On March 5, Russian gymnast Ivan Kuliak won the bronze medal in the parallel bars at the World Gymnastics Championships held in Doha, Qatar. Next to him was the winner, Ukrainian Illia Kovtun.
The Russian army had invaded Ukraine nine days earlier, and the feud between the two athletes overcame sporting competition when Kuliak decided to show support for the war by improvising a symbol on his uniform. With three pieces of duct tape, the athlete made the letter “Z” on his chest.
Already in those early days of the war, the “Z” was becoming a Russian obsession and an increasingly controversial symbol around the world. For Kuliak and many supporters of Vladimir Putin, the use of the lyrics was a way of showing support for the war and their loyalty to the Russian president’s regime.
The symbol soon appeared on billboards in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other cities across the country. It appeared on T-shirts, flyers, memes and flashmobs, with people forming the letter, as children with terminal cancer did in the city of Kazan, photographed by a drone outside the hospital.
The letter “Z”, also used to vandalize the homes of people opposed to the invasion, was, on the other hand, officially banned in countries such as Germany and Lithuania in support of the war. The question that remains: how did this symbol become the defining image of the Russian invasion of Ukraine?
The “Z” was first seen in late February on various military equipment on the Ukrainian border, such as tanks, trucks and light vehicles, but it was not the only symbol used by the Russians. In other regions, the same equipment was identified by Moscow with the letters “V” and “O”.
At the beginning of the war, it was not clear what they meant, mainly because the “Z” is not used in the Cyrillic alphabet, in which the letter sound is represented by the symbol which in Portuguese looks like the number 3, while the letter ” V” of the Latin alphabet appears in Cyrillic with the symbol “B”.
Even though the Russian Army has given different versions of the meaning of the marks, analysts say the signs were adopted for tactical purposes. It was thought that the letters would serve to differentiate the Russians from the Ukrainians, as both armies use much of the same equipment.
In addition to its practical use on the front lines, in Russia the symbol gained new meanings in the daily lives of citizens and the government understood that it could use it as a propaganda tool.
One of the most common ways to give meaning to the letter “Z” in Russian is by Latinizing it into the Russian word “Za”, which means “to”. Thus, the sound was incorporated into slogans such as “for the victory”, “for the president”, “for the children”, “for the good”, among others.
For Russian Aglaia Snetkov, professor of foreign policy and national security at University College, London, the lack of naturalness in the photos shared on the internet, as in the record of children who still can’t even read drawing the “Z”, serves to the emotional of the Russian population, who will interpret the message that this war is being fought “for the new generations”.
What matters to the Kremlin is that, by clicking on hashtags with images promoting the slogans, Russians feel they are doing something “for” or “for” Russia. No wonder many of the thousands of images currently shared on social media come from the Russian Ministry of Defense itself.
Professor Kiril Avramov, an expert on Russian and Soviet propaganda at the University of Texas at Austin, says the government’s goal is to popularize the symbol, especially among young people, transforming its use into a kind of slang that can also be used in other contexts.
To make the letter “Z” a patriotic icon, the Kremlin also strives to connect it to moments of Russian military glory, in particular the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in WWII.
Despite the victory that established the Soviet Union as a superpower, the trauma caused by the losses during the Nazi invasion was devastating, and therefore the “Great Patriotic War”, always celebrated on May 9, is still a powerful symbol today. of heroism and glory in Russia.
The meme posted on the Russian Ministry of Defense’s Instagram on March 4, which as of Monday (25) had more than 21,000 likes, shows a “Z” superimposed on a black and white photo of Soviet soldiers on one side and one image of modern Russian military men looking back from the other side.
The hashtag “героиz”, intentionally misspelled, with “Z” at the end – the correct would be “героиз”, means “heroism”. The photo on the left is a famous image of the 1945 Moscow Victory Parade celebrating the surrender of Germany, still the largest parade ever held on Red Square.
The image, which shows Soviet soldiers carrying captured Nazi flags and banners, ties directly to Putin’s claim that Russia is once again fighting Nazism, this time in Ukraine. The message is easily recognizable to those who lived through the Soviet period.
In the same meme, the “Z” is before the slogan “za pobedu” or “for victory”, and the symbol, stylized with three black and two orange stripes. This color pattern represents the color scheme of the St George’s Ribbon, one of the Russian president’s favorite propaganda symbols.
Its origins go back hundreds of years of Russian history as a symbol of military glory. At the end of World War II, Stalin wore the ribbon in a medal awarded to all Soviets who served in the war — including civilians. Today, the annual delivery of the Saint George ribbon before Victory Day has become a central emblem of commemorations of the Soviet triumph over the Nazis.