The Observers

'Don't betray your country': The letter 'Z' used to intimidate Russian anti-war activists

People in Russia have been lining up in the shape of a letter Z to express their support of Russia's war in Ukraine.
People in Russia have been lining up in the shape of a letter Z to express their support of Russia's war in Ukraine. © Observers

Activist Dmitry Ivanov returned home one day to find the message "Don't betray your country, Dima" written on his door, alongside a large letter "Z". Acts of vandalism like this one to intimidate anti-war activists in Russia have become more common as the war in Ukraine rages on. The letter Z has factored strongly into these messages, and is now used as a symbol of support for Russia's "special military operation". 

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The letter Z first appeared painted on the side of military vehicles as Russia began amassing troops around Ukraine. The symbol identifies Russian equipment, differentiating it from similar Ukrainian vehicles. 

But the Z has taken on new meaning across Russia, where it is now used as a symbol of support for what Russian President Vladimir Putin has called a "special military operation" in Ukraine. 

After the start of the invasion, 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. 

'It doesn't happen every day that someone comes and vandalises your front door'

The symbol has also been used to intimidate those opposed to the war. That was the case for Ivanov, a student of computer science at the State University of Moscow. He told the FRANCE 24 Observers team how the letter Z has developed new meaning for him and other activists.

This photo was posted by Russian activist Dmitry Ivanov on his Telegram channel on March 16, 2022. “Don’t betray your country, Dima” reads one of the messages on his door (Dima is a common nickname for Dmitry).
The first time, they wrote: "Don't betray your country, Dima." The second time there was a poster with a photo of me they'd found on the internet, along with the numbers of the new law on military censorship, which targets people who share information about the war in Ukraine or say they oppose it. The first time it happened, I was shocked. It doesn't happen every day that someone comes and vandalises your front door. It's not exactly pleasant. It's like they're sending a message: "We know where you live, we can come back any time."

What does the letter Z stand for? For me, it's like a swastika. That's what it has become. It looks a little like a swastika, and it's used in the same way. 

It might intimidate some people. But personally, I'm not afraid. I would be more afraid of an official visit from the police.