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Russian military equipment with “Z” insignia in the village of Buhas, Volnovakha district, Donetsk region, which has been under Russian control since March 1, 2022

‘Z’ How Russia transformed a letter of the Latin alphabet into the official (and ominous) symbol of its invasion of Ukraine

Source: Meduza
Russian military equipment with “Z” insignia in the village of Buhas, Volnovakha district, Donetsk region, which has been under Russian control since March 1, 2022
Russian military equipment with “Z” insignia in the village of Buhas, Volnovakha district, Donetsk region, which has been under Russian control since March 1, 2022
Alexander Ermochenko / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

The first photos and videos featuring Russian military vehicles with an unknown marking on their sides appeared on social media several weeks before the start of the war. Most often, it was the letter Z, either inside of a box or without it; there were also V’s. The letters were most likely tactical markings referring to Russia’s various military districts. Then, in a matter of days, Z and V (but especially Z) essentially became the official symbol of Moscow’s “special military operation.” Whose idea was it to make Z one of the key elements of Russian propaganda? No one knows for sure. The organizers of the rallies and allegedly spontaneous flash mobs across the country, tasked with depicting nationwide support for the invasion, don’t actually know what Z means. Meduza found a man who claims it was his and his associates’ idea, commandeered by the state propaganda machine. 

Before the beginning of the active phase of the war in Ukraine, photographs of Russian military equipment with special markings started appearing on social media. Most often, this was the Latin letter Z, painted on howitzers, tanks, and military trucks with thick white brushstrokes. Then there were other markings — the letter V or a triangle. 

Initially, what these symbols stood for wasn’t clear. Military experts produced various explanations, but most often they decided that each of these symbols pertained to one of Russia’s military districts: Z is for zapadnyj (West), V for vostochnyj (East), and the triangle for South. 

The Defense Ministry made no public comments about this, and when it finally put out several posts featuring Z and V on its social media pages, things did not get any clearer. In these posts, the markings on the sides of the military vehicles were incorporated into propagandistic slogans. For example, “Zakanhivaem voiny” (we finish wars) or “Za mir” (for peace). First, these slogans were written out in Cyrillic, then, in the hashtags, the Z’s and V’s were replaced with the Latin script. 

“Generation Z.”
Defense Ministry Instagram post
#ZAPATSANOV (“For Our Boys”)
Defense Ministry Instagram post
“Z For the Children of the Donbas.”
Defense Ministry Instagram post
“Z We Finish Wars.”
Defense Ministry Instagram post

Before the Defense Ministry’s social media marketing specialists got involved, the Latin letter Z became an unofficial — then, basically, the official — symbol of the invasion of Ukraine among the Russian government’s vocal supporters. They started incorporating it into their screen names, replacing the Cyrillic letters of their account names, and putting Z’s in their profile pictures. These supporters included the Telegram channel of the radical Russian Orthodox movement Sorok Sorokov, which is now known as Zorok Zorokov, as well as the channel now called Comrade Z Major, which gained notoriety when it doxxed protestors demonstrating against the Moscow City Duma’s refusal to allow opposition candidates to run in the 2019 elections. 

Russian gymnast Ivan Kulik wore a uniform with a Z-insignia to an award ceremony in which he had taken third place at a competition in Doha, Qatar, on March 5. (The International Gymnastics Federation later opened a disciplinary case regarding Kulik’s “shocking behavior.”) Sergey Tsivilyov, the governor of the Kemerovo Region, announced that, beginning March 2, the name of the region in all official government publications will henceforth be spelled as “KuZbass.” According to Tsivilyov, Z is “a sign of supporting our troops” who are participating in “the special operation” in Ukraine. The letter Z was also incorporated into the logo that appears on the Kemerovo Regional Legislative Assembly’s website. At the same time, judging by the decree published by the region’s administration on March 2, in official documents, Kuzbass is still Kuzbass, without any extra Latin letters. 

How Z is being incorporated in and around Russia 

There have been multiple rallies in support of the “special operation” in Ukraine where participants have arranged themselves into the letter Z. 

An especially controversial demonstration took place in Kazan. The first place to hold a Z-rally there was a children’s hospice, whose administrators arranged its patients into a Z on March 5. Then, on March 9, there was a rally at the KazanMall shopping center with students from the Kazan State Institute of Culture (KazGIK). The students, in white hoodies adorned with St. George’s ribbons shaped into Z’s, stood chanting “For Peace” while thrusting their arms in the air in movements reminiscent of the Nazis’ Sieg Heil. Then they performed a patriotic song, Oleg Gazmanov’s “Forward, Russia!” 

KazGIK students, who spoke to Meduza under the condition that they remain anonymous, said that the college had organized the rally literally several hours before it happened. Even that morning, no one knew it was happening. The students were all sent the lyrics of the Gazmanov song and asked to learn it without any explanation. At the rehearsal that day, they were informed that that evening, they would all be participating in a flash mob at the mall. “Students! We’re meeting up for the flash mob at 5 p.m. in the college lobby. Attendance is mandatory! There will be major consequences for not showing up!” the dean’s spokespeople wrote to group’s leaders. Meduza examined the correspondence but did not learn of the consequences for those who didn’t attend. 

Kazan State Institute of Culture
Kazan State Institute of Culture

The Kazan Institute’s spokespeople told Meduza that it was the students who concocted the idea of a flash mob. They also explained that it was on the college’s “personal initiative” that the header of its website now features #ZаМир (“For Peace”) and incorporates an extra letter Z in its name KazZGIK.

There were rallies across Russia, some of them organized by local government administrations using administrative resources. Meduza found that, in a handful of places, these rallies had the support of the local Regional Administration Center (RAC). For example, in Tomsk, the Regional Administration Center made local schools teach their students about the “justice” and “necessity” of the “special operation” in Ukraine. 

What’s a Regional Administration Center? 

RACs were instituted across Russia in 2020 on the initiative of President Putin. According to the authorities, the RACs’ purpose is to simplify communication between government officials and citizens through social media monitoring and responding to local residents’ complaints. 

In reality, the local RAC in Khakassia, for instance, essentially acts as a censorship office that has authority “over all government officials and media outlets,” as a former government official from that republic told Meduza on the condition of anonymity. 

In the Tomsk region, several agencies simultaneously staged patriotic auto rallies with cars decorated with Z’s. As a source close to the convoy’s organizers told Meduza, between March 7 and 13, there were more than 10 such events in the area. Organizers included the Tomsk Mayor’s Office, the Tomsk Regional Administration, and the District Administration, as well as the local Young Guard of United Russia and MyVmeste (“We are Together”) organizations, which are connected to “the party in power” (United Russia).

The Russian Alliance of Afghanistan War Veterans also worked in conjunction with local Interior Ministry officials to organize some of these events. “The Ministry of Interior's people got their orders from the top. They were prepared, they had banners and flags,” the source said. 

Car flash mob in Crimea, March 5, 2022
Sergey Malgavko / TASS
Caption: Auto rally in support of the Russian army in Krasnodar, March 6, 2022
Nikolai Khizhnyak / TASS

The auto rally with Z symbols in support of the “special operation” that took place in Khakassia’s capital of Abakan on March 6 was also co-organized by the local RAC, according to two local journalists and one government official speaking on the condition of anonymity. 

“Athletes, activists from the All-Russian National Front and the Young Guard,” took part in the rally, “but the majority were regular people who wanted to express their respect and admiration for the Russian Army and the Donbas militia,” said the article in Khakassia, a media outlet tied to United Russia’s local party branch. “There was not a single government official at the rally or anyone from any political party,” spokespeople emphasized.

Meanwhile, Meduza’s sources say local members of United Russia and the All-Russian National Front acted as the rally’s official organizers and primary participants, along with businesspeople with close ties to the “party in power.” The sources did not indicate whether they had done so in response to “orders from above.” A journalist in Abakan who also wished to remain anonymous said that the rally organizers had flags bearing the Z symbol, “and they were not homemade flags.” “Our officials won’t admit that this all took place on the initiative of the federal administration,” another local journalist told us. “Everything is being presented as though it’s completely organic, like the business community got stickers made for their cars on their own. But officials from various government agencies have also made their own signs with the letter Z.” 

On the eve of March 8, International Women’s Day, according to a source in the republic’s official media outlets, the republic administration advised the outlet’s editorial board not to cover the Z auto rally in Abakan. But the very next day, on Wednesday, March 9, Khakassia Republic Governor Valentin Konovalov appeared in public with the letter Z on the lapel of his jacket. Journalists saw the same pins on other government officials. Soon, patriotic auto rallies took place in other central cities, and regional officials soon decorated the Khakassia National Museum with a Z. 

According to Meduza’s sources, nobody in the districts actually understands what V and Z mean. When questioned by journalists, local officials respond with stock phrases, saying that the letters signify that “the mission will be accomplished,” and that there’s “truth in power,” which feature the letters V and Z in the original Russian. These officials declined to explain any further. Official media outlets can only speculate on the true meaning behind the letters appearing on flags, billboards, and stickers. One Khakassia journalist told Meduza that Z might refer to the German word Zeit, meaning “time.” “The time to act is here,” he explained, referring to Rammstein’s anti-war music video. 

Some Russian nationalist groups have tried to organize their own rallies in support of the war in Ukraine, but they’ve been denied permits for public assemblies. When pro-government columnist Egor Kholmogorov attempted to organize a march “in support of the army and the president’s policies,” which was to go from the State Duma building to Moscow’ Victory Square, he was not only denied approval but also received a warning from the city’s prosecutor general. 

So who came up with this? 

Meduza’s sources in regions where Z rallies have occurred don’t know who decided to use the symbols that military experts believe to be tactical markings as the official emblems Russia’s “special operation.” 

Several sources close to the presidential administration claimed that “operation Z” had nothing to do with their creative departments. Two of them named the Defense Ministry’s PR department, run by Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu’s aide Andrei Ilnitsky, as the original source. Another source close to the Tomsk auto rally organizers agrees with this theory. According to him, “it’s the work of PR people responsible for the military’s public image.” 

The Defense Ministry’s PR department was working together with Russia Today and its editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan, said the source with ties to the presidential administration. The TV channel’s designers allegedly developed the symbolism and Defense Minister Shoigu approved it. “Simonyan took on the initiative. President Vladimir Putin was familiarized with it, too. According to one of his aides, he liked it,” the source told Meduza. RT’s designers, who work under Simonyan, really did develop the visual identity for “operation Z.” The network’s website has been selling merchandise with the Z logo, stylized to look like crudely applied white paint, since February 26. 

Simonyan read a message from Meduza’s correspondent asking about her possible involvement in this campaign, but instead of answering, she posted a screenshot of our questions on her social media pages, captioned, “‘Meduza’s sources’ always give me unexpected reasons to be proud of myself. And to feel sorry for meduza [sic].” (Russian state officials often post independent journalists’ questions online instead of answering.) Defense Ministry aide Andrei Ilnitsky did not respond to Meduza’s questions. 

Meanwhile, a Meduza source close to the St. Petersburg municipal administration believes that the businessman Evgeny Prigozhin, who’s been connected to Russia’s “troll farm” and the Wagner private military company, was also behind the Z. However, the aides close to the presidential administration deny this. 

“No one is going to put their weight behind [Prigozhin] or any of his ideas. Everybody is only out for themselves. Giving him the credit for the symbol of our future victory —nobody would dare. They’d rather mix that Z with their own shit,” a source close to the Kremlin’s domestic affairs department told Meduza. The source did not exclude the possibility that President Putin himself may have said something about “operation Z,” emphasizing that this is only the source’s speculation. “And then the people around him immediately started wagging their tails and trying to figure out how to get this idea out there.” 

Another source close to the administration is sure that Prigozhin “insinuated himself” into “operation Z” at the right time. 

Billboard on Ligov Prospect in St. Petersburg, March 7, 2022, reading #WeDontAbandonOurPeople
Anatoly Maltsev / EPA / Scanpix / LETA
Railway worker rally in Rostov-on-Don
Eric Romanenko / TASS
Souvenir shop items in downtown Moscow, March 9, 2022
Maxim Shipenkov / EPA / Scanpix / LETA

The sources close to the Putin administration who talked to Meduza spoke negatively about the name “operation Z” and its symbolism. “As a political strategy, it’s simply awful,” said a consultant who advises the administration, arguing that the letter Z on its own carries no meaning, “People don’t get what it is or what it’s supposed to mean.” “It looks like an ad for Zelensky,” he said. 

Another strategist noted that Z is not a Cyrillic letter while the invasion is supposed to be about “saving the Russian world.” 

Regarding the actions across Russia, a Meduza source close to the presidential administration said that “[Andrey] Yarin's directorate of domestic politics is pressuring governors to organize things — flash mobs, auto rallies, lighting up building windows in the shape of the letter Z. They’re not giving any specific instructions; the governors are all just doing whatever they can think of. Some of them are going overboard.” 

Many places, including Novosibirsk, Amur, Voronezh, and Ivanovsk, saw administrative centers, city halls, and college buildings light up their windows in the shape of the letter Z.

State Duma deputy Maria Butina draws a Z on her blazer
Meduza Project

“People in creative professions” 

The earliest use of the Z in an online flash mob in support of the Russian Army that Meduza was able to find is from before the official start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Meduza learned about the incident from the political strategist Igor Mangushev, who runs the Telegram channel “Notes of an Adventurer” (the name of which now also features the Z) and who identifies as a “retired captain of the Luhansk People’s Republic.” 

Mangushev’s name appeared in a leak about the Internet Research Agency, the St. Petersburg-based troll farm thought to be associated with Evgeny Prigozhin. Mangushev confirmed the veracity of these messages in an interview with the news outlet Fontanka. In 2019, the newspaper Novaya Gazeta named Mangushev as one of the provocateurs who organized an alleged false flag campaign to stuff bogus signatures onto a petition supporting the candidacy of Lyubov Sobol, a close associate of Alexey Navalny, in her run for a seat on Moscow’s City Duma. (The aim was to undermine the credibility of Sobol’s support.)

Igor Mangushev told Meduza that the idea for the flash mob was his and his “associates,” whom he describes as “people in creative professions who started taking up arms in 2014 in light of a certain set of circumstances.” To confirm his statements, Mangushev showed Meduza screenshots of Telegram messages with people discussing incorporating Z logos into their profile pictures that also “look like brushstrokes of white paint, a little sloppy but still identical.” 

Z on the helmets of OMON riot police dispersing an anti-war demonstration on Moscow’s Manezh Square, March 13, 2022 
Vyacheslav Prokofiev / TASS

These images really did begin to appear in a number of Telegram channels that focused on supporting the self-declared “national republics” in eastern Ukraine around February 20 and 21, that is, on the eve of the invasion. According to Mangushev, that’s how “people involved in creating state propaganda must have seen it and thought, ‘Oh cool, let’s use this.’” 

But Mangushev makes no claim to the symbol’s “copyright”: “We did something important and useful, and we’re happy that people adopted it. For many reasons, we don’t have the government resources at our disposal to make it go truly national ourselves. We’re not like RT — we can’t print a million T-shirts and sell them.” 

At the same time, Mangushev does not approve of the way the government is “pushing Z” as the official symbol of the “special operation.” He told Meduza that he likes the totalitarian aesthetic of the student rally with the Z’s and the Sieg Heiling, but he says he’d make adding the symbol to profile pictures and wearing Z merch completely voluntary. 

“For it to be truly popular, it has to come from the heart. Unfortunately, our state doesn’t know how to make things come from the heart,” Mangushev concluded. 

Story by Alexey Kovalev with additional reporting by Andrey Pertsev, Andrey Serafimov, and Ilya Shevelev

Translation by Bela Shayevich

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