As the war in Ukraine continues, support for President Vladimir Putin’s actions within Russia has started to appear in an unusual symbolic form — the letter Z of the Roman alphabet.
The Zs that started to appear first as large signs painted in white on Russian tanks and military vehicles as they prepared to roll into Ukraine, have since become a graphic rallying point of the invasion.
Politicians, influencers and others have been seen wearing the letter on clothes and as badges, and putting Z stickers on vehicles. People have been painting giant Z signs on roads, billboards and building facades, and holding up signs with Z on them. Funeral vans in Russia have been emblazoned with the letter.
In a picture that has been circulated widely on the Internet, children suffering from cancer are seen lining up to create a Z sign against a snowy backdrop. The letter has often appeared on the Internet along with the hashtag #СвоихНеБросаем, meaning “We don’t abandon our own”.
At the Apparatus World Cup in Doha, Qatar, last week, Russian gymnast Ivan Kuliak wore a Z sign on his costume as he stood on the podium for his bronze medal next to Ukraine’s Illia Kovtun, who had won gold. “…One talk show pundit recently appeared wearing a T-shirt with a large white Z on it. Some corporate logos and newspaper names that contained a Z manipulated the letter to highlight it. An advertising campaign using billboards in large cities featured a large Z created out of a black and orange ribbon, the St. George ribbon, which is a symbol of the Russian military,” The New York Times reported.
The letter has been used to intimidate
Rita Flores, a member of Pussy Riot, a Moscow-based feminist punk rock and performance art group, left Russia last year due to state intimidation. On March 5, a large Z was spray-painted on the door of her home in Moscow, along with the message, “We will end this war”. The dissident Russian film critic Anton Dolin, who fled to Riga, Latvia, after receiving death threats following his opposition to the war, has also had his door vandalised with a Z sign.
What does the symbol mean?
The Art Newspaper has reported that the Russian Ministry of Defence explained on Instagram that the “Z” represents a number of slogans that begin with the Russian word “for” (Za): “For Victory”; “For Peace”; as well as other phrases starting with the letter “Z”, including a correctly spelled version of what was painted on Rita Flores’s door, “We are ending this war”, and #ZAPATSANOV (#FORTHEBOYS).
Sergiy Kyslytsya, Ukraine’s ambassador to the United Nations, however, compared it to a Nazi symbol.
Kyslytsya tweeted that “in Sachsenhausen in 1942 an extermination unit was built. SS cynically named it “Station Z”. “Z” is a letter Russia is putting on their vehicles departing to Ukraine. Some interpret “Z” as “Zapad” (West). I would insist it is “Z” for “Zveri” (beasts).”
In Sachsenhausen in 1942 an extermination unit was built. SS cynically named it “Station Z”. “Z” is a letter Russia is putting on their vehicles departing to Ukraine. Some interpret “Z” as as “Zapad” (West). I would insist it is “Z” for “Zveri” (beasts). https://t.co/R4rxYHd02C
— Sergiy Kyslytsya (@SergiyKyslytsya) March 8, 2022
The Russian ambassador to the UN, Vasily Nebenzya, responded on March 8, saying, “We have our opinion about who the animals are.”
Symbols are powerful identifiers.
This is especially true in war zones, where organisations such as the Red Cross have to carry out essential work. “The US Army vehicles used to repulse the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait were painted with a big white chevron,” said The New York Times article.
The report quoted Vasily Gatov, a Russian-American media analyst based in Boston: “This is definitely a state-induced meme. There are always people receptive to this kind of message.”
Two weeks into the war, the symbol has percolated into civilian life and become a style statement. Young people in a flash mob wore it and a group of Russian nationalists in Leningrad posted pictures of themselves with the national flag and their Z badges.
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Entrepreneur and activist Maria Butina, a member of the Duma, has posted a video in which she takes off her jacket, writes a Z on the lapel and wears it again. She signs off with a message to the Russian forces in Ukraine: “We will always support you.”