When 20-year-old Russian athlete Ivan Kuliak stepped onto the podium at the Gymnastics World Cup beside event winner Illia Kovtun from Ukraine, a barely discernible symbol on his uniform prompted an official investigation into his conduct and widespread condemnation from the international community.
The letter Z—taped in white over Mr. Kuliak’s white shirt as he received his bronze medal for the parallel bars at a ceremony in Doha, Qatar, on Saturday—has emerged for those supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a symbol of pride in the attacking armed forces. In the West, it is being condemned as a sign of nationalist sentiment.
The International Gymnastics Federation, which on Monday barred Russian and Belarusian athletes from its events, said it had opened disciplinary proceedings against Mr. Kuliak.
The letter first began appearing on Russian tanks and armored vehicles as they massed near Ukraine’s border days before Russian troops crossed the border. Military analysts say the letter, along with other markers, is used by the Russian military as identifiers to distinguish their equipment on the battlefield from that of Ukraine.
Since the invasion, the “Z” iconography has appeared on cars, on banners at pro-Kremlin rallies, and on billboards in the Moscow and St. Petersburg metro systems. At a children’s hospice in the central city of Kazan on Saturday, patients were herded outside to form the letter for a photo shoot.
In recent days, pro-government videos featuring the symbol have been shared widely on social media. One such clip opens with a speech in support of Russia’s armed forces by Anton Demidov, a nationalist activist, after which hundreds of people gathered in what appears to be a warehouse are shown waving Russian flags and chanting “Russia!” and the name of President
“I don’t know where this symbol came from,” Mr. Demidov said in an interview, adding that pro-Kremlin activists saw it on Russian tanks in Ukraine and started using it. “The symbol is not important. What’s important is what position it represents, and that is that we understand we need to back our president and our army in their difficult task.”
Russia’s Defense Ministry and other government institutions have embraced the easily reproducible symbol to rally the country around the war, which Moscow has characterized as a “special military operation.”
Soon after Russia launched the war, state-backed broadcaster RT began hawking T-shirts with such phrases. Some companies have replaced the Cyrillic version of Z for the Latin letter in their brand logos, while some government officials have swapped the…
Read More News: How the Letter Z Became a Russian Pro-War Symbol