Lugansk, Ukraine: Dressed in leathers and camouflage, motorbike gang leader Vitali waves at two charred Ukrainian tank turrets decorating the entrance to his club as he recounts how his group has fought alongside pro-Russian rebels.
“My love for my homeland, for my territory, is my life,” he explains as he stands outside his headquarters in separatist bastion Lugansk.
The biker — also known by his nickname “Prosecutor” — is boss of the east Ukraine branch of the Night Wolves motorcycle gang, a collection of Kremlin-loving toughs originally created in Russia. The group boasts close ties to President Vladimir Putin.
“I’m a Night Wolf, not a rebel,” claims the 35-year-old former soldier.
“I’m just defending my homeland”, he adds, explaining that his men often work “behind enemy lines”.
The leader and a dozen other members of the eastern Ukrainian offshoot of the club have been fighting with the separatists since the conflict with Kiev forces erupted nearly one year ago.
Vitali says the shattered tanks were destroyed by his men during a battle with government troops in Khryashchuvate, a village close to Lugansk that now lies largely in ruins.
“Our trophies!” he jokes.
Most of the club members — united by their passion for motorcycles, their love of the “Fatherland” and the Orthodox faith — hail from the Donbass region in Ukraine’s east.
But others have been drawn to the area from Russia and other former Soviet states to defend what they call “the Russian world”.
“Wherever there are difficulties, we are the first to appear. This was the case in the Crimea,” explains Oleg “Golova”, who travelled from his native Belarus to the peninsula shortly before it was annexed by Russia last March.
“Everything could have exploded just as quickly and just as tragically as in the Donbass,” he adds. “We were the first defenders of the Crimea, even President Putin recognised that.”
The Kremlin strongman has not been shy of showing his support for the biker gang, having previously lauded their patriotism and ridden with them on a Harley-Davidson.
He is often photographed alongside its founder and leader in Russia, Alexander Zaldostanov, who goes by the nickname of “Khirurg” (the surgeon). Last week, they both spoke on stage at a rally in Moscow celebrating Crimea’s annexation.
“We were fighting here when there were no rebel forces. From Khryashchuvate to Novosvitlivka, to Lugansk airport. We were fighting practically with sticks!” says Roman “Volk”, or the wolf, the man in charge of the club’s military operations.
Three Night Wolves have died since the beginning of the conflict with the Ukrainian army, they say. Their portraits now adorn the club’s common room, surrounded by a wolf skin and icons.
With February’s Minsk truce generally holding, the bikers have been tasked with providing safety for public events organised by the rebels and with distributing humanitarian aid.
But in the club’s sleeping quarters, Kalashnikovs still sit at the end of members’ beds.
“We are ready for anything. We do not believe in the ceasefire,” says Vitali, a dagger at his hip.
Close to the common room, a gym has been transformed into a hangar, where around 20 motorcycles and classic cars are surrounded by Russian flags.
The collection includes vehicles from the bomb-destroyed Lugansk car museum, taken by the Wolves to protect them from looters.
Following the example of its Russian branches, the club aims to promote the “patriotic education of society and youth” by organising and financing various projects “to unite the Russian world”.
“The Soviet Union collapsed and the Soviet identity disappeared, but the people remained united by the Russian identity,” says Oleg “Golova”.
“Being Russian is not a nationality, it is a state of mind,” he adds, pointing to a large metal emblem created by the gang’s leader Khirurg, which he says represents the “best of Russian history”.
It combines the double-headed eagle, a Tsarist symbol readopted by modern Russia, and the wheatsheaf beneath a red star from the Soviet crest.
This standard is destined to one day look down on all cities forming the “Russian world”, according to the biker.
The one stored in the hangar is set for Lugansk.