From a letter to an oppressive symbol – notes on >Z<

— Claudine Moulin

This is the English translation and revised text of an essay published in German in the Journal Aptum. Zeitschrift für Sprachkritik (H2/3 2023, Themenheft: Krieg in der Ukraine. Essayistische Notizen zum Diskurs, 201-209 [printed 1/2024]; DOI: 10.46771/9783967693843_12). The English version was written and discussed with colleagues during my stay at the Max Weber Kolleg in Erfurt – which I would like to thank here, especially Anders Klostergaard Petersen, Klara-Maeve O’Reilly and Elyse Semerdjian.

La société humaine, le monde, l’homme tout entier est dans l’alphabet.

(Victor Hugo, Voyage de 1839)

Letter and alphabet

Letters come across rather inconspicuously, our eyes glide horizontally over them to reach higher linguistic units, the words, sentences and texts. As characters in alphabetic writing systems, letters – in their basic function – represent alone or in combination with others of their kind particular sounds of a given language; they serve to encode them on the written level. Their phonographic function is therefore an immediate one, indispensable for further communicative steps – and at the same time fleeting. We process them quickly, letting them flow almost unnoticed into larger units of understanding and written communication. Both the conventionality of letters and their material side (script) create a certain distance to orality, immobilizing it in the timescale and preserving it in a different materiality. Moreover, in their prototypical use, letters have no meanings per se, and they do not initially convey any social semantics or symbolic values.

The reservoir of individual characters in alphabet scripts is in itself manageable; they comprise around 30 characters – which makes them recognizable and easy to learn and remember. The German language, for example, has 28 letters based on the Latin alphabet; the Russian version of the Cyrillic alphabet has 33. Today, characters from different alphabets are rarely mixed or borrowed from one system into another. This was different in the past. Many alphabets have common roots or are based on others, for example the Latin alphabet is based on the Etruscan one, which in turn is based on the Phoenician one. The latter is considered (together with pre-forms) to be the reservoir of origin for most European alphabets, including Latin and Cyrillic. The very designation alphabet refers to Greek as a major donor for many European writing systems.

For German, the Latin alphabet has been used since the beginnings of its written tradition in the 8th century in the context of Western, monastic culture. This has led to difficulties in reproducing Germanic sounds with Latin characters from the very beginning (and to this day) – a problem, which was already critically reflected upon in the early medieval period. Scribes then resorted to letter combinations, such as <ch> for the ich-Laut (i.e. the voiceless palatal fricative [ç]) or the ach-Laut (i.e. the voiceless velar fricative [x]), or recurred to diacritics, such as the umlaut dots on vowels (ä, ü, ö etc.). In Old High German (and Old English), a runic symbol was also occasionally woven into the writing system – as a kind of loan letter or loan graph – such as the ᚹ rune for the bilabial fricative /w/ or the þ rune for the dental fricative /th/. The Germanic runic script can also be anchored in the Phoenician sphere of origin, with which it shares the principle of acrophony, in which each letter is named after an object or living being that begins with this letter, such as the first letter of the Futhark series, ᚠ /f/, which bears the name fehu ‘cattle’.

(Foto: Privat)

Letter and symbol

Since their invention more than 3500 years ago, alphabetic writing systems have not only served a sole, more or less isomorphic coding of the phonetic side on the graphemic level. Acrophony already points to their symbolic power: In this sense, letters in certain alphabets can also be used as ideographic symbols and thus as carriers of meaning. In Phoenician, for example, the letter we are concerned with here – the Z (rendered as <I>) – bears the name Zajin, which means ‘dagger’ or ‘weapon’ – one could be forgiven for thinking that a sinister connection had already begun here. The archaic Roman alphabet, on the other hand, did not include the jagged <Z> – it was only introduced in the first century AD (together with ypsilon) as a loan letter from the Greek alphabet for the sound /dz/ for the spelling of Greek words. Both loan letters (Y and Z) were subsequently placed at the end of the Latin alphabet, thus completing the series from A to Z in the modern sense.

Symbols are (according to Peirce) classes of signs in which the relationship between sign and signified (signifié) is based on conventions – their meaning is coded in terms of time and culture. Beyond their phonographic reference, letters can thus – contrary to their prototypical function of graphic representation of sounds – occasionally also become carriers of meaning. As quickly as we run our eyes over the letters as a collective of signs when reading, we decelerate the eye as soon as the letter is used individually in an isolated way: it then invites us, as it were, to decipher it as a carrier of meaning. Here, letters can be placeholders, for example in (anonymizing) abbreviations (Mr Z. or Z for Zorro), they can stand for complex content in a socio-cultural context (Gen Z) or point to matters that are associated with fear, illness or taboo (most recently C for Corona/Covid19). Beyond a logical-semantic context, letters can also take on new, conventionalized meanings, especially in technical languages, such as the Z in mathematics as a symbol for the third unknown in a system of equations or in the Cartesian coordinate system for the third dimension. Letters are also popular in metaphors and idioms – in its closing position in the alphabet, for example, Z stands together with its opening counterpart A in the phrasem from A to Z, firmly anchored in the biblical constellation of the Beginning and the End (Rev. 1:8).

When used in the context of formulaic speech, the literal (>letter !) meaning – insofar as letters can have such a meaning – is already abandoned, and the way is cleared for new uses, for example in forms of linguistic creativity and poetic use, as well as in manipulative and totalitarian contexts. The reinterpretation of the letter Z in its majuscule variant as a propaganda symbol and as a symbol of Russian totalitarianism demonstrates such a transformation, one that has taken place with considerable speed and acceleration through the lens of digital media, particularly in the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The “Russian Z”

Z is a loan letter from the modern Latin alphabet – the character does not exist in the modern Cyrillic alphabet in Russian (the closest phonetic equivalent is the З of the Cyrillic alphabet, with the voiced pronunciation [z]). In the present context, however, the loan letter – meanwhile also known as the Russian Z – is not primarily used in combination with other letters of the Cyrillic recipient alphabet in a linear written text, but – deprived of its original phonographic function – is placed as a solitary symbol. The sign deracinated in this way becomes a visual marker and an iconographic appeal that is materialized on objects and in public spaces: indeed, it wants to be seen. The step towards a conscious branding is a distinctive feature in pro-Putin Russia.

The purely material, ideographically coded form of the sign (triple jagged, lightning-like – possibly pointing to Operation Z as Blitzkrieg) is not insignificant and may explain why this letter was ultimately chosen over others (such as O and V, which were also seen on Russian military vehicles). It is also – in its use as an unique symbol – often connoted in terms of formal similarities, both with regard to the Wolfsangel and the Swastika as well as the Germanic ᛋ rune (Sigrune/Siegrune, Sowilō rune for the s-sound), all of which were introduced in the national-socialist era as loan letters (the rune primarily in its doubling ᛋᛋ) respectively as loan signs in the Latin alphabet.[1] As symbols of a totalitarian mindset and inhumane terror, they also have become glorified by Russian propaganda today. In this context, opponents of the regime labelled the letter Z as Putin’s rune[2] or as new Zwastika (with initial, non-standard Z-graph), pointing to it as a symbol of a new fascism. Z could also be seen here in its original metaphorical use as a sign of the end, as the end of humanity, the end of democracy and the Putin-triggered end of the Western world.

(Foto: Privat)

Letter topographies and (co-)spatialities

Z already appeared on Russian tanks in Syria over ten years ago, but it is its appearance in Ukraine that lead to international visibility and made it a central symbol of Russia’s war of aggression (also called Operation Z). Its use is reminiscent of the use of military field symbols, which has been documented since antiquity and has been associated at the latest with the idea of “victory in one sign” (in this case the cross) since Emperor Constantine’s victory at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 CE – we can link the use of the Iron Cross by the Prussian army respectively the Reichswehr and the swastika by the Wehrmacht in the Second World War up to this event.

The letter Z appeared early on in its field-military use in the run-up to the Russian attack on Ukraine’s border in January 2022 and inland after the invasion in February 2022, in white lettering (sometimes framed in a box or other shape) on Russian tanks, military vehicles and artillery, possibly to visually distinguish them from enemy forces. From the vehicles it migrated to other military objects and – leaving a bloody trail of devastation and death in its wake – to peaceful civilian objects such as destroyed houses, roads and cars. Here, too, the practice of manually affixing writing to military objects has a long history and is particularly well known from the two major world wars of the last century – for example, the custom of labelling bombs with addressees, “congratulations” or mottos, or on German Army trains travelling through France in 1914.

When read – by internal and external critics of the regime as well as by democratic societies – as a sign of totalitarian ideology and disapproval of a war of aggression in violation of international law, the use of the Russian Z is ostracized, condemned and (for example in Germany) punishable by law. On the other hand, in Russia itself, the symbol is omnipresent as an actively used, visual propaganda tool, also on objects in public spaces (in official contexts and as graffiti) as well as on T-shirts, rucksacks, cars, streets and even in appropriately shaped flash mobs or human chains. As a Z-shaped St George’s ribbon, one of the most important symbols of remembrance of the Russian victory in the Second World War and ubiquitous since the unrest in 2011 in support of the Putin regime, the letter is once again doubly coded – in a martial and a political sense. However, unlike Nazi Germany, where the leading symbols (swastika and SS runes) were primarily produced and distributed visibly by the state or official bodies, contemporary Russia leaves the production and distribution of the symbols (at least in appearance) also to the middle “management” of the power apparatus and parts of the population in particular – similar to how the State monopoly of violence is partially outsourced to private, for-profit business initiatives (Wagner group), whereby the boundaries between the public, state and private sphere are carefully blurred. It should not go unmentioned that the lexeme Wagner, another linguistic loan element (a German proper name), has a strong presence in the war of aggression against Ukraine. References by the Wagner- Group to the “Third Reich” are not only clearly verbalized by the use of a German proper name, linked here with a skull symbolism in the tradition of the SS, as well as by the naming of Adolf Hitler’s favorite composer. The logo itself incorporates a stylized capital W (again a loan letter) where the last shaft is broken (wolfsangel-like) to the left at the top.

Above all, however, the topography of public space(s) is constitutive for the current role of the letter Z: The use of the symbol is negotiated in different forms of (co-)spatialities, to take up a concept by Jacques Lévy, [3] not only in war zones or in Russia, but also in other countries and contexts. The letter Z occupies here – often simultaneously – different (real or imagined) spatial layers, as well in relation to its materiality (the artefacts on which it is placed, including text) but also in relation to different contexts of use (public versus private space) and modes of decoding (i.e. semantic spaces). At the same time, Z symbols are being removed or effaced from public spaces (in Russia and abroad) as a sign of protest and resistance, or are being physically remodeled in order to negate and transform them in new semantic spaces.

A possible (negative) semantic proximity to Z as a logo is causing Western companies to change their own branding, or to reflect it against the backdrop of the Ukraine invasion. The weekly newspaper Die ZEIT, which had just distributed new hoodies with a cooperate identity Z-logo to its employees, wrote in March 2022:

„Das Z, das für den Krieg steht, sieht anders aus als das der ZEIT. Unsere Schrift hat der Wiener Jugendstilkünstler Carl Otto Czeschka gestaltet. Die Buchstaben haben eine “Seele”, so werden die weißen Innenlinien genannt, die die ZEIT typografisch von anderen großen Zeitungen und Zeitschriften unterscheidet. Und doch waren einige Leserinnen und Leser erbost, dass Texte über den ukrainischen Präsident Wolodymyr Selenskyj oder die Menschen auf der Flucht mit einem ZEIT-Z markiert waren. Sie fanden es pietätlos.“[4]

(‘The Z, which stands for war, looks different to that of DIE ZEIT. Our typeface was designed by the Viennese Art Nouveau artist Carl Otto Czeschka. The letters have a “soul”, as the white inner lines are called, which typographically distinguishes DIE ZEIT from other major newspapers and magazines. And yet some readers were incensed that texts about Ukrainian President Wolodymyr Selenskyj or refugees were marked with a ZEIT-Z. They found it irreverent.’)

Here, the material realization of the letter Z as an artistic (typographical) product is emphasized – somewhat in a refuge-like manner by using art against war – which, in the present form, sets the letter apart from the Russian Z in purely visual terms. The reference to the “soul” of the letters ties in with a long tradition in religion and mysticism – and points in its metaphor to the opposition of life versus death.

Ambiguity and deixis

At first glance, Z is thus doubly coded in the context of the Ukraine invasion – once in a pro-Putin / pro-Russian context, once in the context of its interpretation as a symbol of Russian totalitarianism and a war of aggression in violation of international law. Hence, two different semantic approaches to the same symbol emerge on the part of the communication partners (which can also happen in the same act of communication) – this is nothing unusual per se. In addition, a meta-linguistic interpretation of the symbol from a linguistic, sociological or anthropological perspective has emerged – which in turn opens up a third interpretation.

There is much speculation in the media about the origins of the Z-sign, with assumptions ranging from a purely military symbol to an abbreviation for Russian запад (‘West’, – with substitution of <з> by capitalised <z>) or from Russian за победу (‘for victory’; the second element can vary, so that we arrive at the formula за + x) and go as far as coding Z as an abbreviation for the name of the Ukrainian president in the spelling Zelenskyy. Even if the exact origin of the symbol on Russian tanks and its original function ultimately remain unclear, these areas of speculation open up a dangerous ambiguity into which many things can be interpreted, including the interpretation of the reference of Z to the word Nazi in denazification (written with Latin letters) as a stigma to be attributed to the supposed opponent. This is also widespread in “official” Russia, or in statements by the Minister of Defense of the Russian Federation, for example, that the symbol has no official meaning at all. Even in this “zero reading”, the symbol is not really officially negated, but on the contrary, its ambiguity is reinforced. At the same time, the official denial of the “visually visible” reveals mechanisms of state-controlled propaganda (in the sense of “implausible deniability”[5]) that deliberately deny the obvious. In its use as a symbol for the Russian invasion of Ukraine (both pro and contra), Z has thus become an exemplary cipher.

Moreover, affixing writing to objects appropriates the latter, which can simultaneously be interpreted as a visual instrument of power. In its totalitarian appropriation, it allows no negation. Even replacing the Z with a blank space (likewise a reference to a potential zero meaning) or with asterisks – as a reference to arbitrariness or as a placeholder for something else – on protest posters in Moscow and St Petersburg leads to repression. It is thus also present where nothing stands in its place – and becomes a graphic counterpart to the “silent protest” on the level of orality. At the same time, Z is used as a symbolic sign of threatening – there are also precursors to this in history – namely where tangible, inner resistance is stirring socially or individually. The semantic ambiguity and inherent lack of definition ultimately lead to the impossibility of any criticism – because just as with the symbols and neologisms of the Nazi era (think of Konzentrationslager ‘concentration camp’, Sonderbehandlung ‘special treatment’ or Endlösung ‘Endlösung’, for example), the brutal reality of the extra-linguistic world is negated: The linguistic sign – whether alone or in linear combination with others – stands as a placeholder for power, totalitarianism and dehumanization.

To this regard, the Ukrainian anthropologist Volodymyr Artiukh writes with regard to the “meaning” of Z, with reference to Russian journalist Andrey Pertsev:

[…], there is no deep ideological meaning behind this letter, and there is no need for such meaning. Russian authorities do not bother about having a coherent ideology or inculcating it in the population. The population, in turn, does not need to understand or explain anything: the polls and qualitative studies show that Russians’ opinion is fragmented in what concerns the causes and the goals of the war. The authorities do not need active support, the population is not willing to resist. Z is an ideal free-floating signifier, but nobody even bothers to assemble a coherent ideology around it, […]. It is a symbol so devoid of meaning that it forgets on an index. Z points to pure power and a pure demand for obedience. There is no need to put on special glasses to see ‘obey’ behind seductive phrases. Obedience itself is the ideology. ‘Z’ appeared as an identifier of the military coercion, and it turned into an index of the political and police coercion.[6]

With the metalinguistic designation of Z as an index, the sign is reduced to its pure deixis function: It is, as it were, an appeal to subordination, a dehumanized willingness to use violence, but also a provocation devoid of meaning. Or, as formulated in the quote above, it becomes an imperative: as an ideographic sign of itself, it strikes like a bolt of lightning. Nevertheless, from a linguistic point of view, it cannot and should not be completely denied a referential function – for example, in the sense of an empty sign for an empty war,[7] because two different meanings of the word empty would be used here. Deictic expressions also have a reference here, they serve as a link between pragmatics and semantics – they too, induce action(s) through communication.

Z-Metamorphoses – From the Object Back to the Text

The use of capital Latin Z on objects in public space (thus removing it from its functions in the modern Latin alphabet), has been followed by a secondary textualization (Vertextung). By this, I mean a reintegration of the letter Z together with its warlike-ideological references into new, written word bodies. It is a purely written and likewise visual phenomenon. This is accompanied by “playful” use, in which the loan letter (both lowercase and capitalized) is incorporated into the Cyrillic spelling of Russian or Ukrainian words, or the Z is incorporated as an internal majuscule in words with Latin (or Cyrillic) letters, such as German Ruzzland/ RuZZland, English Ruzzia/ RuZZia, French Ruzzie/ RuZZie, Russian Роzzия/ РоZZия, Ukrainian Роzzія/ РоZZія etc. In terms of form and content, the double graphs link visually to the National Socialist use of the double siegrune (ᛋᛋ), connecting the word as a whole in this spelling to a corresponding semantic marking of totalitarianism and fascism. As a single letter, Z is also occasionally incorporated on the pro-Putin side – as a sign of solidarity – in words spelled in Cyrillic, in place names (e.g. Russian КуZбасс), personal names (primarily on Telegram) or names of buildings. In the Latin spelling they can also be found in morphology, for example in creative German forms as Putinz (with <z> as a genitive marker) + x (Krieg ‘war’, Propaganda, etc.) or die Putinz (with <z> as a plural marker).

On the whole, these incorporations are to be interpreted as occasionalisms (i.e. new, non-lexicalized words created for a single occasion), but occurring in many different ways. In all these cases, the letter has returned into the text – namely, as a symbol in addition to its basic phonographic function. The occurrences in the sense of anti-totalitarian coding predominate: Thus, there is still a spark of hope for the human being as an animal symbolicum (Ernst Cassirer), as a raison d’être and state of mind of the human being in it’s ability to produce symbols and to live in a world of symbols still linked to humanity and human rights.

Claudine Moulin is Professor for German Studies/ Historical Linguistics at Trier University and co-director of the Trier Center for Digital Humanities. Her research focuses on medieval languages and literature, manuscript and book studies, language change, marginalia, historical linguistics, urban and religious text genres, and digital humanities. She was a fellow of the Religion and Urbanity group in the 2024/2023 winter term.

She publishes widely also on her award-winning blog annot@tio, also on Hypotheses: https://annotatio.hypotheses.org/


[1]     A similar use of the sign and other Nazi-Symbolism can be observed by the Ukraine Azov Assault Brigade (Ukr. Бригада «Азов»), which gives the contextualisation of the sign in the present war a further twist.

[2]     Heribert Prantl „Putin-Rune“ https://www.sueddeutsche.de/meinung/heribert-prantl-kolumne-140-strafgesetzbuch-krieg-in-der-ukraine-angriffskrieg-1.5559003?reduced=true (20.7. 2023).

[3] See Lévy, Jacques. 2013. ‘Cospatialité.’ In Dictionnaire de la géographie et de l’espace des sociétés, edited by Jacques Lévy and Michel Lussault. Paris: Belin. 236–237: Lévy, Jacques. 2021. ‘Co-Spatiality: An Introduction.’ Religion and Urbanity Online, edited by Susanne Rau and Jörg Rüpke. Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter. https://doi.org/10.1515/urbrel.17481739; Iori, Elisa. “Co-Spatiality”. Religion and Urbanity Blog. KFG “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations” (FOR 2779). 12/05/2022. https://urbrel.hypotheses.org/glossary/cospatiality (last seen 24.1.2024).

[4]     https://www.zeit.de/hamburg/2022-03/elbvertiefung-28-03-2022 (20.7.2023).

[5]     I would like to thank Stefan Heßbrüggen-Walter for pointing this out and discussing the text with me.

[6] Volodymyr Artiukh, Destruction of signs, signs of destruction, online: https://emptiness.eu/field-reports/destruction-of-signs-signs-of-destruction/; vgl. Andrey Pertsev, What does the Russian war «Z» stand for?, online: https://ridl.io/what-does-the-russian-war-z-stand-for/ (20.7.2023).

[7]     See for ex. Molly Roberts, Russia’s ‘Z’ is an empty symbol for an empty war, online: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/03/23/russia-what-does-z-mean-nothing/ (20.7.2023).




Cite this blog post
Claudine Moulin (2024, February 19). From a letter to an oppressive symbol – notes on >Z< Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations. Retrieved April 21, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/vv0b

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  1. February 19, 2024

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