A charismatic showman with a penchant for provocative bombast, the motorcycle club's leader is perhaps Russia's most recognizable nationalist star. Over the past decade, he has transformed a once-underground biker gang into a self-styled vanguard of patriotic holy warriors, reportedly 5,000 strong, with close ties to the Kremlin. In the Russian media, he can regularly be heard trumpeting the country's greatness while warning that its enemies — America, Europe, homosexuals, liberals, traitorous "fifth columnists" — intend to undermine Mother Russia. He and the other Night Wolves often hold motorcycle rallies to promote Russian patriotism and Orthodox Christianity, making rumbling pilgrimages to churches and holy sites. He has vowed to defend the Kremlin from Maidan-inspired protesters and has pledged to die for Vladimir Putin, the country's president. He has famously declared that "wherever the Night Wolves are, that should be considered Russia." Recently, the club held a three-day anti-NATO rally in Slovakia. Lately, the Surgeon has taken to praising Stalin. ... The Surgeon and his Night Wolves have flourished in this nationalist ecosystem. The club has reportedly received more than $1 million in grants from the Kremlin to support patriotic performances like the Sevastopol bike show. On several occasions, Putin himself has famously mounted a three-wheel Harley and ridden alongside the Surgeon. In 2013, Putin awarded the Night Wolves' leader an Order of Honor for his "patriotic education of youth." In June, the Russian press announced a cosmonaut would carry the club's flag into space. ... the Surgeon tells me the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. had left him deeply embittered. "All the values were lost, everybody started kicking their history, spitting on their own granddads," he says. "All these pretenders I always hated — they painted themselves so quickly from Communists to capitalists." His disillusionment, he explains, led to a time of desert wandering, a search for answers. Eventually he identified those responsible: proponents of democracy, liberalism, Wall Street.
Petry, who is forty-one, with a pixie haircut and a trim, athletic build, frequently arrives late. She travels continually, often without any immediate electoral aim—the next federal elections won’t be till the second half of 2017—but simply to publicize the Party and herself. Like most German politicians today, Petry observes the national moratorium on charisma, but her appearances have the feel of a celebrity tour. Her audiences seem awed, unsure whether it is appropriate to take photographs. But, once someone starts, the room fills with the soft clicks of phone cameras. ... For decades, the German far right has been a limited force, with easily recognizable supporters—nicotine-stained ex-Nazis in the sixties and seventies, leather-clad skinheads in the eighties and nineties. Petry is something different, a disarmingly wholesome figure—a former businesswoman with a Ph.D. in chemistry and four children from her marriage to a Lutheran pastor. ... Petry is not a gifted orator. Her speeches tend to be dull, with ornate sentences and technocratic talking points, and she is more comfortable citing economic studies than discussing the lives of ordinary people. ... she often works by insinuation, fanning right-wing conspiracy theories not merely to stir up grievances but to bind members together with a sense of shared beliefs. ... Petry and her colleagues have mastered the art of dominating the news cycle, to the point where a visitor to Germany listening to the radio or reading the newspapers could be forgiven for thinking that the AfD is the party in power.