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How ‘Z’ became a symbol for supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

A pro-Russian fighter walks past trucks painted with the letter “Z” in the separatist-controlled settlement of Buhas in Ukraine's Donetsk region on March 1. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)
8 min

A new pro-Russian symbol is emerging as Moscow continues its assault on Ukraine. The insignia is bold, recognizable and — importantly, according to some analysts — can be painted with one stroke: the letter “Z.”

It first caught the world’s attention when it was spotted on military vehicles clustered along the Russian border with Ukraine in the days ahead of the invasion, which began Feb. 24.

But it has since appeared across Russia: spray-painted on buildings, printed on T-shirts sold in souvenir shops in Russian cities, plastered on billboards and brushed onto tanks. Even children are forming Z-shaped lines at schools. Experts say it has quickly become a distinctive and ominous symbol of support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Although the symbol has been officially promoted by the military, and some experts say it appears to be state-directed, they also say there is no way yet to know its origins for sure.

Who is using the Z symbol, and how?

Experts and social media users have speculated on the meaning of the Z, as well as other letters, including O, X, A and V, that have appeared on Russian tanks, sometimes framed by squares, triangles and other painted shapes. Some have suggested it is an official way to delineate infantries or identify enemies from allies.

But the letter “Z” of the Latin alphabet — which does not exist in the Cyrillic Russian alphabet — has been deployed beyond the military, pointing to what some experts say is a state-led effort to ramp up support for the war.

Several videos shared on social media in recent weeks show what appeared to be flash mobs of young demonstrators dancing amid a sea of Russian flags and wearing black T-shirts with the Z.

The letter has also been painted on large apartment blocks and posted on advertising signs in major cities. In St. Petersburg, one billboard featured a large Z in black and orange stripes, accompanied by the words “We don’t give up our own.”

The slogan refers to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s official line that the invasion’s aim is to “liberate” and “denazify” Ukraine, an independent nation led by a democratically elected Jewish president.

The symbol has also been painted on subway stations, and behind Putin at a St. Petersburg rally to mark the eighth anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

An image widely shared online showed children at a hospice in Kazan, the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan, in western Russia, lined up in the shape of a Z in the snowy courtyard and raising their right hands in a fist. Several schools have also posted images of children standing in a Z formation.

Public figures and government officials have also appropriated the symbol.

The governor of the Kemerovo region, Sergei Tsivilyov, announced that he was changing the spelling of its name Kuzbass to add a capital “Z” in the middle. The letter Z was also incorporated into the logo that appears on the Kemerovo Regional Legislative Assembly’s website.

Twenty-year-old gymnast Ivan Kuliak wore a white “Z” on his chest while on the podium to receive his bronze medal this week at an international competition in Qatar. And Maria Butina, a member of the Russian parliament who was convicted in the United States as an unregistered foreign agent for Russia, posted a video of herself drawing a white “Z” on the lapel of her jacket.

While the symbol has been gaining traction in recent weeks, so too have antiwar demonstrations in Russia, even in the face of a clampdown on critics. About 58 percent of Russians approve of the invasion of Ukraine, while 23 percent oppose it, according to a survey conducted across Russia by independent polling groups last week.

What does the Z mean?

It was initially suggested that the Latin letter “Z” was a Russian military symbol. But in recent days it has spread, and other theories about its meaning have emerged.

The Russian Defense Ministry in recent weeks has posted graphics with the Z on Instagram — in the first such case, it appeared with the phrase “Za pobedu,” or “For victory.” And later, “For peace” and “For truth.”

A graphic posted March 22 shows an image of a soldier with a white “Z” watermark over it, along with the hashtag #героиz or “heroez.”

Many of the images coming out of Russia show a “Z” in orange and black, the same colors found in a ribbon tied to the Order of Saint George, the highest battlefield award in Imperial Russia. It was established in 1769.

The color combination was also the informal symbol of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany in World War II, The Washington Post reported, and was later widely used in 2014 by Ukrainian separatists as a way to show allegiance to Moscow during Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

The Saint George ribbons are ubiquitous in Russia, particularly in the weeks ahead of its annual Victory Day celebration on May 9. They have served as a powerful and effective unifying symbol under Putin, tying together support for the state and the country’s historic contribution to defeating fascist encroachment.

Maria Snegovaya, a scholar of Russia’s domestic and foreign policy, said the orange-and-black “Z” creates a link between the ongoing invasion and celebrations of the victory in World War II, which she said is understood as “the historic Russian fight against the West.” It also bolsters the idea of Russia being “historically the winner,” she said.

“It’s important for Putin to create this connection and build this quasi-ideology, which is not really well developed but it is definitely shaping — and whether it is successful remains to be seen,” she told The Post.

The larger meaning of Z

As the Z appears to be everywhere in Russia, experts say it has now become a potent symbol, intended to show a united Russia in wartime.

In this sense, the Z has become a symbol of a new Russian ideology and national identity, Kamil Galeev, a former Wilson Center fellow who researched Russian identity politics from Moscow, said in a long Twitter thread.

But experts such as Galeev say its sudden use among many Russians follows a state-organized propaganda campaign to rally support, or at least create the impression to the outside world that Russian people stand behind the invasion.

“It is clearly propagated by and organized by the state with the purpose of creating a sense of broad public support for the invasion,” said Henry E. Hale, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.

Hale added that these symbols can be “powerful tools for authoritarian regimes” such as Russia, which in this case is “promoting something simple, visible, adaptable, versatile, and that way, it can take on a life of its own, while creating the impression of broad support for the regime.”

But such efforts can also be used to influence and coerce others into embracing the regime’s policies — or at least into pretending to, said Hale, who specializes in Russian and Ukrainian politics.

“If many people see many others displaying symbols, it puts pressure on other people to show the same kind of support to stay in the good graces of the regime, not run into trouble with neighbors and to adopt the socially desirable position.”

And those who do not show such support may be punished. According to independent media website Meduza, a man in southern Russia was fined 30,000 rubles — about $2,800 U.S. — for spitting on the letter Z on Monday.

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Alexei Yurchak, an anthropologist at the University of California at Berkeley who studies post-Soviet Russia and Eastern Europe, said the fact that this is a new symbol endows it with even more power.

“Everyone can easily draw it. They can endow it with all sorts of different meanings. … And no one quite knows whether it’s true or not,” he said, adding that there is no “real meaning” for the symbol.

Some people have connected it to the fictional character Zorro, the vigilante fighting to protect the common people. Or to “For Victory.” Or to “Zapad,” the Russian word for “West.” Or to the Saint George’s ribbon, symbolizing heroism and resistance.

“The real meaning is all of those meanings,” Yurchak said. “The multivalence of these meanings is the strength of the symbol.”

Jonathan Edwards contributed to this report.