As guest lists go, Vladimir Putin picked an odd one for the inauguration which will – barring his death – see him surpass Joseph Stalin as Russia’s longest-serving modern leader.

As well as the usual political dignitaries, actor Ivan Okhlobystin was in attendance as was 90s American action star Steven Seagal, now a Russian citizen and the Kremlin’s special envoy to the U.S.

Then there was the leader of the Night Wolves bike gang, Alexander Zaldastanov.

Nicknamed The Surgeon, the 61-year-old has been described as Putin’s new right-hand man, even if not everyone is sure how to spell his name, even in Russia (according to the man himself it’s ЗалдАстанов or Zaldastanov but a 2013 Kremlin decree had it as ЗалдОстанов or Zaldostanov).

However you choose to spell his name, who is The Surgeon, and why is Putin such a fan?


Born in 1963 in what was then Kirovgrad in the Ukrainian SSR to a family of doctors, his nickname derives from his medical school background where he specialised in post-traumatic face surgery.

However, Zaldastanov admits he wasn’t the most dedicated surgeon, recounting how he’d spend his nights riding around on his bike and often being late for work.

“One day I came in and the chief physician and a party official were standing right there on the porch waiting,” he told Sobesednik in 2012. “They’d declared war on lateness, I had to climb up a fire escape to the fourth floor. This merry-go-round lasted for almost a month until one day a patient said to the chief physician: ‘why does your doctor climb through the window?’.”

Valdastanov was introduced to bike gang culture while working as a bouncer in West Berlin in the mid 1980s, but was admonished for his Hell’s Angels posters by his Russian Orthodox mother and a priest, deciding instead to create his own, Russian, gang.

The Night Wolves became the first motorcycle gang in the USSR in 1989, a time of major upheaval in the country. It was the era of glasnost (open-ness) where civil liberties were extended by Mikhail Gorbachev in an ultimately doomed attempt to hold the Soviet Union together, and chaos reigned.

The Herald: The president of bike-club Night Wolves Alexander Zaldostanov aka 'Surgeon', a well known pro-Kremlin activistThe president of bike-club Night Wolves Alexander Zaldostanov aka 'Surgeon', a well known pro-Kremlin activist (Image: Alexander Aksakov)

Valdastanov admitted: “Had I lived in a different time my life could have turned out differently, but in the late 1980s and early 1990s everything that was unshakeable collapsed and something completely different was born.”

The Night Wolves engaged in various acts of hooliganism, something its founder insists was “a form of protest” against the government of the day who he dismisses as having “considered the state a personal trough”. It has also been alleged that the bikers from the group were engaged in security services which were, let’s say, far from official though no criminal charges have ever been brought.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the group established Russia’s first rock club, Sexton, in Moscow in 1994 as well as holding the first organised motorcycle convoy in the city in the same year.

The Night Wolves began putting on annual shows and festivals and expanded to 33 Russian cities as well as having branches in Belarus, Ukraine, Latvia, Macedonia, Serbia, Bulgaria and Germany.

So far so biker gang – but why the connection to Putin?

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The first time Zaldastanov received a phone call from Russia’s president, he thought it was a joke. He told the caller where to go and put the phone down.

“A woman with an icy voice called back and said, ‘you seem to have misunderstood’,” he told The Telegraph in 2015.

Zaldastanov was in Sevastopol preparing for a bike show when he was told to fly back to Moscow immediately for a visit from the president and a televised interview. On arrival Putin handed him a Russian flag and said, “may it protect you on the road”.

The attraction for Putin is likely what would be described as the “traditional” values held by Zaldastanov, as well as his strident belief in Russia uniting behind a strong and powerful leader. The Night Wolves are tied to Russian Orthodox Christianity and describe themselves not as “bikers” but “Russian motorcyclists”. Women are not permitted to join.

The group has expressed hard-right views on gay people and the Jewish community, as well as other minorities, and advocates for a kind of pan-Slavic nationalism which would entail Russia re-conquering the former lands of the Soviet Union.

Those kind of sentiments may be a bit extreme for Putin to say in public but they align well with his Russian revivalist views. Valdastanov has also praised Joseph Stalin as “a supreme historical and mystical figure of whom Russia’s enemies are still afraid”. Putin is no communist, but revels in his image as the defender of the Motherland, a strong leader to restore the glory of the former Russian Empire and USSR.

Indeed, the President blames the communists for giving away Russian lands to the Soviet republics – when launching his invasion of Ukraine he said: “You want decommunisation? Very well, this suits us just fine – but why stop halfway? We are ready to show what real decommunisation would mean for Ukraine.”

Valdastanov thinks in a similar way, declaring that “the motherland (was) incompetently lost and divided by traitors… Russia and Ukraine are one country, no matter what politicians say”.

Finally, the Night Wolves serve a useful function in essentially being regime counter-culture. Russia expert Mark Galeotti wrote in 2015: “they occupy the cultural niche that the real outlaws would otherwise colonise, and deny it to groups that would be rather less congenial for the Kremlin”.


One thing that can be said about Putin is he looks after his friends. He’s ridden with the Night Wolves at their rallies – on a Harley Davidson trike – and the late opposition leader Alexei Navalny claimed the group had been given 56 million roubles in the space of just 18 months.

Zaldastanov himself has had a series of awards bestowed upon him by the Kremlin, including the Order of Honour “for active work on the patriotic education of young people”, a medal for “the liberation of Crimea and Sevastopol” for his public support of the annexation of those regions. He was a torchbearer at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, and members of the Night Wolves were personal guests of the president at a football match in Serbia in 2011.

In return, the gang forms part of the ‘anti-Maidan’ movement cracking down on protest, often through violent means. As Russian outlet MK put it: “everything looks above board… the authorities have nothing to do with it, it’s a societal initiative where ordinary lads, whose souls burn for Russia, have decided to protect their motherland from an adversary”.

Of course, if you ask Zaldastanov there’s no financial incentive involved: “Modern people’s thoughts are all about money… they don’t see anything else behind our friendship with Putin. But we don’t have to explain anything to anyone, it’s up to us to decide who to be friends with.”

Being friends with the President is certainly lucrative. That is, as Yevgeny Prigozhin found out, until you no longer are.