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Polish Outrage Over Pro-Putin Bikers' Victory Lap To Berlin

Aleksandr Zaldostanov, the leader of the Night Wolves biker group, takes part in a commemoration ceremony for soldiers killed during World War II memorial in Sevastopol, Crimea, in March.
Aleksandr Zaldostanov, the leader of the Night Wolves biker group, takes part in a commemoration ceremony for soldiers killed during World War II memorial in Sevastopol, Crimea, in March.

MOSCOW -- It is a sign of the tense times in Central Europe that the plans of a group of motorcycle enthusiasts to take a summer trip from Moscow to Berlin just might become an international incident.

The Russian Federation of Motorcycle Tourism has announced plans to make a tour to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, planning a grand arrival in the German capital on Victory Day, May 9. The bikers plan to pass through Belarus, Poland, Slovakia, Austria, and the Czech Republic, visiting war memorials, Holocaust memorials, and Soviet army cemeteries along the way.

"This action is not aimed at underscoring any political positions," event organizer Andrei Bobrovsky told RFE/RL's Russian Service. "It is aimed at developing the patriotic feelings of the participants and at attending various anniversary events."

Bobrovsky said he expects about 30-40 bikers to make the trip. He adds that participants either already have or have applied for visas for the ride.

But when they reach Poland, the Russians might find themselves vastly outnumbered by locals who are not particularly pleased to see them. As soon as the Russian plans made headlines in Europe, a Polish Facebook page appeared titled "Against the passage of bandits from Russia through Poland."

More than 8,000 people have signed their petition that "they should be forbidden from passing through EU states" and "they should not cross [the] Polish frontier." The activists are asking the authorities to prevent the bikers from entering Poland.

Night Wolves

Some of the participating bikers are members of the Night Wolves motorcycle club, which has close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin and has been active in support of Russia's annexation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea and of pro-Russian separatists fighting in eastern Ukraine. In the run-up to the Crimea annexation, the Night Wolves patrolled roads on the peninsula and seized Ukrainian arms depots. A recent documentary about those events produced for Russian state television also claimed the bikers captured at least one Ukrainian military officer.

"The main reason [for our opposition to this ride] is Russia's aggression in Ukraine," says Jarek Podworski, one of the creators of the Polish Facebook page. "The Night Wolves were one of the first groups to go to Crimea and agitate there for Putin. They also appeared in Donbas and are fighting there. They have members who are fighting against official Ukrainian forces."

Russian state media reported on the death of Night Wolves member Sergei Koptev near Luhansk in November 2014. And Putin famously rode with the group in 2011 when he was Russia's prime minister.

Ride organizer Bobrovsky is quick to point out that the Berlin trip is not a Night Wolves project, although it has been advertised on at least one of the club's websites. Night Wolves leader Aleksandr Zaldostanov, aka the Surgeon, however, told RFE/RL's Current Time television that the club is an "organizer" of the event.

Zaldostanov said he does not yet know whether he personally will make the trip. He has been placed under personal sanctions by the United States and Canada because of his role in the annexation of Crimea, but faces no restrictions in the European Union.

"That's why it seems strange that the most active opponents of this motorized march are, for instance, citizens of Poland," Zaldostanov said.

Organizer Bobrovsky says he is aware of the Polish reaction to the proposed trip and is considering reaching out to the organizers of the Facebook page.

"Naturally, we don't want any conflicts," he says. "We don't have any extremist intentions. Our purpose is very simple, historical -- to honor our forebears and, of course, to make it to Berlin by May 9."

Poland's Podworski says the situation is not nearly so simple. Poles remember how the Soviet Union and Hitler's Germany divided their country under the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. They remember Soviet atrocities such as the executions of thousands of Poles at Katyn forest during the Soviet wartime occupation. And they remember that the Red Army did not leave Poland after Nazi Germany was defeated.

"For the Poles, 50 years of Soviet occupation was a long time," he says. "Many people were murdered and many sent off to Siberia. For us, this trip through Polish territory is completely unacceptable. We hope they will be barred from entering Poland."

"If they are not, we will block roads and ask local authorities to make sure that everything is done strictly according to the law," Podworski adds.

The Polish government has not issued any statements on the matter.

Bobrovsky, however, is not fazed by the possibility of a confrontation.

"If we are met by hooligans, we will deal with them as hooligans," he says. "We aren't breaking any laws. We respect local customs and laws, so we won't allow any aggressive actions toward anyone. We have good intentions."

RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson contributed to this story from Prague
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    Mark Krutov

    Mark Krutov is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Russian Service and one of the leading investigative journalists in Russia. He has been instrumental in the production of dozens of in-depth reports, exposing corruption among Russia's political elite and revealing the murky operations behind Kremlin-led secret services. Krutov joined RFE/RL in 2003 and has extensive experience as both a correspondent and a TV host.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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