Since July, 2010, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has evidently made a point of being seen with Russian biker buddies. Nicknamed “Abaddon” (one meaning is “destroyer” in Hebrew) when he was inducted into a biker club by the “high council of Russian bikers movements,” Putin publicly rides a Harley-Davidson Lehman Trike with his fellow club members in the “Night Wolves.” He rides helmetless, at least for the photo-ops.
This year, at the opening of a motorcycle show in the Ukraine, according to the website RiaNovosti, Putin said of motorcycles that, “Bike is the most democratic transport vehicle. Bike is the most-daring, challenging as it gives its owner the tempting feeling of freedom, that is why one can say without any exaggeration, bike is a symbol of freedom.”
Understandably, perhaps, what most political pundits concentrate on when trying to figure out Putin’s purposes with his trike-riding is the obvious connection of the bikers to the image of being a tough guy in an international arena populated primarily by non-tough guys. But a motorcyclist could easily take away something else from Putin’s displays, whether they’re carefully calculated political acting or not.
That something is the strikingly American imagery of the bikes (okay, the trikes) he rides and the outlaw-biker image cultivated by the clubs like the Russian “Night Wolves.” Even though video clips online clearly show that helmet-wearing riders also feature in Ukrainian and Russian moto-life, the power of the Hog-rider imagery is obviously being exploited—not, ostensibly, for its links to outlaw motorcycle clubs but for its presumed appeal internationally as an expression of individual freedom of choice. In this sense, it’s obviously also important to Putin to appear helmetless on the trike, again an appearance of real significance to a developed world in which riding without a helmet is verboten.
Putin closed his comments at the bike show by cautioning the attendees to “Say no to the mad ride,” according to RiaNovosti, presumably referring to the sort of “mad riding” shown to the world by the Russian rider who gave the world the YouTube video “Black Devil—Moscow Ride on R1,” now up to eight million-plus hits.
Non-riders might think that Putin’s bad-boy biker guise and his comments welding personal freedom of choice clash with his appeal to “ride safe,” but anyone who’s ever ridden a Harley-Davidson that’s not track-ready knows trying to emulate the Black Devil on a Hog is likely to experience radically different dynamics from those of BD’s Yamaha R1, to put it mildly.
No matter what Putin’s real purposes in showing up helmetless on a Harley, and no matter what Putin might do with power he might win or seize in the future, his choice of the motorcycle to embody personal freedom—and “democratic transport vehicle”—must bring a smile to many motorcyclists’ faces.