When 20-year-old Russian athlete Ivan Kulyak climbed onto the World Cup gymnastics podium alongside event winner Ilya Kovtun of Ukraine, a barely recognizable symbol on his uniform prompted an official investigation into his behavior and widespread condemnation from the international community.
The letter Z – taped in white on Mr Kollek’s white shirt as he collects his bronze in the Parallel Bars at a gala in Doha, Qatar, on Saturday – appeared to those supporting the Russia’s invasion of Ukraine As a symbol of pride in attacking armed forces. In the West, it is condemned as a sign of nationalist sentiment.
The International Gymnastics Federation, which on Monday banned Russian and Belarusian athletes from participating in its events, said it had opened disciplinary proceedings against Mr. Kulyak.
The message began to appear for the first time on Russian tanks and armored vehicles when they massed near the Ukrainian border a few days ago Russian troops crossed the border. Military analysts say the Russian military is using the letter, along with other tags, as identifiers to distinguish their battlefield equipment from that of Ukraine.
Since the invasion, “Z” icons have appeared on cars, on banners at pro-Kremlin rallies, and on billboards in the Moscow and Saint Petersburg metro systems. At a children’s home in the central city of Kazan on Saturday, patients were led outside to form the letter for a photo.
In recent days, pro-government videos showing the symbol have been widely shared on social media. One of these passages opens with a letter supporting Russian Armed Forces Written by Anton Demidov, a nationalist activist, after which hundreds of people gathered in what appeared to be a warehouse, waving Russian flags and chanting “Russia!” President’s name
“I don’t know where this symbol came from,” Demidov said in an interview, adding that pro-Kremlin activists saw it on Russian tanks in Ukraine and began to use it. “The symbol is not important. What is important is the position it represents, and that is that we understand that we need to support our president and our military in their difficult task.”
The easily reproducible symbol was adopted by the Russian Ministry of Defense and other government institutions to rally the country around the war, which Moscow described as a “special military operation.”
almost Russia launched the war, the state-backed channel RT began promoting T-shirts bearing such phrases. Some companies have replaced the Cyrillic version of the Z with the Latin letter in their brand logos, while some government officials have replaced the letters in their social media profiles. In Russian, “for” is written as “za,” and the MOD has flooded Instagram with posts saying “for peace,” “for our men,” and “for victory,” all with the English letter Z.
Local governments all over the country joined forces, and windows in their government buildings were lit to form the letter Z at night.
“It is a symbol of the people’s unity,” Ivan Zernakov, an official in the northern Arkhangelsk region who runs its civic education department, told one of the state media there. “It symbolizes the support of our armed forces, support of the President’s decisions, and is designed to unite us in this difficult situation.”
In Ukraine, the symbol went down differently.
Oleksiy Reznikov, Ukraine’s defense minister, on Monday compared the symbol to the iconography of Nazi Germany, posting an image of a Swastikalike logo made up of two interlocking Zs that circulated on Ukrainian social media. He also tweeted: “In 1943 near the camp was Sachsenhausen Station Z where mass murders were committed,” referring to the Nazi death camp.
References to Nazi Germany come against the background Russia is claiming a lie that the Ukrainian government is run by neo-Nazis and that one of the aims of its war is to “de-Nazify” the country. The President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky,
In Russia, the letter Z has received some opposition. A traffic reporter for Moscow’s state TV channel went viral on social media on Monday after telling viewers that if they strapped a Z code to their cars’ rear windows, they were likely to get into more accidents and crash into things. But the message in recent days has also been painted on the property of those who oppose the war.
Russia’s most prominent human rights group, which recorded rights abuses in the country before a court forced it to close it in December, said on Saturday that security officers painted the letter Z on its building after searching the building.
Active in the feminist protest punk rock band Pussy Riot, which has been in business for years I spoke against Mr. PutinShe tweeted a picture of the message painted on what she said was the front door to her apartment.
Assertions cannot be independently verified.
Famous Russian film critic Anton Dolin found the letter on the door of his house before leaving the country. The message was quite clear. “The people who did this know that I am against war,” Mr. Dolen said by phone from Latvia. “They showed that they know where I live and where my family lives. It is an act of intimidation.”
For him, Mr. Dolin said, the message was less reminiscent of Nazi icons and more than a blockbuster zombie movie. “It brings to mind World War Z,” he said, referring to the 2013 Hollywood movie starring Brad Pitt and based on the book of the same name. “I see it as representing our army full of zombies and the liberated part of the population that watches state television and supports the operation.”
He says that his children see another meaning in the symbol: Zlo, or Russian for evil.
write to Evan Gershkovich at email@example.com and Matthew Luxmoore at Matthew.Luxmoore@wsj.com
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