The origins of the pro-Russia ‘Z’ symbol are unclear. Its power is still very real. – Grid News

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The origins of the pro-Russia ‘Z’ symbol are unclear. Its power is still very real.

In the days before Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, spectators on social media began noticing the letter “Z” painted upon Russian tanks and trucks assembling at the border.

The symbol has come to represent Russian nationalism in the two weeks that Russia has staged an all-out war against Ukraine. It is now printed on merchandise for sale in Russian gift shops, posted in memes on official Russian social media channels, and has popped up at pro-Russia protests elsewhere.

Its rapid explosion allows it to stand for a variety of Russian nationalist sentiments, from the fervently patriotic to the violently militaristic, allowing pro-Russian propagandists to build a sense of unity during a war entirely predicated on a false premise of targeted liberation.

“I don’t know where this symbol came from,” Anton Demidov, a nationalist activist, 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.”

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It’s still not clear why the letter first appeared on Russian military hardware. The BBC has suggested that it was used to minimize friendly fire, as both Ukraine and Russia use similar Soviet-era hardware. Some have speculated that it stood for different regiments, or those tasked with targeting specific areas of Ukraine.

An exercise in rapid anachronism, the letter has racked up additional associations in just several days. Although the letter Z is not in the Cyrillic alphabet, which the Russian language uses, it has been variously associated with Zaped, Russian for “west,” or Zelenskyy, the Ukrainian president who was identified as the war’s primary target. In the last few days, Russian officials have claimed on social media that it stands for Za, meaning “for” — as in “za pobedy” (for victory).

Now, the symbol’s popularity as a sign of Russian national identity means that the letter is making its way into Russian words in a pointed way. A Siberian governor has said that his region’s name should be spelled using a Z instead of its Cyrillic equivalent. The letter has likewise been integrated into corporate logos and pro-Russian hashtags on social media.

It has been blended with Cyrillic to spell the hashtag “#ZaМир” (for peace). On Sunday, Russia organized a nationwide choral festival with the same name.

“This is definitely a state-induced meme,” Vasily Gatov, a Russian American media analyst, told the New York Times. “There are always people receptive to this kind of message.”

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The state-sponsored symbol quickly merged with grassroots fervor.

“It’s like the American yellow ribbon during the Iraq (and Vietnam before that obviously), but more expressly militant as it ties directly to the military hardware that invaded the country,” Aric Toler, director of research and training at the visual investigations site Bellingcat, told Grid in an email.

And indeed, just like the once-ubiquitous yellow ribbon, the letter Z can be found all over Russia: spray painted on bus stops and billboards, on T-shirts in gift shops. Convoys of cars waving Russian flags with the symbol taped to their rearview windows have driven around Russian cities.

The symbol spread quickly from the battlefield

The state-backed RT network now sells merchandise with the letter. The state-owned network Russia-24′s reporters have worn flak jackets with Z painted on.

Parliament member Maria Butina — who was deported from the U.S. in 2019 after being convicted for working as an unregistered agent for Russia — shared a video of herself drawing a Z on the lapel of her jacket. “Keep it up, brothers,” she said. “We’re with you forever.”

Over the weekend, dozens of sick children in a hospice in Kazan, southwest Russia, formed a Z with their bodies as a photograph was taken from above, to be shared online and in the press.

The letter has spread beyond Russia’s borders, too. In perhaps the most prominent example, Russian gymnast Ivan Kuliak, who placed third in parallel bars during the Apparatus World Cup in Doha, Qatar, taped a white letter Z to his chest as he received his bronze medal while standing next to Ukrainian gymnast Illia Kovtun, who won the gold. The International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) has called for disciplinary action against Kuliak.

And at a March 4 rally in Belgrade supporting the Russian invasion, Serbian nationalists carried “Z” signs, and at least one protester painted the letter on the street.

There is an irony, reads an op-ed in the Economist, “to making a Latin letter the symbol of a war that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin has justified in part by spurious claims that the Russian language was under threat in Ukraine.”

The “Z” symbol is used to intimidate Putin critics

Russian American journalist and Putin critic Masha Gessen describes in the New Yorker another pro-Russian explanation for the Z: the term “denazification.” That concept is one of Putin’s purported aims in invading Ukraine, and it’s an explanation that requires both the Latin letter Z, and the English word Nazi, to make sense — but it furthers the connection between Russian nationalist memory and the war against Ukraine.


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“In the past couple of decades, this war seems to have overshadowed all other historical events, becoming the single point of reference for Russian national identity,” Gessen wrote.

Notably, however, while Russian symbology throughout the 2014 invasion of Ukraine was explicitly tied to World War II imagery, the Z symbol is new, Toler said. It is instead sometimes linked to Saint George, the patron saint of Moscow and a symbol for the Russian military. For example, in St. Petersburg, a large billboard shows the letter as though styled from a black-and-orange St. George ribbon, above a slogan that reads, “We don’t abandon our own.”

As the symbol has come to stand for Russian might, it has also been used to intimidate those who stand against the war. On March 3, police raided the Moscow offices of Memorial, a human rights watchdog group that had been ordered to dissolve in December; during the raid, police officers reportedly trashed the offices and scrawled the letter Z around the room.

Rita Flores, an activist with the anti-Putin protest group Pussy Riot, tweeted a white Z that somebody allegedly spray-painted on her apartment door. The esteemed Russian film critic Anton Dolin posted a similar photo of his own front door to Facebook.

“The meaning is clear: ‘We know where your family lives, be careful,’” Dolin wrote in a post accompanying the photo.

  • Anya van Wagtendonk
    Anya van Wagtendonk

    Misinformation Reporter

    Anya van Wagtendonk is the misinformation reporter at Grid, focusing on the impact of false information on policy, elections and social behavior.

TOPICS

Ukraine