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How the Letter Z Became a Russian Pro-War Symbol -
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How the Letter Z Became a Russian Pro-War Symbol

How the Letter Z Became a Russian Pro-War Symbol

When 20-year-old Russian athlete Ivan Kuliak stepped onto the podium at the Gymnastics World Cup beside event winner Illia Kovtun from Ukraine, a barely discernible symbol on his uniform prompted an official investigation into his conduct and widespread condemnation from the international community.

The letter Z—taped in white over Mr. Kuliak’s white shirt as he received his bronze medal for the parallel bars at a ceremony in Doha, Qatar, on Saturday—has emerged for those supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a symbol of pride in the attacking armed forces. In the West, it is being condemned as a sign of nationalist sentiment.

The International Gymnastics Federation, which on Monday barred Russian and Belarusian athletes from its events, said it had opened disciplinary proceedings against Mr. Kuliak.

The letter first began appearing on Russian tanks and armored vehicles as they massed near Ukraine’s border days before Russian troops crossed the border. Military analysts say the letter, along with other markers, is used by the Russian military as identifiers to distinguish their equipment on the battlefield from that of Ukraine.

Since the invasion, the “Z” iconography has appeared on cars, on banners at pro-Kremlin rallies, and on billboards in the Moscow and St. Petersburg metro systems. At a children’s hospice in the central city of Kazan on Saturday, patients were herded outside to form the letter for a photo shoot.

In recent days, pro-government videos featuring the symbol have been shared widely on social media. One such clip opens with a speech in support of Russia’s armed forces by Anton Demidov, a nationalist activist, after which hundreds of people gathered in what appears to be a warehouse are shown waving Russian flags and chanting “Russia!” and the name of President Vladimir Putin.

Ukrainian residents were on the run as Russia shelled an evacuation route in a Kyiv suburb. In the Russian-occupied city of Kherson, there were acts of defiance this weekend, including a man standing on a Russian military vehicle waving the Ukrainian flag. Photo: Markus Schreiber/Associated Press

“I don’t know where this symbol came from,” Mr. Demidov said in an interview, adding that pro-Kremlin activists saw it on Russian tanks in Ukraine and started using it. “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.”

Russia’s Defense Ministry and other government institutions have embraced the easily reproducible symbol to rally the country around the war, which Moscow has characterized as a “special military operation.”

Soon after Russia launched the war, state-backed broadcaster RT began hawking T-shirts with such phrases. Some companies have replaced the Cyrillic version of Z for the Latin letter in their brand logos, while some government officials have swapped the letters in their social-media profiles. In Russian, the word “for” is written as “za,” and the Defense Ministry has flooded Instagram with posts saying “for peace,” “for our guys,” “for victory,” all using the English letter Z.

A Ukrainian serviceman stands near captured Russian tanks, one painted in the color of the Ukrainian national flag and the other marked with the letter Z, in the Kharkiv region of Ukraine.


Photo:

IRINA RYBAKOVA/PRESS SERVICE OF/via REUTERS

Local governments around the country have joined in, lighting the windows in their government buildings to form the Latin letter Z at night.

“It is a symbol of the unity of the people,” Ivan Zhernakov, an official in the northern region of Arkhangelsk, who runs his patriotic education department, told a state media outlet there. “It symbolizes the support of our armed forces, support for the president’s decisions, and is designed to unite us in this difficult situation.”

In Ukraine, the symbol has gone down differently.

Oleksii Reznikov, Ukraine’s defense minister, on Monday compared the symbol to the iconography of Nazi Germany, posting a picture of a Swastikalike logo formed out of two interwoven Zs that has been making the rounds on Ukrainian social media. He also tweeted: “At 1943 near the conccamp Sachsenhausen was a station Z where mass murders were committed,” in reference to a Nazi death camp.

The references to Nazi Germany come against the backdrop of Russia falsely alleging that the Ukrainian government is run by neo-Nazis and that one of the aims of its war is to “de-Nazify” the country. Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is Jewish.

In Russia, the letter Z has received some pushback. A traffic reporter with a state television channel in Moscow went viral on social media on Monday after telling viewers that if they tape the Z symbol to the back windows of their cars they are likely to get into more accidents and have their cars hit with objects. But the letter in recent days has also been graffitied on the property of those opposing the war.

Russia’s most prominent human-rights group, which chronicled rights abuses in the country before a court forced it to shut in December, on Saturday said that security officers had drawn the letter Z in its building after searching the premises.

An activist with the feminist protest punk rock group Pussy Riot, which has for years spoken out against Mr. Putin, tweeted a photo of the letter drawn on what she said was the front door of her apartment.

The assertions couldn’t be independently verified.

And Russia’s best-known film critic, Anton Dolin, found the letter on his door before he left the country. “The message was absolutely clear. The people who did this know I am against war,” Mr. Dolin said by phone from Latvia. “They showed they know where I live and where my family lives. It’s an act of bullying.”

Mr. Dolin said that for him, the letter is less reminiscent of Nazi iconography and more a popular zombie movie. “It brings to mind World War Z,” he said, referring to the 2013 Hollywood film starring Brad Pitt and based on a book with the same name. “I see it as representing our zombified army and the zombified part of the population that watches state television and supports the operation.”

His children, he says, see another meaning in the symbol: Zlo, or Russian for evil.

Write to Evan Gershkovich at evan.gershkovich@wsj.com and Matthew Luxmoore at Matthew.Luxmoore@wsj.com

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