Russian gymnast Ivan Kuliak was condemned for “shocking behavior” at the Artistic Gymnastics World Cup held in Qatar and has had disciplinary proceedings opened against him by event organizers after he affixed three pieces of white tape to his chest before climbing the awards podium to accept a bronze medal on Saturday.
The three pieces of tape formed the letter Z, which has in recent days become a symbol of support for Russia’s brutal war on Ukraine.
The Latin letter Z, which is not part of the Russian Cyrillic alphabet, was first noted messily painted onto tanks as they began rolling through Ukraine a little more than a week ago. Since its first sighting, it has been printed onto T-shirts, posters, and cars across Russia as a nationalistic pro-war emblem.
Considering such associations with the war, it is not surprising that Kuliak was met with wide condemnation when he stepped up to the awards podium to collect his third place prize next to gold medal–winning Ukrainian athlete Illia Kovtun. But as Russian and Belarusian athletes and officials were already banned from participating in the games starting Monday, Kuliak’s symbol is being celebrated across Russian media as a defiant last ditch protest against the West.
How Z came to be
Experts suggest the symbol was first used as a unit identification marking to avoid friendly fire between Russians. Usage of the letter Z was first reported on Feb. 28 by U.S. armed forces defense journal Task & Purpose, which argued it was a way of distinguishing Russians from Ukrainians, as both sides use similar military equipment.
The journal notes that in the fog of war, “a Russian T-72 main battle tank may look a lot like a Ukrainian T-80 through long-range sights.”
According to Catriona Kelly, honorary professor of Russian and Soviet culture at the University of Cambridge, Z is widely used as a tank and military vehicle identifier by Russian forces at war in Ukraine. She tells Fortune that the letter V is also widely used on the tanks.
The Russian Defense Ministry issued a statement on March 3, noting that Z stood for Za pobedu, or “For victory,” while V stood for Sila v pravde, or “Our strength is in truth.”
But the usage of more than one letter has left some believing the letter signifies the end location or mission of the vehicle. Former Marine Capt. Rob Lee, who spent a year with a defense-focused think tank in Moscow and is now a Ph.D. candidate at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, notes the Z symbol is “different from what you normally see on Russian vehicles.”
“They’re obviously something new. And the most likely reason they would have put these kinds of symbols on is to indicate a different task force, a different echelon,” he told Task & Purpose.
According to the journal, there are unconfirmed rumors circulating on Russian social media that Russian vehicles with emblazoned Z’s are intended to advance toward the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, while other letters signify they might be headed elsewhere.
What Z has come to represent
Since its introduction as a military fixture, the letter Z can now be found anywhere, from T-shirts to car stickers. Online usernames have capitalized the letter to show support, and even children in hospice were reportedly lined up to form a Z shape.
Catriona Kelly, the Cambridge professor, notes that the symbolic “For victory” meaning of Z, “encouraged rather than initiated the use of Z, particularly, on T-shirts, et cetera by Russian patriots.”
“I suppose it indicates that for a section of the Russian population, the ‘military operation’ is functioning something like a football championship,” she told Fortune. “It probably helps also that Z looks rather like a branding device on trainers or high-tops.”
But the Z symbol also bears some similarity to the symbolism used in World War II. Kelly compares it to the orange-and-black Saint George Ribbon, a Russian military symbol which now enjoys wide popularity in Russia as a patriotic symbol to show public support for the government.
For his part, Nikolay Mitrokhin, a fellow at German research institute Forschungsstelle Osteuropa, wrote in a note to Fortune that one source of the idea was the 2013 American action horror film World War Z.
However, others suggest it has a more chilling allegorical meaning. Andrei Zorin, a professor and chair of Russian at the University of Oxford, told Fortune that it was “conspicuously” reminiscent of the Nazi swastika, a view supported by a slew of Twitter commentators.
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