The white letter, dubbed the ‘Zwastika’, is being displayed in support of aggressive military policy – but what does it mean?
As the invasion of Ukraine intensifies and the conflict reaches its 13th day, Russian armed forces, civilians and high-profile figures have been seen to be sporting a new, mysterious symbol: a white letter ‘Z’. According to social media posts and those on the ground, Russians are using the three-line icon in support of the war and Putin’s actions, as well as Russian ideology and national identity.
Meanwhile, it’s being condemned widely as a sign of nationalist sentiment and totalitarianism, with some branding it a ‘modern-day swastika’. Kamil Galeev, an independent researcher and a journalist residing in Moscow, described it as a “propaganda campaign” that was going “full fascist”. Many are suggesting it is an influence campaign that has come directly from the Kremlin in a bid to rally people together in support of the war and instil national pride.
As well as a rallying cry for support, the symbol seems to be being used as an intimidation tactic, amid Russia’s propagandist claims that Ukraine is being ‘de-Nazified’. One unsettling pro-government video sees a mob of Z-clad Russians shouting: “The mission will be fulfilled whether you want it or not. I address all of our soldiers: work, brothers! And rest assured, you are heroes to us. For Russia! For the President! For Russia!” Below, we break down where the symbol originated from, what it’s supposed to mean, and how widespread it is around Russia.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN?
It’s unconfirmed what is meant by the ‘Z’ (written in the Roman alphabet rather than Russia’s Cyrillic script). Some are interpreting it as “За победу” or “Za pobedy” (“victory”), while others believe it stands for “Zapad” (“West”) – in the sense of Russian forces moving west. Others have suggested it points to the surname of the Kremlin’s ‘number one target’, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky. “I would insist it is Z for ‘zver’... ‘beasts’ in English,” UN Ukrainian Ambassador Sergiy Kyslytsya said in an address.
HOW WIDESPREAD IS IT IN RUSSIA?
The letter has been painted on Soviet-era apartment blocks, displayed in huge neon signs in St Petersburg, posted on street ad signs, and daubed on bus shelters and cars. A spray-painted ‘Z’ was seen on the apartment door of Pussy Riot member Rita Flores. Reporting from Russia, Galeev said the symbol had “found a lot of supporters”. “Many Russians are putting ‘Z’ on their cars – that's totally voluntary and to my best knowledge nobody’s forcing them,” he said.
He has posted images of businesses supporting the campaign with their own white ‘Z’s, including a funeral parlour and – in an inexplicably cruel move – terminally ill children forming a ‘Z’ shape in the snowy courtyard of their hospice. Although anti-war protests have been seen across Russia, resulting in the often-brutal arrest of attendees, Galeev said he’d also witnessed “wide support” for the invasion. “Nobody’s forcing them to participate in these shows of support, they could totally skip it,” he wrote. “But they cheer. They cheer, because they feel good, they feel proud. Russia became great again.”
Here you see terminally ill children from hospice and their parents making a Z formation. Yes, Russians are forcing terminally ill children dying from cancer, and their families to declare their support to Russian invasion of Ukraine. See letters Детский хоспис? Hospice for Kids pic.twitter.com/3yeHMPWXl0— Kamil Galeev (@kamilkazani) March 6, 2022
Influencers and high-profile Russian streamers are also said to be adopting the symbol. At the Gymnastics World Cup in Qatar on Saturday (March 5), Russian gymnast Ivan Kuliak took to the podium brandishing a masking-tape Z. Ironically, he was standing beside Ukraine’s Illia Kovtun, who was taking home the gold medal. Kuliak is now facing disciplinary proceedings and a long ban by the International Gymnastics Federation, who called his behaviour “shocking”.
WHEN WAS IT FIRST NOTICED?
The sign was first spotted on Russian tanks and other military vehicles near the border in the early days of the invasion – with some suggesting that the markings were acting as signals to fellow Russians to identify their own vehicles and avoid friendly fire (since they would be using the same or similar Soviet-era military hardware). Vehicles were also seen with other letters, including O, X, A and V – and military experts have suggested that each correspond to respective areas where Russian troops were stationed, with Z standing for ‘west’. Three days after the invasion, Kremlin-funded state broadcaster Russia Today announced it was selling ‘Z’ merchandise, including T-shirts and hoodies, to show support for Russian troops. Since then, car convoys and flashmobs across the country have been organised by the authorities, with young Russians in ‘Z’ shirts offering their support for the war.
WHAT IS THE ORIGIN OF THE SYMBOL?
Many suspect that the Kremlin is behind the spread of the insignia. Russia has a history of promoting signs and symbols to gain support for its military, such as in the country’s annexation of Crimea, where the orange-and black-striped ribbons of Saint George were promoted. While social media has aided the uptake of the symbol, it has “also been pushed by the regime”, a Russian researcher at UCL told the BBC. While the Ukranians have so far been fighting under the colours of the blue-and-yellow flag, meant to signify the colours of the sky over a field of wheat, the Russians have not been using their flag colours in the same way.
Pro-Putin politicians in the Duma, Russia’s lower house of Parliament, have been openly exhibiting the symbol. MP Maria Butina, who was convicted in the US in 2018 for acting as a foreign agent, posted a picture of her and colleagues in Z T-shirts this week, captioning it: “The team in support of our army and president! Let’s get to work, guys!” Politician Mikhail Delyagin wore a ‘Z’ badge in a meeting, while Sergei Tsivilev, head of the Kemerovo region, announced he had decided to rename the region and add the letter Z to the region, which might now be listed as KuZbass.