It’s labeled on battle tanks, as well as tattooed on the bodies of Russian athletes… since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the letter “Z” has been everywhere in Russian public space. If there are several theories about its meaning, one thing is certain – it is a symbol of support for the Russian army, the appearance of which crystallizes passions for or against.
Distinguishing Ukrainian Tanks
The “Z”, a Latin letter, not Cyrillic, first surfaced as paint on Russian armor advancing into or into Ukraine, possibly to distinguish them from similar Ukrainian equipment and avoid friendly fire.
But the sign of recognition soon became a symbol that spread on cars on the streets of Moscow, on clothes or on the profiles of Russians on social networks. And the authorities seem to want to encourage the phenomenon. On its Instagram and Telegram pages, the Russian Defense Ministry rejects the letter in several messages: “Za Pobedu” (“for victory”), “Za Mir” (“for peace”), “Za pravdu” (“for the truth”), “Za Rossiiou” (“for Russia”).
Local media also published a aerial photo of about 60 sick children, their families and caregivers forming a “Z” in the snowy courtyard of their hospice in Kazan, Tatarstan.
A few days later, 20-year-old Russian gymnast Ivan Kuliak stepped on the third step of the podium at the World Cup gymnastics in Doha, Qatar, with a “Z” on his chest. Next to, on the first step, a Ukrainian athlete. The International Gymnastics Federation responded by calling for “the opening of disciplinary proceedings against Kuliak for his shocking behaviour”.
As an athlete I will always fight for victory and play for peace
The young athlete, for his part, told the Russian media that if I had to do it again “I would do the same”: “I saw it worn by our soldiers and I looked at what the symbol meant. (…) I wanted my position. As an athlete I will always fight for victory and I will play for peace”.
The first letter of the Russian word “Zapad” or the reference to Zelensky
Among the theories about the meaning of the “Z” there is also the very prosaic possibility that it is the first letter of the word “zapad”, which means “west” in Russian, in reference to the armed forces of the Western District of the country.
Finally, some also noted that it was the first letter of the name of the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky.
Be that as it may, from politicians to celebrities, including certain influencers, everyone wants to show off their “Z”, which has become a symbol of allegiance to the Kremlin.
So Roskomnadzor, the police officer of the Russian media, capitalized the “Z” in his name on Telegram.
In many Russian regions, even remote ones, flash mobs and other demonstrations of support have multiplied under the slogan “We are not leaving ours”, including women’s choirs singing with a “Z” on their chests, taxis with the “Z” in their windows or cars parked in the shape of a “Z”.
A resident of Donetsk, a city in Ukraine’s pro-Russian separatist east, also posted a photo of her fingernails painted black with a white “Z” on Instagram. And in Barnaoul (south), a huge “Z” unfolded in the snow, in the orange and brown colors of the Saint-Georges ribbon, a symbol of military bravery.
Industrious minds have also sniffed the right vein, and “Z” t-shirts are now being sold online. In the camp of opponents of the military intervention, the symbols are less visible in public space, even though small demonstrations take place every day despite the ban.
In Moscow, pacifist slogans are sometimes painted on walls. But they are quickly erased.