The Russian army – supposedly the second most powerful in the world – will be remembered not only for its lack of reasonable objectives in the war against Ukraine and its inhuman cruelty to civilians, but also for the absurd symbolism of this war. No Russian – not even the president of the Russian Federation – has been able to properly explain the meaning of the symbols of their so-called “special operation”, the letters Z and V.
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Russia’s attempts to create a “brand identity” for its full-scale war against Ukraine can be briefly described by the phrase “we wanted the best, but it turned out the same as ever” (an expression made famous by the Russian politician Viktor Chernomyrdin – ed.). Not all the elements used by the Russians have worked in their favour. Symbols that were supposed to foster the idea of the greatness and power of the Russian army have been criticized by most civilized countries, as well as being derided by Ukrainians.
The most vivid example of the lack of coordination between political technologists and the Russian law enforcement agencies’ PR people are the mysterious (and bungled) symbols of the so-called “special operation” – the letters “Z” and “V”. Russian soldiers use them to mark all their military equipment, while civilians reproduce them on printed and digital posters, campaign leaflets, and images shared on social media. State institutions and privately-owned brands have also begun to use these letters in their public communications in support of Russia’s position. However, no one, not even in Russia, can explain for certain what they mean. Neither the Russian Ministry of Defence nor Putin have made any official statements on this since February 24.
Some Russian media sources cite the Ministry of Defence’s social media accounts, which allegedly explained the letters as follows: “Z” for “Za pobedu” (“for victory” in Russian), and “V” for “sila V pravde” (“strength in truth” in Russian). However, their social media marketing teams have simply used these words in their posts, without explaining their semantics.
Russian military experts have suggestedthat the Latin letters indicate the territorial affiliation of the equipment to a certain military district: “Z” for “Zapad” (“West” in Russian) and “V” for “Vostok” (“East” in Russian). These letters first appeared on Russian military equipment a few weeks before the start of the full-scale invasion.
Investigations by Russian journalists have also failed. They write about the symbols as follows: “The organizers of rallies and supposedly spontaneous flash mobs in the regions, who were tasked with portraying generalized popular support for the invasion, do not understand what they [the symbols] mean.”
Putin is often compared to Hitler, yet although the Russian “leader” works according to the Hitlerian method of tyranny, he differs from the German Führer on at least two points: failing to establish symbols with a clear meaning, and not articulating clear objectives for his war.
For comparison, Hitler explained the symbolism of the party flag at the 1923 Nazi Congress as well as in his book, “Mein Kampf” (“My Struggle”), in 1925. The white circle on a red background was supposed to signify national purity and strength, while the black swastika became a hate symbol targeting Jews and Communists.
If the Russians interpret their “Z” and “V” as they please (“strength in truth” (“sila V pravde”), “for victory” (“Za pobedu”), “for the boys” (“Za patsanoV”), and so on), the Nazis were more pedantic about theirs. They determined that the Nazi swastika (or “Hakenkreuz” in German) was to be rotated 45°, with the ends pointing to the right, clearly distinguishing the Nazi symbol from any other graphic representation of the solar sign, one of humankind’s most ancient spiritual symbols that spread across several continents before being reappropriated by the Nazis.
However, today many people consider the Nazi swastika and the Russian “Z” to come from a similar place. Incidentally, the “Z” symbol has already been banned by a number of countries (Latvia, Estonia, Moldova, Germany, and Kyrgyzstan). Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, also passed a law, stating that the letters “Z” and “V” are recognized as symbols of the Russian military invasion; propaganda featuring these symbols is thus prohibited in Ukraine. Elsewhere in the world, there is already a precedent of disciplinary proceedings being initiated against a Russian athlete for the use of these symbols in sports competitions.
Russian military symbols – however clumsy or illogical they may be – are being widely adopted and actively used by Russian civilians. They replace the Cyrillic letters “З” and “B” with “Z” and “V” wherever possible, thus expressing their support for the war in Ukraine. There are strange and even extravagant examples of this: these letters (or slogans containing them) have appeared on hen eggs, clothing tags, manicures, Easter cakes, and balloons.
Russians appear unashamed to use Latin letters, despite simultaneously trying to convince people everywhere of the originality of Russian culture and of the need to get rid of any foreign influence once and for all.
Russians also planned to “modernize” the names of certain regions during the war. For example, from March onwards, the name of the Transbaikalia region began to be written in official documents as “TranZbaikalia”. Both versions of the spelling can be seen on the region’s official website and social media accounts. The Kuzbass region has also joined in, becoming “KuZbass”, although they have so far limited themselves to changing the letter in the logo on their website.
While Russians massively support this initiative, the opposite trend can be observed in other countries. In particular, brands with the letters “Z” and “V” in their logos have begun to replace them, so as not to be associated in any way with the absurd symbols of bloodthirsty Russian chauvinism. For example, Samsung, Zurich Insurance, Zipair Tokyo and others have stopped using the letter “Z” in their logos or in the branding of their products. In Ukraine, similar decisions have been made by the notebook manufacturer zakrtka, as well as the bands БЕZ ОБМЕЖЕНЬ (“no limits” in Ukrainian, now written as БЕЗ ОБМЕЖЕНЬ – ed.) and MOZGI (now written as MOЗGI – ed.).
The peculiar militarization of graphic symbols that are widely-used all over the world thus becomes a political question: choosing whether or not to use these letters is no longer a matter of taste, but of open or veiled support for an aggressor country.
Russia has also tried to be creative with the material symbols of war. Counting on a blitzkrieg in Ukraine, they had preemptively minted medals for their soldiers “for the capture” of Ukrainian cities: Kyiv, Lviv, and Odesa. Photos of these medals were found on electronic devices belonging to unlucky Russian soldiers. Meanwhile, in their tanks, Ukrainian soldiers found the parade uniform they planned to wear for their victory parade through Ukrainian cities. However, as usual in the Russian army, something went wrong.
Russian political technologists appear not to have bothered to invent any new symbols or even slogans for this war, which Russia still refers to as a “special operation”. This can be seen partly as a tribute to the victory of Soviet troops in World War Two, which they have made into an object of cult-like worship (often taking all the credit themselves rather than acknowledging the joint efforts of the Allies). What’s more, the symbols of that era are still used throughout the country: for example, the St. George ribbon and the Order of the “Great Patriotic War” (a term from Soviet historiography to describe the German-Soviet front of 1941-1945).
The Russian diaspora can easily be recognized by these attributes: they might be seen at rallies and marches with ribbons, or slightly updated images of medals. The Russian authorities are also trying to impose these symbols on the residents of the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine.
In most civilized countries, Russia’s wartime brand identity has become a visual synonym for its aggressive ambitions and cruelty over more than a hundred days of full-scale war. No matter how events develop, anything that Russia appropriates as a symbol is likely to carry a trail of negative associations for a long time to come.
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