An ultra-nationalist, pro-Kremlin Russian biker gang known as the Night Wolves raised hackles across Europe when it laid plans for a continental tour commemorating the Red Army’s victory in World War II. The ride sparked particular ire in the first European Union country on the route: Poland, where historically anti-Russian sentiment runs strong.
The Night Wolves left Moscow on April 25, but their trip came to an abrupt halt two days later, when Polish border guards turned a group of them away, denying them entry into the country.
Alexander Zoldastanov, the Night Wolves’ hirsute, tattooed leader, is a national celebrity in Russia and reportedly a friend to president Vladimir Putin, who has used his association with the gang to beef up his tough-guy image.
The group has supported the Russian annexation of Crimea, patrolling the streets and declaring “wherever the Night Wolves are, that should be considered Russia.” This has earned them sanctions from the United States. Such proclamations also strike a nerve in Poland, where the Red Army was an occupying force during World War II.
The Night Wolves have dominated news cycles in Poland for weeks, with a strong social media outcry calling to ban the “bandits” from crossing the border, and the prime minister calling the endeavor a “provocation.” “We won’t let them enter into Poland. This is about symbolic violence, which leads to actual violence,” Polish politician Paweł Kowal told the TV station TVN24. On April 24, the Polish foreign ministry sent a diplomatic note to the Russian government announcing the group would be refused entry into the country for procedural reasons.
Despite the ban, members of the Night Wolves tried to cross the Polish border in small groups. Ten members were stopped by border control in Brest, Belarus, and, after intensive questioning, were denied entry. “They are checking everything–every shirt, every key, every screwdriver,” the ride’s commander told Russian media.
The ride was supposed to take the gang from Moscow through Belarus, two Polish cities, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria, and Germany, ending in Berlin.
Authorities in Germany echoed the Polish government’s decision.
“There’s nothing illegal about it by itself,” German foreign ministry spokesman Martin Schaefer told Reuters. “We deeply treasure freedom of speech and freedom of assembly in Germany. But we’ve decided that some of the leaders in the Night Wolves are not pursuing legitimate aims with these plans.” He added that the Night Wolves’ support for the annexation of Crimea was “proof of that.”
The bikers declared they would continue their ride through Europe, seeking out alternative routes. In Poland, the leader of a fellow biker group that was waiting to escort the Night Wolves through the country called the outcry an example of “anti-Russian hysteria.” The group said it would ride along the original route if the Russians wouldn’t be able to make it.