The filmmaker Costa-Gavras immortalized the symbol Z as a protest cry for freedom and against military dictatorship and violence. His 1969 Oscar-winning movie of that name starkly dramatized the 1963 murder of the Greek opposition leader Grigoris Lambrakis by right-wing extremists.
Protests against both Lambrakis’s murder and the sham trial that followed crystallized in the form of a letter: Z. Athenian buildings were spray-painted with Z graffiti; illegal gatherings throughout Greece were punctuated by loud cries of “Z!” When pronounced as zée, the letter in Greek means “He lives.” “Z!” was a raised fist of rebellion, and it also meant “Hope lives.”
In Vladimir Putin’s Russia, with its perverse up-is-downism, the letter Z has been appropriated to represent ethnonationalist militarism, death, and destruction.
Unsurprisingly, the Putin-led regime—which calls war a “special military operation,” decries Jews as Nazis, and shells civilians to “demilitarize” Ukraine—is commandeering a Greco-Latin alphabetic letter. It is not the most criminal act of Putin’s invasion, but it’s a crime against morality and human compassion. Putin has deployed Orwellian “Newspeak” to assault history and corrupt Z’s true meaning.
If Greece’s Z was a subversive peace sign, inspiring survival against all odds, Russia’s Z is an abbreviated war sign for hyper-violent military success. In Russian, Za pobedu means “for victory.” The letter, no longer offering hope, represents death, and is meant to inspire fear.
Putin’s propagandists have spread Z-fever across Russia and the battlefield that is Ukraine. The letter is un-artfully painted on invading tanks and personnel carriers that tear into the Ukrainian countryside and rip up paved urban streets. Z has been stylized and weaponized to become an ostentatious display of support for the war. A bronze medal–winning Russian gymnast trolled the Ukrainian gold medalist next to him by wearing the Z on his chest as if he were some evil Superman. Social media is rife with videos of rallies scored with driving electric guitars where ruffians in black T-shirts with graphically battle-worn Zs are whipped into a bloodthirsty frenzy. The Putin Z has been added to place-names. Posing for photos at a hospice in the Russian city of Kazan, sick children were placed in a crooked line to form the letter.
Interestingly, the letter Z does not exist in the Russian Cyrillic alphabet. The sound for Z does, but as it appears on war swag, the symbol has the appearance of a half-drawn swastika, a 1930s echo in the 2020s. The Russian war on Ukraine and its civilians is the cry of rape victims, the snap-crackle of bullets fired on bicycle-riding Ukrainian citizens, and the booming of bombs falling on maternity wards and theaters, marked as children’s shelters in letters so large they’re visible to any Russian pilot. It is a horrendous cacophony punctuated by moments of silent terror where bleeding bodies are left in debris, and barkless dogs walk by indifferently.
Unlike Russia’s Z, the Greek Z was a sign of reverence reserved for martyrs and heroes. It reminded those under the jackboot of the colonels’ junta that time was ticking down for the military dictatorship. Hope was alive because Lambrakis’s spirit “lives.” The letter Z and the rebelliousness it represented were so threatening to the Greek junta leadership that the letter was banned.
It wasn’t purged from the 24-letter alphabet or excised from typewriters, but it was illegal to write the letter alone or decontextualize it in any public forum. The military dictatorship also banned all 1960s and 1970s symbols of protest or leftist leanings. The following were made illegal: long hair, miniskirts, abortion, music by the Beatles, and anything written by the composer Mikis Theodorakis.
Theodorakis was a Communist agitator, peace activist, and recipient of the International Lenin Peace Prize. He never stayed silent and wrote the pulsatingly driving soundtrack for the movie Z, as well as for Zorba the Greek and Serpico. His music was as incendiary as it was illegal, and he remained politically active until his death last year at the age of 96. His compositions were the soundtrack of Latin American liberation movements and still rouse mass rallies.
It was not just Theodorakis’s music that was forbidden. As a vacationing Greek American, I once innocently played a popular Cretan folk tune that I’d learned in my California home. It was a revolutionary song that I absent-mindedly noodled on my accordion while sitting in my grandparents’ backyard in Chania. The first recognizable notes sent my family and neighbors within earshot into a panic as they raced to silence me, warning that someone would surely call the cops. They did show up, but my family explained that my simple rendition was not politically motivated but, rather, politically naive. Ignorance can be an excuse. Years later, as a UC Berkeley undergrad, I saw the movie Z on campus, and it catalyzed my political awakening.
Movies, music, books, and even letters—cultural symbols and popular memes—possess the power to be politically subversive. Until 2022, the letter Z threatened dictatorships.
Now Z is a perverted symbol, a MAGA-like representation of unquestioning support for Putin’s war, which has sent more than 10 million Ukrainians fleeing their homes. Putin and his henchmen commit these premeditated atrocities, and now they have stolen my personal relationship with a letter, a Greek symbol of hope, and a global democratic movement.
Markos Kounalakis is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is a former NBC Radio Moscow correspondent.
This Washington Monthly article is reprinted with the permission of editor-in-chief Paul Glastris.