The heavenly cause of Russia's 'Hells Angels'

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THE economy is not the only thing booming in Moscow these days - so too are the engines of thousands of motorcycles as the Russian capital sees an explosion in biker gangs.

From a minority pastime just a few years ago, biking has become big business, with one study showing numbers more than doubling annually.

Hoping to cash in, the United States manufacturer Harley Davidson has just opened its first Moscow dealership.

Russian manufacturers, after years in the doldrums, have brought out a new bike, named The Wolf after Moscow's premier biker outfit, the Night Wolves - Russia's equivalent to the Hells Angels.

At first glance the similarities with the West's motorcycle outlaws are glaring, right down to the chrome chopper handlebars, the leathers, long hair, beards, and the blonde girls riding pillion.

Then there is the attitude: hard stares greet you when you show up at their HQ, a fantastic bar and stage complex named Sexton on Moscow's outskirts. But their founder, The Surgeon, insists they are very different.

For one thing, the Wolves have religion. "We don't like the name Hells Angels, it has connotations of devil worship," he said. "The Night Wolves believe in Russia, we believe in Christianity."

While the Angels see themselves as outcasts, Russia's Wolves portray themselves as flag-bearers of ancient Russian traditions.

The Surgeon - his real name is Alexander - worked as a doctor in a Moscow hospital in the 1980s. Then he discovered biking.

When he started, it was one of the few outlets for those bored by the drabness of life in the former Soviet Union. "In those days the cops only had Ladas, so we could always outrun them," he said.

The coming of capitalism saw some changes, not least with the police, who were given US-built Chevrolets for pursuing the Wolves.

But the past few years have seen a renaissance in biking with a whole new breed of rebel: where once they were escaping monotony, now the bikers are searching for the community spirit lost in the country's rush for cash.

"Bourgeois individualism is accepted by Russian people," The Surgeon said. "The old Soviet Union lost some good things; there is too much individualism. Russia is thirsty for community. We have community."

But rather than reject capitalism, the Wolves are embracing it. A total of 23 chapters - the word is borrowed from the Hells Angels - have now opened around Russia and they have an English language website and sell their own merchandise, including T-shirts, leather jackets and hats with the branded Night Wolves logo.

Sexton is Moscow's most over-the-top bar. The Surgeon founded it, building the walls with giant pieces of machinery from ruined Soviet factories. The result is a cross between Blade Runner and a gothic castle, all dark corners, iron pipes, rusting turbines and what look like giant-sized bicycle chains.

After a while, the stares turn to smiles and you realise what it is that lures bikers to Sexton: it has the sort of comradeship you find in an army or a monastery - a comradeship so conspicuously absent among the rush-for-cash population in the rest of Moscow.

Muscovites do not regard the Wolves with the same contempt many Americans hold for the Angels, but then again, most are careful not to annoy them.

"We are not provocative but we don't avoid conflicts," says The Surgeon.

Playground for the Wolves is a stretch of highway that curves down from the gigantic Stalinist Moscow State University to the River Moscow.

Among the riders is Elena Borisova, 22, who works at the Moscow office of a western law firm.

She is petite, clad in black leathers, and nervous about showing off her bike - only a souped-up scooter. "It is all I can afford," she explains. "I want to get a Honda."