When Russian gymnast Ivan Kuliak climbed up on the podium to receive his bronze medal at a World Cup event over the weekend, he was quickly chastised by the sport’s governing body, who called out his “shocking behaviour.”
The point of contention? A small letter “Z” the 20-year-old had fashioned out of athletic tape and stuck to the front of his leotard.
The letter has been popping up on Russian influencers, athletes, and common citizens. Before Russia invaded Ukraine, it was seen being added to tanks and other pieces of artillery.
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But what does it mean?
The insignia is a letter that does not exist in the Cyrillic Russian alphabet and comes from the Roman alphabet instead.
According to Intelligencer, the symbol likely began as a marker to identify Russian tanks and possibly indicate their intended missions. But as the days pass, the symbol has morphed into a general show of support for Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian war on Ukraine.
The symbol is now appearing in Russian state media propaganda videos, on billboards in Russian cities, and on the social media feeds of influential Russian citizens. It’s also been emblazoned across Ukraine buildings by Russian troops — an eerie indication of their presence.
Kremlin-funded state network RT announced on its social media channels that it was selling Z merchandise, reports The Guardian, and countless flashmobs across the country have shown young Russians wearing the insignia emblazoned on black sweatshirts.
Hundreds of SUVs also took to Russian streets over the weekend, flying Russian flags and sporting the Z in a convoy meant to show support for Putin’s actions in their neighbouring country.
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At the Artistic Gymnastics World Cup in Qatar on Saturday, after securing the bronze medal spot, Kuliak fashioned a white Z from athletic tape and affixed it to the front of his leotard before climbing up next to Ukrainian gold medal winner Illia Kovtun, reports the Associated Press.
After the incident, International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) announced that they would ban all Russian and Belarusian gymnasts from their competitions, and asked the Gymnastics Ethics Foundation to consider disciplinary action against Kuliak.
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Kuliak defiantly defended his actions to RT, saying “if there was a second chance and I would again have to choose whether to go out with the letter ‘Z’ on my chest or not, I would do exactly the same.” He also explained that he believes the symbol stands for “victory” and “peace.”
At a hospice in the Russian city of Kazan, terminally ill children and their mothers were asked to stand in a Z formation outside in the snow.
“Our patients and entire team took part in it, about 60 people in total. People lined up in the form of the letter ‘Z,’” Vladimir Vavilov, the chairman of a cancer charity that runs the hospice, said in a statement.
A powerful propaganda tool
Kamil Galeev, an independent researcher and former fellow at the Wilson Center, a non-partisan policy think tank in Washington, DC, outlined in a long Twitter thread how the Z has become a powerful tool in Russia’s propaganda campaign.
“This symbol invented just a few days ago became a symbol of new Russian ideology and national identity,” Galeev wrote.
Russian-media analyst Vasily Gatov told the New York Times that the symbol “is definitely a state-induced meme” that has been artificially cultivated by state-sponsored propagandists.
The Russian military has even shared photos of a Z formed out of the badges of dead Ukrainian soldiers.
According to The Guardian, pro-war officials in Russia have even pledged to add the letter in their region names. Sergei Tsivilev, head of the Kemerovo region, said that he had decided to rename the region and add the letter Z to the region, which might now be listed as KuZbass.
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