Global media and social media are awash with theories about the letter Z emblazoned across Russia’s military machine in Ukraine.
Some put this emerging pro-Russia symbol down to mere iconography, militarised by Russian President Vladimir Putin or his aides, and probably fascist to boot.
Others point out that Z isn’t in the Russian/Cyrillic alphabet and must be a cryptic rallying cry to inspire Russia’s offensive — an offensive targeting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, whose name happens to begin with the letter Z.
Deliberate or not, Z has historical origins articulated in the thriller Z (1969), about Greek politics in the 1960s.
This movie, directed by the Greek-French filmmaker Costa-Gavras, was an outlier at the time but it became an acknowledged classic. It won two Oscars (for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Film Editing) and was nominated for three others (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay).
So if Z was about Greece, what’s it got to do today with Russia, Ukraine & NATO/The West?
Remember the earliest pronouncements from the Kremlin in 2022? They referred to a war against the “junta” in Ukraine. They sought to outlaw Ukraine’s military, to legitimise Russian-backed separatists, de-Nazify the government, and to protect as “independent states” parts of Ukraine that had been under the separatists for nearly a decade.
The parallels with the movie Z are uncanny. It is a fast-paced dramatization of the real-life toppling of the right-wing authoritarian military junta that ruled Greece from 1967 to 1974. It envisions Greeks themselves — not outsiders — shaping the regime change that led to the Third Hellenic Republic. Enlightened Greeks acting in self-defence to protect Greece from, well, misguided Greeks. A pro-people force replacing an anti-people force. A war within a nation, rather than between nations.
Similarly, Putin’s “don’t interfere” has repeatedly depicted Ukraine as an internal matter.
The Z in the movie’s title refers to a typical Greek protest slogan: “he lives”, harking back to the pro-people spirit of a popular Greek leader who was assassinated before the junta seized power. The slogan Z in the film was a bugle call for those favouring a return to an older, better, more peaceful order.
Russia’s Z symbol is a kind of shorthand for similar nostalgia 50 years later, but turned toxic and violent.
Greece’s quasi-fascist junta exploited political divisions to seize power. Its “revolution to save the nation” proved to be anti-communist in letter, xenophobic if not antisemitic in spirit, and autocratic in truth. Today Putin, posing as an anti-Nazi liberator of oppressed Ukrainians, is using some of these same brushes and hues to paint Ukraine.
So, with a wider political-historical lens it’s possible to see the symbol Z as Russian re-assertion. One meant to pre-empt or kill clamour among Russia’s “children” for NATO’s embrace. It is a kind of pop culture articulation of Putin’s tirade against NATO adventurism in Western Europe. An anthem to galvanize Balkan support for its revolt against what it believes is the West’s “proxy, anti-Russian encroachment” into the Balkans.
In a paradoxical way, the Z on the T-shirts now mirrors the 20th century Z in Costa-Gavras’s film. They are both meant to symbolize an internally-driven correction of governance, a pro-people force replacing an anti-people force. The 21st century Z is meant to be Russia’s act of self-defence to protect the Balkans from, well, misguided Balkans.
Costa-Gavras’s film ends on a petrifyingly prophetic note. In a final shot, a male TV news reader rattles off details of the aftermath of Greek civil unrest. His voice? Staccato, terse, almost irreverent. As if the gunfire hasn’t died. He announces arrests, trials, convictions, sentencing. And deaths. There is hardly a breath drawn between the fates of rulers and rebels.
Then, a female news reader. Her voice? Soft, gentle, comforting. She announces, in the warmest of tones, what the new regime has banned, from long hair and miniskirts to introspective writers and inquiring philosophers to strikes and freedom of the press. And, of course, the letter Z.
The Z on Russia’s tanks and T-shirts may be callous military propaganda, a promise to “end” all opposition to what Russia declares is a righteous assault. But it is also be a call to ponder. Not so much on what Z says about Russia or Putin or Zelenskyy, but on what it says about the arc of post-World War II history.