sirens shattered their domestic idyll. What could it be?
What's that stirring under the tarpaulin?
Why are random clips from speeches by Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, and Adolf Hitler playing over the speakers, interspersed with Ukrainian nationalist chants? Could it be...
Nazis! Russia-hating fascist Ukrainian junta Nazis!
Blood-spitting motocross drummer Nazis!
Controlled by giant cigar-wielding American capitalist hands!
Blowing up Ukraine!
Fighting riot police!
Setting them on fire!
Then Zaldostanov read a poem about how they were actually Western puppet Nazis.
There was a brief industrial ska-metal musical interlude. "Tell me, Ukraine, how many thousands of euros did you sell Kievan Rus' for today?!"
Two Ukrainian armored personnel carriers appeared, representing Kiev's "anti-terrorist operation" against militants in the east.
After a brief gunfight, rebels waving flags of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk People's Republics seized the APCs.
Then the drummers reappeared as Russian sailors in front of an Illuminati-style temple to the almighty dollar.
(There was, in case you're wondering, an actual bike show at one point as well.)
Then a giant war memorial rose into the sky to the strains of more mystical poetry and the Russian Black Sea Fleet choir.
They sang the Soviet national anthem while a giant Soviet coat-of-arms with an imperial Russian eagle in place of the hammer and sickle went up.
Welcome back to Russia, Crimea!
After the finale, Zaldostanov read out a special message from Putin to the bikers.
The next evening, Zaldostanov gave Steven Seagal — who also hangs out with Putin — a trophy of a Russian warrior and a Putin T-shirt after the direct-to-video action star played a few songs with his blues band.
Many Twitter users noted the show's resemblance to Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstahl's infamous 1935 propaganda film about a Nazi rally, after state TV posted a photo of the swastika.
The whole show can be viewed here.
Max Seddon is a correspondent for BuzzFeed World based in Berlin. He has reported from Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and across the ex-Soviet Union and Europe. His secure PGP fingerprint is 6642 80FB 4059 E3F7 BEBE 94A5 242A E424 92E0 7B71
Contact Max Seddon at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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