Russia's Coolest Christianages
This post first appeared on Russia Insider
What defines “cool” in today’s culture? Recently I watched a talk show in which celebrity pundits were debating why it is not “cool” to be a Christian in the West. They described the contempt and ridicule they encounter when they open up and share their experience of faith and church attendance. My recognition of this is vivid, as I am a Christian writer and participate in the public debate. Western Christians experience growing intellectual and psychological persecution. This is a paradox in countries that boast of their freedom of speech. However, fear of social marginalisation means that many no longer dare speak openly of their faith in God.
Christians in the Soviet Union felt the same fear. They were kept out of influence and high office, and faith was considered a mental disorder. It is no longer the case, quite the contrary. Modern Russia sees it as cool to be a Christian.
While Christians are denigrated in the West, Christian lighthouses arise in Russian culture as new moral and spiritual navigation beacons.
One of the most remarkable of these beacons is the leader of the Night Wolves, Russia’s biggest motor bike club. His name is Alexander Zaldostanov, nicknamed “Khirurg”, or “Surgeon” in English.
Western media do not depict him as a saint, but as a sinner of the Dirty Dozen variety. They demonise him for his close relationship with President Putin. The Night Wolves are depicted as “Putin’s Hells Angels”, because Putin has visited the club in western Moscow on several occasions, and rode next to Khirug, albeit on a tri-wheeler Harley Davidson, at a Sevastopol bike show in 2010. In addition, Putin awarded Zaldostanov the prestigious Order of Honour medal for his “active work on the patriotic education of youth” and for his efforts to preserve the memory of the fallen in the Great Patriotic War, or Second World War, as it is known in the West.
In connection with the 70th anniversary of the Russian liberation of Berlin, Western media once again heaped negative spin on the Night Wolves:
The 5,000-strong Night Wolves gang made international headlines last month as dozens of its bikers attempted to follow the 3,700-mile path of the Red Army across Eastern Europe to Berlin to mark the 70th anniversary of Russia’s victory in what is known as the Great Patriotic War. The vast majority of the bikers, many with Soviet flags tied to their bikes, were forced to tu rn back after they were refused entry into Poland and Lithuania.
Western negative and simplistic demonization is intended to hide a completely different reality. The Night Wolves are no mere bad boy bikers. Alexander Zaldostanov is actually one of Russia’s foremost Christian activists.
Christianity was certainly not the starting point. Since 1989, Khirug has been the leader of Moscow-based Night Wolves, a motor bike club. Initially the club merely copied its Western counterparts. Khirug wanted to be cool and ride a motorcycle to demonstrate his resistance to Communism. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the Night Wolves started engaging in social activism to serve its community, especially among young people. They received much recognition ad commendation for this work. In recent years, the identity of the club has developed a strong Christian element. Its core concept is now Russkij Put, the Russian Way, which aims to apply the motorbike subculture to reviving traditions, spirituality and patriotism in Russian society. Being a night wolf does not mean indulging in sex, drugs and rock’n roll. Instead, it means developing new forms and methods aiming to apply traditional Christian and spiritual values in combination with the activities appropriate to being a Russian motor cyclist. This includes organising several annual pilgrimages. Khirug developed from merely “cool” to Christian, and then to what he is now: a cool Christian.
Western media’s inability to moderating their demonization of Khirug and the Night Wolves as Putin’s Hells Angels testifies not only to the implosion of Western conceptual ability to understand personalities such as Surgeon, but also the fact that he is victimised by the same type of character assassination as the pundits on the talk show merely because he is a Christian. In addition, liberal democracy wages outright war on Christian values, be they conservative or Orthodox. However, the Night Wolves fight back.
One Friday night in January 2016, I had been invited to attend the club’s popular new year’s celebration for children at their headquarters in western Moscow. At the entrance, I saw a big cross. In front of it stood the figure of a black, dangerous-looking wolf with bared teeth. It guards the cross and the entrance to the club.
Night Wolves is a man’s world. Heaps of metal welded into highly imaginative motorcycles adorned with steely animal heads. Together with trucks, mobile cranes and colorful spotlights, they make up the setting of a highly professional hi-tech show. However, as a woman I did not feel out of place. Inside the club, crosses are set up in various places, and the restaurant, which resembles a theme park of fantasy, is adorned with beautiful images of Orthodox churches. The prominence of traditional Christian faith makes the whole difference. This remarkable combination of masculinity, raw strength, metal and Christian faith resembles nothing I have ever seen in the West. Yet visiting the Night Wolves reminds me how much I miss this combination. Western culture has been sucked dry of men who will protect and defend Christian values. Men who dare to stand up to the spirit that suppresses Christians in the West and elsewhere. Spiritual warriors. Men who are able and willing to defend me and defend my faith.
My expectations of muscular display are not disappointed. The show starts with a legendary figure from Russian folklore stepping on to the stage and declaring the importance of prayer when encountering the threatening forces of evil.
The narrative framework is a touching fairy tale, in which a young girl, Snegurochka (Snow Maiden, the indispensable character in Russian New year’s mythology) is saved by the glorious Grey Wolf, which represents the combination of traditional Russian masculinity and the good forces of nature.
Christian Russia - Holy Rus - more a spiritual concept than a geographical entity, is under attack. The enemy is not merely political, it is spiritual.
“The forces of evil include such anti-Christian figures as greedy capitalists, seductive addicts of fashion, banal pop-singers and scheming foreign strategists. All of them very familiar to observers of NGO activities in Ukraine and Russia financed by various foreign agencies and billionaires, fomenting the 2014 regime change in Kiev and the on-going atrocities in eastern Ukraine. Add to these figures the foreign-controlled liberal mainstream media in Russia.”
The show makes many references to Christianity, morals and ethics. The good forces put their efforts into lighting and feeding the fire, the evil forces endeavour to extinguish its light and warmth. The sword that defends and saves Russia plays a key role. The sword represents the Word of God. The choreography also displays Jesus and the twelve disciples celebrating the Last Supper. They represent twelve Russian hero cities and Holy Rus.
The wolves, usually an aggressive predator, represent the forces of good. They speak of winning through love, friendship and hope. They speak of the lies oppressing their people. The wolves find their strength in loyalty to truth. They represent the good power that fights for Russia.
The ambassadors of freedom, Western diplomats, enter the stage driving in tanks and appear dressed in sheep’s clothing. The freedom they offer is false and deceptive. The wolves appear grim, but inside they are lambs that fight for goodness and truth. The message is that goodness requires a strong fist. Russia may seem brutal and blunt, but Russia is also romantic and touching. Truth requires masculine defence. Truth does not aim to kill and wage war under religious pretences. Truth is concerned with striking the table to keep evil, demonic forces away.
Although several of the evil figures clearly represent the West, the show does not have a xenophobic character, as destructive and corrupt forces of Russian society are similarly exposed and denounced. The core message is the struggle to build a Christian world and fight against the forces of the Anti-Christ, one of spiritual warfare.
Children do not find it boring because Surgeon’s New Year bike show is a mixture of hard rock music, motorcycle acrobatics and a spectacular light show. Boys are entertained by the breath-taking flights of the motorbike-riders, girls are usually attracted to the multi-colored costumes of the characters, and the whole audience are impressed by all kinds of mechanical structures created by the hands of the club’s members: crocodile-like cars, dragon-like trucks with fireworks displays and modern-style folk dances. Surgeon attracts a young audience and speaks a language young people understand. Yet the show differs in its aim from ordinary Western entertainment. The show teaches children that it is cool to be a Christian, and that Christianity is the only power to overcome evil.
An encounter with Surgeon
After the show, I met Surgeon in the club restaurant, The Sexton, the same name as the club in Berlin where Surgeon worked in the 1980s.
He is wearing the usual outfit – the black fatigues of a motorcycle rider: jeans, leather jacket and boots, and a black woollen cap. Round his neck he wears a thick metal chain with the Night Wolves’ emblem. He always wears a small Orthodox Christian cross hidden behind the black T-shirt.
Yet Surgeon does not look like your typical Orthodox churchgoer or like a typical Orthodox parishioner. He is an image of the Russian version of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart.
Although “Surgeon” intentionally avoids using the word “knight” to describe himself, he still resembles a knight to me. Medieval Russia had no knights and castles, it just had “princes” (equestrians with bands of armed men), who were invited by towns and villages for protection.
Surgeon tells me that in 2006 the Russian Night Wolves decided to adhere to the Russian and Orthodox Christian tradition, and they have stuck to this decision ever since.
“Our show is Christian, and there is an element of mysticism in it, even though we are referring to factual history – Russia’s survival and victory in the struggle against Nazism in 1940s,” Surgeon explains. “I find an element of Christian symbolism in the fact that there are 12 cities that personify heroic values in Russia - cities that suffered most during the war of 1941-1945. This equals the number of Christ’s disciples, with one of them - Judas among the disciples and Kiev among the city-heroes – betraying good at the end.”
“The gist is this: the forces of good, the forces of Christ win,” Surgeon explains. “It is this victory - not the fireworks - that is most important. Ultimately, all of our lives will end with something very different from fireworks.”
This post first appeared on Russia Insider
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