On March 5, Ukrainian gymnast Illia Kovtun stood on the podium at a Gymnastics World Cup in Doha to receive her gold medal at the parallel bars. Next to him was Russian gymnast Ivan Kuliak who had won bronze. But their sporting achievements are not what the world is talking about. Rather, in a move the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) called “shocking,” Kuliak wore the letter Z, who became an emblem of support for the Russian invasion, tacked his uniform on with white duct tape. The FIG said it would open disciplinary proceedings against Kuliak and ban all Russian and Belarusian athletes from its competitions from March 7.
Kuliak is one of many Russians who use the Z to show where their allegiances lie. The symbol was first seen on tanks heading for the Ukrainian border in late February, and initially military experts speculated that it, along with other letters, including O and Vcould have been used to identify different task forces or distinguish Russian tanks from similar Ukrainian tanks.
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Soon after, the Russian Defense Ministry began posting photos of Russian soldiers on Instagram, with the Z and the possible meanings superimposed on top – “Za pobedu” or “For victory”, “Za mir” or “For peace”. “They injected meaning into the symbols far beyond what they were probably intended for,” says Kiril Avramov, assistant professor at the University of Texas at the Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies in Austin. . “It’s very much in the tradition of the best Soviet propaganda techniques of misappropriating and adopting symbols.”
The letter has now spread throughout the country. It has recently appeared on car rear windows, on subway billboards in St. Petersburg and Moscow, and in propaganda posts on social media. The Russian-controlled television network, RT, has started selling T-shirts emblazoned with the symbol. In a hospice in Kazan, sick children lined up to spell the letter Z in the snow. Maria Butina, the Russian parliamentarian who was convicted in the United States for serving as an unregistered foreign agent before and after the 2016 elections, shared a video of herself drawing a blank Z on the lapel of his suit jacket. “Keep up your work, my brothers. We are with you,” she said in the clip.
Since the letter does not appear in the Russian Cyrillic alphabet, when Russians use the symbol online, whether changing the letter that makes the z sound in Russian – which is more like a 3–in their own names to the romanized versions or by pinning a Z on their Twitter account, it serves as a badge of honor and an easy way to show support for Russia, Avramov says. He notes that, although the emergence of Z feels new, it is part of a long history of symbols used in nationalist efforts.
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“The phrase ‘Za pobedu’ is in the future tense, but ironically it’s a borrowed phrase from the past tense,” says Margaret Peacock, associate professor of history at the University of Alabama, noting that the phrase appeared for the first time as part of World War II Propaganda. “It was not just an articulation of state power, it was a reflection of nationalism and group identity.”
Now, looking to past victories is a way for Russia to reframe the war and gain citizen support. “What they are trying to do is equate the actions of the Russian military today with the actions of the Red Army during World War II,” said Avramov. “Russia returns to the world stage, belligerent and beleaguered and all alone. It’s an aha moment to rekindle the energy for Russians to rally around the flag.
When Russia first invaded Ukraine in 2014, Russian propagandists framed the revolution as a Nazi effort to rid the country of its Russian-speaking population. Over the past month, Putin has called for “denazification” of Ukraine, falsely implying that the invasion resembled post-war efforts to dismantle the German Nazi regime. But Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov suggested it was actually the Russians who relied on Nazi iconography, sharing photos of a Z on a chariot next to two Zs entwined to look like a swastika. He tweeted: “In 1943 near the Sachsenhausen conccamp was a Z station where mass murders were being committed.”
At a pro-military rally in Volgograd on March 6, Z was filled with orange and black stripes, a nod to another Russian nationalist symbol. In 2005, public information site RIA Novosti, seeking a memento to accompany a project on World War II memorabilia, adopted the Order of St. George in orange and black stripes – an award of battlefield dating back to Imperial Russia – to create ribbons that were distributed across the country. “Ribbons that symbolized martial glory and remembrance succeeded where Independence Day and many other symbols failed – they united the Russian people,” RIA Novosti wrote in a 2007 op-ed.
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However, the ribbon quickly became politicized and was seen on Russian nationalists during protests in Estonia in 2007 and used in 2014 to show their allegiance during the Russian annexation of Crimea.
Russian figures who have spoken out against the war have claimed in recent days that they found the letter Z spray painted on their apartments. After the office of Memorial, the human rights group ordered to close last December, was raided by police on March 4, a Z was left inside, with a message, “Z. The memorial is complete.
As it continues to spread, Avramov says the Zlike other symbols before it, gradually becomes recognizable for what it means. “When you see the red star or the hammer and sickle, you don’t need a long explanation to know what it means,” he says. “It rests on solid foundations.”