The ‘Z’ marking seen on Russian battle tanks and other military equipment as a coding for the Ukraine invasion is fast acquiring an evil meaning, similar to the evil that the Nazi symbol of Swastika denotes. In India, Swastika connotes exactly the opposite, as the Hindu symbol of auspiciousness. But for most parts of the world, Swastika stands for all that was horrifying about Nazism.

Western media is increasingly using the images of ‘Z’ from visuals coming out of Ukraine as replacement for the English alphabet, in write-ups that bracket Putin with Stalin, such as Putin’s Stalinization of Russia by The Economist. The article sought to examine how Putin’s actions were taking Russia a generation or even a century back. Parallelly, the world is increasingly getting weary of the letter as a symbol of war crimes by Putin’s forces. Just like the Nazi Swastika, Z is being represented in different formations, such as inside a square, within a circle or as the plain original alphabet to mean different things.

There are various explanations being offered for the use of Z in the Ukranian invasion, including the pedestrian interpretation that it is being used to distinguish Russian military hardware from those belonging the enemy, meaning Ukraine, as essentially both countries have the same kind of military equipment due to the common past.

What appears to be more insightful is the explanation that it denotes the first letter in the Russian word for ‘west’, which is the direction in which the forces were supposed to advance towards Ukraine. Yet another interpretation is that it stands for the ‘Z’ in Zelensky, the Ukrainian president whom Kremlin was planning to replace with a puppet.

Within days of the Russian forces moving into Ukrainian territory, Z suddenly acquired a new meaning of support for the war within Russia. But outside of it, and to some extent inside the country as well, it became a symbol of Putin’s tyranny and evilness. Kremlin has used it as an icon of support to the war. Putin’s cronies were coming up with ingenious ways to use Z as a motif for solidarity with the Russian president, whose despot tag seems to be sticking longer than originally envisaged.

The governor of a province is reported to have changed the spelling of the province’s name to use upper case Z instead of the lower case 3, although its position made the small letter more appropriate. Space agency Rscosmos’ director general, similarly, started writing his name with capital Z appearing in the middle. Similarly, the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, managed by the Russians, had all its equipment marked with Z or the alphabet V as in victory. A lot of government propaganda has been built around ‘Z’.

According to media reports, locals in several parts of Russia have organised flash mobs in support of the war prominently featuring the new war symbol. Pro-war youth turning out in good numbers for these crowds have been seen with jackets marked with Z. They were emulating a lady Druma member who drew Z on her jacket to express support for Putin’s war and called upon the country’s youth to do the same. Conversely, Z was being used in graffiti painted on the properties of anti-war supporters to deface them, further fortifying the Z symbolism.

Z even invaded the fashion world, though unmindful of the negativity that the letter was to acquire in the days to come as Putin’s war increasingly appeared to be an affront to the rest of the world. Gen-Z fashion almost grew into a new genre, but it had nothing to do with Putin’s Z. A number of Indian ethnic fashion brands were built around Z, which seemed to enjoy significant brand loyalty. In fact, Amazon had a number of ‘Z’ symbol products already, and it began selling clothes with the marking of Z, taken directly from the Russian military markings as a quick-money proposition. But with the international perception of the war turning completely negative, the e-commerce was forced to take down the products from its listing in response to criticism from customers.

Amazon can de-list the products. But the sad fact is that Z has been ingrained on the world’s public conscience as a Nazi Swastika-like symbol that stands for Putin’s naked aggression against Ukraine, for which not just Putin and his Russia, but the entire world is going to pay dearly.

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