The Invention of Z

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The first mentions of “Z” emerged in the media approximately one week before the invasion of Ukraine in 2022. According to journalist Alexey Kovalev of the Meduza news website, “the letter was used to mark military equipment to avoid friendly fire.”1 Its strong visual presence in the media prompted civilians to search for additional meaning, which led to the creation of a pro-war propaganda symbol widely used by the Russian public and government authorities.

It is important to note that the letter “Z” does not exist in the Russian alphabet. The Latin letter “Z” effectively replaces the Cyrillic letter З in texts related to the invasion. It takes on a patriotic connotation in such contexts, aiming to evoke feelings of devotion and duty. The Russian government has strategically employed Z to build a national identity. This symbol has become emblematic of a new form of totalitarianism, nationalism, and “ruscism” – a term used to describe the aggressive nature of Russia’s political system and the cult of personality that has emerged around Vladimir Putin. The designer of the Z symbol is unknown. In an article for The New York Times, Timothy Snider writes that “ruscism” is “a useful conceptualization of Putin’s worldview.” However, The Russian Ministry of Defense said the Z symbol is “not official and does not carry a special meaning.”2

Notably, Z often dons the colors of the St. George ribbon, a prominent symbol of modern Russian nationalism. Brandon Schechter explains in Perspectives on History that “these orange-and-black strips of cloth were initially an apolitical sign of solidarity with the disappearing generation that fought in World War II and pride in the Red Army’s key role in defeating fascism.”3 Today, the proponents of the invasion invoke the need to “de-nazify” Ukraine. Yet, it’s hard to ignore the comparisons drawn between Z and other symbols, particularly the swastika and the runic sign “Wolfsangel.” The symbol represents a link between violence and solidarity, showcasing an individual’s alignment with the authorities—those who oppose the usage of Z risk criminal charges. Meduza tells the story of Vladimir Zaklyazminsky, who was sentenced to twelve days in prison after he ripped out patches containing pro-war symbols from the clothes of children in temporary accommodation centers.4

Many citizens express their support in the digital realm. With the state encouraging the usage of the sign, false and misleading narratives flood the most popular Russian media platforms. Numerous Telegram (below) and Vkontakte (VK) groups and channels incorporate the Z symbol into their branding when publishing materials from the front lines, characterizing Ukrainian soldiers as “neo-Nazis” and “militants.” Users of these platforms upload avatars featuring the symbol to demonstrate their loyalty to the current regime. The character even has made its way into the world of music, appearing on album covers of patriotic songs found on VK.

The sign has become a focal point in various public institutions, including schools, where children and adults are involved in public demonstrations of support for the actions in Ukraine. Kremlin pro-war propaganda targets young Russians, calling them “Putin’s Generation Z.”

The use of Z has also extended into clothing design. Private sellers produce T-shirts featuring Z with “patriotic” slogans: “We don’t abandon our own,” “I’m not ashamed,” “We are together,” and “Together for peace.” This rebranding appears on baseball caps, car stickers, key rings, beer glasses, and even vodka bottles.

Displaying the symbol on building facades demonstrates support for the Russian army, as do flash mobs that involve Z-shaped lighting. The signifier has found its way into installations, monuments, and gravestones, forming a new tradition around events celebrating the army’s achievements. Drivers display the letter Z on their cars; some participate in “patriotic car rallies.”

The proliferation of Z has also spurred opposition and fuels the growing anti-war movement. Internationally, the impact of Z has led to a reluctance to use similar symbols in global spaces. Companies worldwide have begun renaming products to avoid associations with the war. Swiss company Zurich Insurance Group ceased using the blue Z on its social media, instead opting to spell out the word. Samsung Electronics also altered the name of the Galaxy Z Fold 3 line to Galaxy Fold 3 in certain countries. The disinformation and propaganda ecosystem that Russia continues to cultivate does not stand unopposed. A thriving global community comprising governments, civil institutions, academia, the press, the private sector, and citizens worldwide is pushing back.

In a world where symbols hold immense power, the story of Z serves as a cautionary tale, demonstrating how weaponized design shapes perceptions and ideologies.

This is a guest post by Elly [surname redacted for privacy], a postgraduate design researcher, writer, and adventurer. Her research explores the influence of design within mass media on identity formation.

Header photo: Photo by Jade Koroliuk on Unsplash.

Imagery from top: Z symbol in colors of St. George’s ribbon with slogan: “We don’t abandon our own,” Cosmin Stefano Amzoc/Wikimedia Commons/CC 4.0; Z in style of German “Wolfsangel,” MSA09/Wikimedia Commons/CC 4.0; Sampling from Telegram; Building featuring the Z in the style of St. George’s ribbon, Alexander Davronov/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0 (image cropped)

Alexey Kovalev, “The letter Z is the official (and ominous) symbol of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. We tried to find out who came up with this, and this is what came out of it,” Meduza, May 19, 2022 ↩︎Evgeny Stupin, “The Russian Ministry of Defense stated that the Z and V symbols “are not official and do not carry a special load”, Meduza, May 19, 2022 ↩︎Brandon Shehter, “St. George’s Ribbon,” Perspectives on History, Mar 29, 2023 ↩︎“Ukrainian Man Arrested in Voronezh after Removing Patches with Pro-War Symbols from Children’s Clothing in Shelter — Meduza,” August 22, 2023 ↩︎

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