War

We’ve seen it all before. The absurdity of Russian symbolism

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After the two major wars of the 20th century, a symbolic slogan was born — “Never again.” This idea was strongly supported by most countries but not Russia that started a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Russians came up with another slogan — “We can do it again” — cancelling out the previous one. The aggressor country, famous for its ‘pobiedobiesie’ (‘victory frenzy’ — tr.), still relies on World War II narratives. The ideas expressed in posters from the past are almost identical with the once we see now in the Russia.

Slogans from the past

During the World War II, posters were an important part of the information front, motivating the military and boosting civilians’ morale. They are therefore important as historical artifacts, capturing the key ideas, goals, and values of those times. Some posters have worked so well that their images continue to be used in various countries to this day.

However, Russia has gone further than showing a simple artistic interest in agitprop posters – their slogans have become part of the Russian cultural code.

Thus, slogans such as “For the Motherland”, “For Russia” and “Fascism will Not Pass” are like a blast from the past. Repeated and widely circulated, these slogans are used by modern-day Russia in the propaganda of the so-called “special operation.”

As a result, eighty-year-old narratives are not only becoming new tried-and-tested propaganda tools — they are also feeding the cult of war.

At a time when Ukrainian and foreign artists are creating dozens of new posters every day (with an anti-war message, or encouraging Ukrainians to resist), Russians are mostly reproducing what has already been done.

Self-censorship

There is ultimately no point in expecting pacifist posters from Russian artists, as their creation can be seen as discrediting the Russian army. Any anti-war pickets, or even decorative garments, put Russians at risk of paying a fine (at the very least) or ending up behind bars, in accordance with the “fake news” law that was adopted on March 4, 2022.

With the start of Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine, the Kremlin decided to censor even… its own slogans. “I am for peace”, “No war” and others are now officially banned. Also on the censored list are variations on the slogan “Fascism will not pass”, which the Russian government has suddenly designated as “discrediting the Russian army”, although it was widely used in Soviet times as the victorious slogan of the Soviet army.

The absurd slogans of the Russian Armed Forces

In place of the censored slogans, Russia needs to come up with new ones, which will nevertheless be difficult to understand the first time round. And sometimes even the second time round… The winner, according to the number of memes it has inspired, is the slogan of the logistical support forces of the Russian Army — “No one is better than us” — words that were once spoken by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.

Identity

Russia, planning a blitzkrieg in Ukraine, preemptively minted victory medals for its service personnel for the ‘capture’ of Ukrainian cities: Kyiv, Lviv and Odesa. These medals were found in Russian tanks that were captured or destroyed by the Ukrainian military, along with the parade uniform that the occupants planned to wear on victory parades through Ukrainian cities. However, as always, something went wrong in the Russian army.

It seems that Russian political technologists have not made a particular effort to invent new slogans for this war, which Russia still calls a “special operation.” On one hand, this can be seen as a tribute to the World War II, which is an object of cult-like worship. For example, the symbols of those times are still used all over the country: the ribbon of Saint George, the order of the Great Patriotic War, and sometimes even the Soviet flag with its hammer and sickle.

Probably the most striking example of the lack of coordination between political technologists and the PR team of the Russian security forces are the mysterious (and bungled) symbols of the so-called “special operation” — the letters “Z” and “V”. No one in Russia can explain with any certainty what they mean. Neither the Russian Defense Ministry nor Putin have made any statements on this since February 24. Russian military experts have suggested that the letters indicate the territorial affiliation of the equipment to a particular military district (Z — ‘Zapad’ (West), V — ‘Vostok’ (East)).

The investigations of Russian journalists have not been successful either. They write that “the organizers of actions and so-called spontaneous flash mobs from the regions, who were instructed to portray the people’s support for the invasion, do not understand what it means.”

While Putin is often being compared to Hitler, he definitely fails to measure up to the same level of carefully crafted indoctrination techniques of his predecessor. Although the Russian “leader” works according to the same tyrannical and propaganda playbook, he failed to make the symbols of war and its goals clear and convincing to his people.

By way of comparison, the German Führer explained the symbolism of the party flag at the Nazi Congress (1923) and in his book My Struggle (Mein Kampf, 1925). The white circle on a red background signified national purity and strength, and the black swastika called for a fierce struggle against the Communists and the Jews. Russians interpret their “Z” and “V” however they want: “Syla V pravde” (“Strength in truth”), “Za pobedu” (“For victory”), “Za patsanoV” (“For our boys”), and so on. While the Germans were true to their pedantic nature in this respect. They determined that the “Nazi swastika” was the one rotated to a 45-degree angle, with the ends pointing to the right, and that this symbol was more accurately called the “Hakenkreuz.” This clearly distinguished the Nazi swastika from any other graphic representations of this ancient symbol of humanity that was widely used across all the continents.

The Russians are not only inventing the meanings of the letters “Z” and “V” as they go along, but are also using them in place of the equivalent Cyrillic letters (“З” and “В”) to show support for the war in Ukraine. There are strange and even extravagant methods. These letters, or slogans that include them, have appeared on chicken eggs, clothing tags, manicures, Easter cakes, and balloons.

There was also a plan to “modernize” the names of certain regions during the war. For example, at the beginning of March, the name of the Transbaikalia region began to be written in official documents as “TranZbaikalia”. On the region’s official portal and social networks, you can see both versions of the spelling. 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 seen in other countries. Brands whose identities contained the letters “Z” and “V” have begun to replace them to not be associated with the absurd symbols of Russia’s doomed enterprise.

War
The material is prepared by

The author of the project:

Bogdan Logvynenko

Author:

Anna Yabluchna

Editor-in-chief:

Yevgeniya Sapozhnykova

Editor:

Kateryna Lehka

Photo editor:

Yurii Stefanyak

Content manager:

Kateryna Yuzefyk

Translator:

Polina Hordiienko

Translation editor:

Claire Little

Editor-in-chief (English):

Yuliia Tymoshenko