TOP DOGS IN NIGHT WOLVES: No messing with these guys - pack leader Surgeon (Alexander Zaldostanov, left) and a colleague chat at a meeting in Moscow. Image: AFP / Vasily Maximov
ANAIS LLOBET and MAXIME POPOV
MOSCOW, Russan - Roaring through Moscow after dark on their big bikes, hair long and wearing leathers, the Night Wolves could be Russia's answer to other nations' Hell's Angels, but these are riders with a cause and that cause is the Motherland
Alexander Benish, second-in-command of the powerful motorcycle club whose members Russian president Vladimir Putin calls "his brothers", said: "Our values are quite simple: love your country, have faith and don't use or sell drugs."
They may share a passion for the open road yet the Night Wolves -"Nochnye Volki" in Russian - totally reject the American biker label.
'VIOLENCE NOT OUR PHILOSOPHY'
Benish, 46 and a Wolf for two decades, explained: "The American biker lifestyle is anti-social. It's all about 'let's drink beer, break glasses, and if anyone has a problem with that, beat them up'.
"They think they are better than the rest of society and have a cult of violence. That's not our philosophy. We only use violence as a last resort.
GALLERY: Wolves on prowl in Moscow
The Wolves, founded in 1989 just before the fall of the Soviet Union, have since spread across Russia and the former Soviet bloc and grown to an estimated 5000 members - one of them Kremlin-backed strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, head of the Chechen Republic.
Their leader, a bearded 1.8m colossus who goes by the name of Khirurg ("The Surgeon"), has been seen riding in official parades alongside Putin, who has often praised the club's patriotic credentials.
VIDEO: Watch the Night Wolves on the prowl
"We consider ourselves part of the army of Russia," Khirurg (real name is Alexander Zaldostanov) told AFP while passers-by stopped to have a selfie in front of the club's motto: "Wherever we are, that is Russia". The gang's colours bear a burning wolf howling at a full moon
'MEMBERS MUST SHOW PATRIOTISM'
The club has no official status in Russia but its riders can be relied on to put on a show of patriotic strength wherever needed - such as in the Ukraine conflict. As in Crimea, where its members held a mass rally in support of that peninsula's annexation by Russia in March 2014, or in Lugansk in Ukraine's industrial east where they paraded in support of pro-Russian separatists
When they ride in convoy many carrry the flag of Novorossia, or "the New Russia", intended by eastern Ukrainian separatists to designate the rebel-held parts of the former Soviet state. "Love of country fortifies a man," said Benish. "It is essential that our members show their patriotism.
"That doesn't mean we believe Russians are the best. Everyone can be a patriot in their own country." The Night Wolves say they welcome members from across the former Soviet Union, regardless of their religious belief - and count Muslims in their ranks, alongside the Orthodox Christian majority. Its riders come from various social backgrounds, from car mechanics to businessmen - even a few monks.
50 BRANCHES ACROSS RUSSIA
"Everyone is free to join - except for women. 'No woman no cry'," joked Benish in a play on the Bob Marley song. "Years ago, when it was founded, the club was a kind of symbol of virility, of what it means to be a man."
Under a thick leafy canopy, 27-year-old Timur has parked his ride alongside five dozen others lined up outside an open-air bar on the outskirts of the Moscow. The club has about 50 branches spread across the former Soviet Union but for aspiring young members the journey begins here - in the wolf's den.
Timur, a young finance lecturer told AFP, beer in hand: "I hope to join them one day."
To become a Wolf, Timur will need to be invited by an existing member and take part in club events, from the high-profile mission to Crimea down to local street parades, for two years before being allowed to climb the grades - up to third, the highest.
Straying from the club's rules could see him knocked back a rank, or temporarily stripped of the right to wear the Wolves' insignia. Benish warned: "It's a pretty demanding atmosphere."
WISE WORDS OF SAINT AUGUSTINE...
The riders, alongside the tough-guy routine, also play what they see as a pastoral role, striving for "the moral and spiritual development of the young generation based on patriotism and traditions".
"The words of Saint Augustine could sum up the philosophy of the Night Wolves," said Benish, and quoted the words of that medieval theologian: 'In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity'."
Judging by the swarm of Muscovites pressing around "The Surgeon" for a picture or an autograph, the Night Wolves' popularity is in little doubt, despite the odd brawl - sometimes serious - involving his members.