Russian military vehicle is pictured near the border with Ukraine in Crimea, Russia on Mar 2.
Konstantin Mihalchevskiy—Sputnik/AP
March 9, 2022 5:18 PM EST

On March 5, Ukrainian gymnast Illia Kovtun stepped up to the podium at a gymnastics World Cup event in Doha to receive his gold medal in the parallel bars. Next to him stood Russian gymnast Ivan Kuliak who had won bronze. But their athletic accomplishments are not what the world is talking about. Rather, in a move the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) has called “shocking,” Kuliak wore the letter Z, which has become an emblem of support for the Russian invasion, tacked on his uniform with white tape. FIG has said it would open disciplinary proceedings against Kuliak and barred all Russian and Belarusian athletes from its competitions starting March 7.

Kuliak is among the many Russians using the Z to show where their allegiances lie. The symbol was first seen on tanks heading to the Ukraine border in late February, and initially, military experts speculated that it, along with other letters, including O and V, might have been used to identify different task forces or distinguish Russian tanks from similar Ukrainian ones.

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Soon after, Russia’s Defense Ministry began posting photos of Russian soldiers on Instagram, with the Z and possible meanings overlaid on top–“Za pobedu” or “For victory,” “Za mir” or “For peace.” “They injected meaning in the symbols far beyond what they were most likely designated for,” says Kiril Avramov, assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies. “It falls really well within the tradition of the best techniques of Soviet propaganda of hijacking and adopting symbols.”

The letter has now spread across the country. It has recently appeared on the back windows of cars, on billboards in the metro systems of St. Petersburg and Moscow, and in propaganda posts on social media. The Russian-controlled television network, RT, began selling T-shirts emblazoned with the symbol. At a hospice center in Kazan, sick children were lined up to spell out the letter Z in the snow. Maria Butina, the Russian Parliamentarian who was convicted in the U.S. of serving as an unregistered foreign agent before and after the 2016 election, shared a video of herself drawing a white Z on the lapel of her suit jacket. “Keep up the work, brothers. We are with you,” she said in the clip.

Since the letter doesn’t appear in the Russian Cyrillic alphabet, when Russians use the symbol online, whether by changing the letter that makes the z sound in Russian–which looks more like a 3–in their own names to Romanized versions or pinning a Z to their Twitter account, it serves as a badge of honor–and an easy way to show support for Russia, says Avramov. He notes that, while the emergence of Z feels new, it fits into a long history of symbols being used in nationalist efforts.

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“The phrase ‘Za pobedu’ is in future tense, but ironically, it’s a phrase borrowed from the past,” says Margaret Peacock, an associate professor of history at the University of Alabama, noting that the phrase first emerged as a part of World War II propaganda. “It was not just an articulation of state power, it was a reflection of nationalism and group identity.”

Now, looking toward past victories is a way for Russia to reframe the war and gain support from citizens. “What they’re trying to do is equate the deeds of the Russian army today with the deeds of the Red Army during World War II,” says Avramov. “Russia is going back on the world stage, belligerent and embattled and by itself. This is an aha moment to rekindle energy for Russians to rally around the flag.”

When Russia first invaded Ukraine in 2014, Russian propagandists framed the revolution as an effort by Nazis to rid the country of its Russian-speaking population. In the past month Putin has called for the “denazification” of Ukraine, falsely implying that the invasion resembled post-war efforts to dismantle Germany’s Nazi regime. But Ukraine’s Defense Minister, Oleksii Reznikov, has suggested that it’s actually the Russians relying on Nazi iconography, sharing photos of a Z on a tank alongside two Zs entwined to resemble a swastika. He tweeted: “At 1943 near the conccamp Sachsenhausen was a station Z where mass murders were committed.”

At a pro-military rally in Volgograd on March 6, the Z was filled with orange and black stripes, a nod to another Russian nationalist symbol. In 2005, the state-run news site RIA Novosti, looking for a souvenir to accompany a project about memories of World War II, adopted the orange and black striped Order of St. George—a battlefield award going back to Imperial Russia—to create ribbons that were distributed across the country. “The ribbons that symbolized martial glory and remembrance succeeded where Independence Day and many other symbols failed—they united the Russian people,” RIA Novosti wrote in a 2007 op-ed.

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However, the ribbon quickly became politicized and was seen on Russian nationalists during protests in Estonia in 2007 and used in 2014 to show allegiance during the Russian annexation of Crimea.

Figures in Russia who have spoken out against the war have claimed in recent days they have found the letter Z spray-painted on their apartments. After the office of Memorial, the human rights group ordered to close last December, was raided by police on March 4, a Z was left inside, along with a message, “Z. Memorial is over.”

As it continues to spread, Avramov says the Z, like other symbols before it, is gradually becoming recognizable for what it signifies. “When you see the red star or hammer and sickle, you don’t need a long explanation to know what it means,” he says. “It rests on solid foundation.”

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Write to Simmone Shah at simmone.shah@time.com.

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