The Night Wolves isn’t just any motorcycle club; it’s the motorcycle club that’s shaping Russia’s foreign policy.
Late last month, after Poland banned the Night Wolves from riding across the country, Moscow summoned the Polish ambassador to inform her that the Kremlin was interpreting the denial of entry as a hostile act that will have consequences for which Poland will bear sole responsibility.
An official note from the Russian Foreign Ministry stated that Poland’s position was particularly egregious for two reasons: because it was an “insult to the memory of those who fell fighting against Nazism,” and because a couple of weeks earlier Russia had allowed Polish officials to enter the country to honor the site where Polish leaders had died in a 2010 plane crash.
Let me try to explain. The Night Wolves is a motorcycle club that has long had special ties to Vladimir V. Putin. The Russian president has repeatedly posed for photographs with club members and has given a medal to its leader — best known by his nickname, the Surgeon — who has campaigned for Mr. Putin. The Night Wolves is also widely known in Russia for its patriotic New Year’s parties for children. It is the semiofficial, macho, flamboyant, celebratory arm of the Russian government. The club has acknowledged receiving about a million dollars in federal funding over 18 months. The Surgeon has said that’s not enough.
One of the Night Wolves’ activities is the Moscow-Berlin Victory Ride, which the group first attempted last year, in honor of the 70th anniversary of the end of what Russia calls the Great Patriotic War and the rest of the world remembers as World War II. (Then, too, they had to bypass Poland.)
That the most direct route from Moscow to Berlin runs through Poland is not merely a matter of geography. In 1939, Hitler and Stalin divided the country between them in a secret protocol to the Hitler-Stalin pact. After taking possession of its share, the Soviet Union executed, arrested and deported hundreds of thousands of Polish citizens. Soviet terror reigned in eastern Poland for nearly two years before Hitler attacked the Soviet Union. According to Soviet and now Russian historiography, this was when the war began — and this is the main distinction between World War II and the Great Patriotic War.
For decades, the Soviet Union blamed German troops, who occupied the area starting in 1941, for the Katyn massacre In the 1990s, Russia began releasing information about the executions. It was a painful, two-steps-forward-one-step-back process, and Russia has never fully acknowledged Soviet culpability.
Then something shocking happened. In 2010, a plane carrying 96 members of the Polish elite set off for Russia to take part in a memorial service at the Katyn site — and crashed outside Smolensk, killing everyone on board, including President Lech Kaczynski and the entire army command. It was an accident, but how could the Poles have believed that? Many of them still don’t, and that inability or unwillingness is a key component of the strange turn Polish politics has taken.
The leader of Poland’s current ruling party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, is the twin brother of Lech Kaczynski. His party, Law and Justice, has capitalized heavily on conspiracy thinking about the plane crash. Since coming to power late last year, it has taken Poland sharply rightward. To much of the world Law and Justice looks like another European Putinite party, but to many Poles it looks like the ultimate anti-Putin party.
All of this memory, these politics and these politics of memory were at play when the Night Wolves were turned away at the Russian-Polish border last month. The riders were refused entry into Poland because of what they represent: Mr. Putin personally, denial of Soviet culpability for the Katyn massacre, denial of the Soviet occupation of Poland during World War II, never-ending heartache.
The Russian Foreign Ministry, in its outrage over the blockade and in pointing righteously to Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s recent visit to Russia to mark the anniversary of the plane crash, is profoundly tone-deaf. It appears to compare a Polish government delegation with a Russian motorcycle gang, a man grieving for his twin to a group commemorating a decades-old military triumph and a tragic accident to Nazi terror. But such is the cynical core of Russian propaganda: It turns everything into the moral equivalent of everything else.
Masha Gessen is the author, most recently, of The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy.