How the letter 'Z' is being used to intimidate anti-war activists in Russia
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People in Russia who support the invasion of Ukraine have adopted the letter "Z" as a pro-war symbol. People have been getting the Z – which appears on Russian military vehicles in Ukraine – printed on posters and T-shirts and sharing Z drawings made by their children online. Someone has also been spray painting the letter Z on the doors of anti-war activists in Moscow, including the offices of the NGO Memorial. Two activists spoke to the FRANCE 24 Observers team about these attempts at intimidation.
"Look at the message that was left on my door,” wrote Russian activist Dmitry Ivanov on his Telegram channel on March 16, alongside a photo showing his door covered with white painted graffiti, including several Z's.
'How did they find our addresses?'
Dmitry Ivanov is studying computer science at the State University of Moscow. For the past few years, he has been participating in protests and citizen initiatives against the government. He spoke to the FRANCE 24 Observers team about how he ended up with graffiti on his door.
It was around 10pm and I was still at work when I got a call from my mom, who told me that the door had been spray painted. The paint was still fresh, we could smell it.
I posted a photo of my door on Telegram. Then, a friend told me that graffiti had also appeared on her door. The next day, we found out about two other people who had their doors painted with the same anonymous messages.
I don’t know who painted our doors, but it looks like something that pro-government activists would do. But how did they find our addresses? You can find my address pretty easily because it was already leaked in the past. But one of the other addresses wasn’t available anywhere. It was a short-term rental and the person had just moved there. Maybe the police gave them our addresses.
It’s important to note that was the day that Putin gave a speech about purifying society and removing traitors. Maybe people heard his message and decided this was a way to show their loyalty to their leader. Or maybe they were paid to do it.
Russian military column in Volchansk, Kharkiv with Msta-B howitzers, MT-LB, BMP-2, TOS-1A thermobaric MLRS, T-72B3, Tigr-M vehicles, etc. https://t.co/DFCJRQuy4F pic.twitter.com/pI4w2PDqsQ— Rob Lee (@RALee85) February 24, 2022
After the start of the military offensive, the letter Z started popping up all over the place. People posted photos online showing the pizzas they made in a Z shape. Another photo posted online shows patients in a hospital lining up to form a letter Z. People also shared drawings made by children featuring the letter Z.
Worth flicking through the timeline of @skazal_on who is collecting the grimmest examples of the way Russia’s new “Z” invasion symbol is being used. Pretty dystopian. pic.twitter.com/6JfxAQPBBC— Shaun Walker (@shaunwalker7) March 16, 2022
A museum in the town of Mourmansk in northern Russia posted a video on the Russian social network Vkontakte showing people from the Sami ethnic group wearing traditional costumes showing their support for the president, the army and peace. They are riding a sled pulled by reindeer with Z symbols on their backs.
Russian authorities have actively used the Z symbol to promote the war effort. For example, the region of Kouzbass changed the spelling of their name on social media, replacing the Cyrillic letter Z with its Latin equivalent.
'It strikes fear into the hearts of those who see similarities between the Z and fascist symbols.'
Someone wrote Z's on the offices of the Russian NGO the Memorial Human Rights Center, which raises awareness of human rights violations in Russia, during a police raid on March 4, 2022. The NGO posted images on Instagram showing Z's on the walls.
Taissia Krugovykh is a film director for Memorial. She says the government has adopted the letter Z as a symbol of oppression.
They are trying to do this to justify their oppressive actions, trying to push the narrative that they are acting to preserve Russian peace. I think the letter Z is deliberately vague – no one has explained it officially but people are adopting it and using it. And that’s the power of it. It strikes fear into the hearts of those who see similarities between the Z and fascist symbols.
Memorial Human Rights Center fights against repression in Russia. Previously, the organisation had a branch called Memorial International, which focused on memorialising victims of the Gulag, the government agency that ran forced labor camps that reached their peak during Joseph Stalin's rule from the 1930s to the early 1950s. However, this branch was dissolved by a Supreme Court decision on December 28, 2021.
>> Read more on The Observers: Video shows anti-war Russian protester expressing fear about speaking up before arrest