SOFIA -- They played a role in Russia's seizure of Crimea, preach an extremist brand of Russian nationalism, spew hate toward minorities and other "outsiders," and are chummy with Russian President Vladimir Putin whose government has reportedly showered them with millions of dollars of Russian taxpayer money for many years.
For their thuggish role in Crimea in 2014, when members set up road blocks and provided other support for the Moscow-orchestrated takeover of the Ukrainian peninsula, Russia's Night Wolves have been sanctioned by the West.
In July, top bikers, including leader Aleksandr Zadostanov, better known as "The Surgeon," were added to the EU's blacklist in the latest round of sanctions to punish Russia for its unprovoked, full invasion of Ukraine in February.
While the bikers are finding roads closed to them across Europe, it's not a dead end everywhere. Enthusiasts linked to the Russian gang can also be found in Bulgaria, which is both a member of the European Union and NATO but has traditional ties with Russia.
The Night Wolves in Bulgaria are highly visible, often posing for pictures with the Russian ambassador, herself a controversial figure who has faced calls to be sent packing for her agitating inside Bulgaria. The bikers often attend events organized by the Russian Embassy in Bulgaria. And the Bulgarian Orthodox Church has also given its blessings to the bikers.
Despite the group's pariah status across the EU, though, Bulgarian officialdom appears unconcerned, raising nary a protest, let alone any calls for them to hightail out.
The origins of the Night Wolves date back to the Soviet era, when in 1983 they became the first official bike club registered in the U.S.S.R., at the time largely involved in arranging illegal rock concerts in the Soviet Union. Besides Bulgaria, the Night Wolves are reported to have branches in Germany, Serbia, Romania, Australia, Slovakia, Belarus, the Philippines, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, and North Macedonia. In 2018, the Night Wolves were reported to have more than 5,000 members in Russia and elsewhere.
On paper at least, the Bulgarian bikers do not appear formally linked to the central Night Wolves branch in Russia, which has been slapped with Western sanctions. Many are members of other groups that have informal ties to their Russian leather-clad colleagues, although a few clubs use the Night Wolves name. An unidentified member of one of the local clubs told the Bulgarian news website 24 Chasa that they were told "from Moscow" not to talk to the media.
But the monitoring of messages from members of some of these Bulgarian clubs on social media indicates that ties with Russia are close, with missives often referring to them as "brothers."
The Kremlin-friendly Bulgarian bikers made their last public appearance in Bulgaria on August 21, when they had a photo-op at the Liberty Memorial, a 31-meter-high obelisk built to memorialize the famous battle of Shipka Pass, a turning point in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878.
That 19th century conflict paved the way for Bulgaria's liberation after five centuries of Ottoman rule, and to this day many Bulgarians feel historical gratitude for Russia's leading role in that struggle.
Among those gathered around the obelisk that day was controversial Russian Ambassador to Bulgaria Eleonora Mitrofanova, who was pictured in a crowd including what appeared to be Bulgarian Orthodox priests holding up a Russian flag. While a Bulgarian banner was obscured behind the small gathering of people, the Russian flag was prominently displayed in the foreground.
The event took place a day after official celebrations to commemorate the historic battle, with Mitrofanova noting on her Facebook page that the Russian Embassy had not been invited.
"These are our compatriots, Bulgarian bikers, representatives of the Night Wolves club, representatives of Bulgarian public organizations. This is very pleasant, especially in view of the fact that a day ago official events were held, to which we were not invited,"Mitrofanova wrote on the Russian Embassy's Facebook page.
A seasoned Russian diplomat, Mitrofanova was appointed as Moscow's ambassador to Bulgaria in January 2021. Her brief time spent in Bulgaria has been marked by controversy. On February 25, just a day after the start of the Russian war in Ukraine, Mitrofanova met with Nikolai Malinov, a former Bulgarian lawmaker and the head of a pro-Russian lobby group in Bulgaria. In 2019, Malinov traveled to Moscow to personally receive an award from President Vladimir Putin.
Mitrofanova has often used social media to insult the country, referring to Bulgarians as hospital "bedpans," accusing them of being lackeys of the West. The comment triggered outrage across Bulgaria and an official note was sent to the Russian Embassy demanding an apology and the offending social media posts be taken down -- neither of which the embassy did.
In March, Stefan Tafrov, a Bulgarian politician and a former ambassador to the UN, called on the Bulgarian government to expel Mitrofanova, saying that her actions and words contradict the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which, among other things, offers diplomats immunity from local law.
On June 28, Bulgaria expelled 70 Russian diplomats, an unprecedented move by Sofia, halving the size of Moscow's diplomatic corps in the Balkan country.
Weeks earlier, Mitrofanova and members of Bulgaria's Night Wolves were at the Monument to the Soviet Army in Sofia on May 9, the day Russia marks the Allied victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. Controversially, members of the Bulgarian bikers' club were tasked with upholding "security" at the event.
In 2017, the Bulgarian bikers joined the bona fide members of the Russian Night Wolves on their controversial journey across Europe to Berlin, timed to coincide with the anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany.
At the time, the president of the Sofia Night Wolves Club, Dencho Zlatanov, said, "Our aim is to follow the route of the Soviet Army, to honor the heroes who were killed and to demonstrate to youngsters that such a war existed."
A year earlier, during their "Slavic World 2016" sojourn across Europe, Russian Night Wolves bikers clashed with anti-Putin protesters in Burgas, a city on Bulgaria's Black Sea coast.
They have also been supportive of certain Bulgarian politicians. In 2017, the bikers attended the inauguration of Rumen Radev as president -- largely a ceremonial role in Bulgaria -- whom they called "our president."
Radev, who won a second presidential term in November 2021 with the backing of the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), is viewed as a Kremlin-friendly politician, whose labeling of the Crimean Peninsula as "Russian" at the time of the election triggered "deep concerns" in Washington.
Crosses, icons, and Orthodox symbols are brought in abundance to events organized by the Night Wolves. Regardless of the ideology they propagate, they are in the good graces of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.
The church has heaped praise on the bikers in social media posts, praising them as "an example of fraternal friendship, unity, and mutual help."
The bikers also received an Orthodox icon from Simeon Nikolov Dimitrov, the head of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, at a ceremony on July 16, according to a posting on Facebook.
RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service tried but failed to get comment from the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. Efforts to reach the Bulgarian Night Wolves were also unsuccessful.
In Russia, the Night Wolves have been used as a tool of the Kremlin. Leader Zadostanov was given a medal by Putin for the bikers' role in Crimea in 2014. The group has also reportedly received Kremlin financing in the past. The jailed opposition politician Aleksei Navalny published a report in 2015 showing the Night Wolves had received more than $1 million in taxpayer-funded state grants in recent years.
The bikers have used those funds to stage over-the-top patriotic events liketheir pyrotechnic-filled take on the Ukraine conflictin 2014 in front of a crowd of some 100,000 in the Crimean port city of Sevastopol.