As Russia massed its military forces along the Ukrainian border in preparation to invade, close observers of the buildup noticed that the letter Z had been painted on many of the Russian military vehicles. While the marking was most likely used as a simple way to visually differentiate groups of Russian forces, the letter Z has since become a symbol of support in Russia for both the “special operation” — which is the term Russians are now required by law use for the invasion — and for Russian president Vladimir Putin. These displays of Z, which is a letter in the Latin, not Russian, alphabet, have been heavily promoted by Russian state media, used in propaganda videos, and spotted everywhere from Moscow Metro billboards to the windows of Russians’ cars to a Russian gymnast’s uniform. Below is a primer on the pro-war meme, where it’s been seen, and what it has come to mean.
What does the Z stand for?
The Russian military has never confirmed why the Z appeared on the vehicles of its invasion force. But according to military analysts, the most likely explanation is that the Z, along with several other symbols incorporating letters in use among Russian ground forces, is meant to identify which group of the invasion force the vehicles were from, as well as to prevent friendly fire, since the Ukrainian military uses some of the same military hardware.
Rob Lee, a Ph.D. candidate at the department of war studies at King’s College, London, who has been documenting the invasion, proposed that different variations of the symbol suggest “different task forces” within the Russian army. Other experts propose that the letter may stand for the word zapad, which means “west.”
The letter was eventually adopted by supporters of the Russian invasion, even if they didn’t know exactly what it meant. “I don’t know where this symbol came from,” nationalist activist Anton Demidov told The Wall Street Journal. “The symbol is not important. What’s important is what position it represents, and that is that we understand we need to back our president and our army in their difficult task.”
Where has the symbol spread?
As the colors of Ukraine’s blue-and-yellow flag have been taken up as an antiwar stance throughout the world, the letter Z has emerged in the former Soviet bloc as a sign of nationalist fervor and militancy. Russian-media analyst Vasily Gatov told the New York Times that the symbol “is definitely a state-induced meme” that has been artificially cultivated by state-sponsored propagandists. The Russian state-media organization RT has even gone so far as to market merchandise emblazoned with the letter.
The symbol has spread rapidly on social media as well, with some Russian companies subbing out their own logos for the Cyrillic version of the letter for their avatar. The Defense Ministry has posted the letter repeatedly on Instagram in support of Russian troops, and an image has been proliferating of the blue-and-yellow badges of dead Ukrainian soldiers placed together to make a Z.
Meanwhile, longtime Russia observers such as the New Yorker’s Masha Gessen have noted that the Z has quickly come to symbolize Russian hyperaggression, if not outright fascism. “Over the course of a few days, it had come to stand for loyalty, devotion to the state, murderous rage, and unchecked power,” writes Gessen.
The governor of the Western Siberian region of Kuzbass, Sergei Tsivilyov, announced that he was changing the spelling of the name of his region, to incorporate a capital Latin “Z” in the middle. In Yalta, which is in Russian-occupied Crimea, and in the Siberian city of Surgut, cars were photographed lining up to form the letter “Z.” In Crimea, a poster picturing a soldier in full combat gear, captioned with “The Russian soldier is a liberator” and the letter “Z,” went up. The letter “Z” and the tagline “#WeDontAbandonOurOwn” were seen on a multimedia display in the St. Petersburg metro. A Twitter user photographed a placard with the letter “Z” nailed to a post outside what he said was the Russian consulate in Sydney. At a children’s hospice in Kazan, the capital of the republic of Tatarstan, the patients and staff lined up in the shape of a “Z” in the snowy courtyard; they held flags of Russia, Tatarstan, and the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic in their left hands, and raised their right hands in a fist. … Someone spray-painted the “Z” on the apartment door of Rita Flores, a member of the protest art group Pussy Riot. On March 4th, police raided the offices of Memorial, a human-rights organization that the state has ordered to close. After eleven hours, they left the place in shambles—and with the letter “Z” scrawled in various places, including a flip chart on which someone had written, “Z. Memorial is over.”
What is the scandal involving the Russian gymnast?
At the FIG Artistic Gymnastics World Cup in Qatar on Saturday, Russian gymnast Ivan Kuliak wore a white Z made from tape on his white uniform during the medal ceremony for the parallel-bars event. As the bronze winner, the 20-year-old stood with this symbol of aggression next to gold medalist and Ukrainian athlete Illia Kovtun. The pair did not shake hands.
Following the incident, the International Gymnastics Federation announced an investigation into what it described as “shocking behaviour” from the Russian gymnast. As of Monday, all Russian and Belarusian gymnasts have been banned from its competitions, and Kuliak could face a personal ban as well.
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