This year, May 8 Victory in Europe (VE) Day celebrations, commemorating the Allied powers’ formal acceptance of Germany’s unconditional surrender in 1945, will be marred by another war in Europe. The war, which Russia is waging in Ukraine on the pretext of a “special military operation” aimed at de-nazifying the neighboring country, is one where the roles have radically shifted: though Putin’s regime strives to present Ukraine as a Nazi or a neo-Nazi aggressor, it is the army of the Russian Federation that, having breached Ukraine’s sovereign borders, perpetrates war crimes and acts of genocide on Ukrainian soil.
Efforts to reach a diplomatic solution to the conflict have stalled not only because of the still irresolvable differences on specific issues under negotiation, such as the status of the Donbas region and Crimea or Ukraine’s neutrality. Rather, the most profound difficulties lie at the root of Putin’s war. While both Russian authorities and public opinion-makers present the situation at hand as one of continuity with regard to WWII, the events on the ground follow a diametrically opposite course: the victims of the Nazi incursion just over eighty years ago are now the invaders. If there is still any historical continuity, it has to do with Ukraine, a country that is once again victimized, albeit this time around from the East.
Putin’s regime liberally appropriates the symbols of the Soviet Great Patriotic War of 1941-1954, in which Russians, Ukrainians, and many other ethnicities comprising what was then the Soviet Union fought on the same side. Around the country, gigantic posters splay the letter “Z” on buildings and bridges. Marked on tanks and other Russian military equipment, “Z” has become synonymous with the ongoing “special military operation.” Its ideological representations, however, vary from visual imitations of rough white paint markings on military vehicles, to hybrid images like a zigzagging ribbon of St. George with its roots in Imperial Russia, subsequently linked to WWII by the Soviet regime and mobilized by Putinist propaganda in its Great Patriotic War imagery, as well as during the Donbas invasion in 2014. The freshly added association of the ribbon’s symbolism to the current war in Ukraine has led other post-Soviet states, including Moldova, to ban the display and storage of such paraphernalia.
Although there is no such thing as sophisticated propaganda, an attempt to give an understandable interpretation to the “Z” symbol does not provide any articulate results. Nobody knows what “Z” stands for. This impenetrability, this inaccessibility to understanding and interpretation, this stupid and meaningless imposition is, to a great degree, its strength. The letter, which is not drawn from the Cyrillic alphabet, has been widely used since the end of February 2022 to replace the equivalent a consonant sound in Russian words to publicly signal a “patriotic” position and express support for the “special military operation,” but hypotheses of a source word for this acronym range from prosaic equipment belonging to one of the Russian military districts, “Zapad” (Russian for “West”), more ideologically oriented “Za Pobedu” (Russian for “For Victory”), up to the surname of Ukrainian President “Zelensky,” and even German “Zeit” – all equally unconvincing. Or could it, perhaps, unconsciously symbolise the zigzagging course of Russian history, currently reverting to an upgraded version of Stalinism?
Whatever meaning, if any, was infused into the letter “Z” by its creators (who are probably, as journalists suggest, linked to a PR team of the Russian Ministry of Defense), it is hidden and ineffective due to a lack of the deciphering apparatus. And this semantic ineffectiveness is what makes it so effective. There is a plain truth in propaganda: the meaning of a symbol is not the sense it has but what is done – what is performed – with this symbol.
One cannot say that there is no pragmatics of the “Z.” On the contrary, it has been used in multiple acts: in redesigns of government agencies’ website logos; in the camouflaged as grassroots, but usually state-orchestrated, caravans of cars bedecked with militaristic symbols; in various other flashmobs like the local Kazan children’s hospice ranking its patients in the “Z” form at yard or kindergarden workers doing the same thing accompanied by the pop song with the following words: “Russia! Russia! There is fire and power in this word!”; not to mention official events like Putin’s speech at the Luzhniki Stadium and the upcoming May 9 celebrations.
Having mentioned all these acts and displays, an unsophisticated but inevitable question comes to mind. Was this “Z”-thing fated to be so ugly? Russia has a grotesquely huge propaganda machine stuffed with qualified specialists and a military tradition, which has generated a lasting pool of meanings, images, and ideas. You don’t even need to fabricate anything new; just draw from the pool! Why so pathetic then?
A part of the answer lies in the May 9 date and the specifically Russian, neo-Soviet aberration of a post-WWII ideology, manifest in its Great Patriotic War cult. Frozen in a post-WWII epoch propaganda-wise, Russian leadership imitates not only its content, but also its form – the form produced by the epoch thoroughly cleansed of opposition and by censored media streams with a unitarian public opinion infrastructure, which in the case of the Soviet Union was additionally controlled by the state. So, you play by the Soviet propaganda textbook: provide militaristic rhetoric on TV, purge opposition media, censor the internet, declare rappers to be foreign agents, and you even mobilize children to support propaganda messaging… But it does not work as planned. Why? The reason is not just that the old images in the textbook were fake; it is the textbook itself. Russia somehow believed in a propagandistic posturing of a bygone, long-disintegrated era. Now, neither the form nor the content function well, and the incongruence of both with the present is especially striking. Hence, to cover over this jarring anachronism and contradiction, a totally meaningless symbol is deployed.
It was not by chance that, even after his initial plan to conquer Ukraine in a matter of days failed, Putin hoped to declare victory in his undeclared war on May 9, the date when Victory Day is celebrated in Russia, recalling the parade of the Soviet troops that took place on Red Square in 1945. Putin’s “Plan B” has been definitively shelved, however, and, instead, it looks likely that on or around this date he will finally declare the “operation” in Ukraine a full-fledged war and, perhaps, go as far as announcing general mobilization. The mere possibility of such an about-face—a day of victory becoming the day of a formal declaration of war—belies the 180-degree reversal of roles, increasingly difficult to mask behind a fake façade of continuity.
The most interesting consequences of the ideological shenanigans related to WWII in Putin’s Russia are reserved for the historical judgment of the past, viewed through the lens of the present. If it is true that the whitewashed image of the Soviet army as “the liberators of Europe” in 1945 has suffered severe chips and cracks recently, the February 24, 2022 invasion of Ukraine will have retrospectively tainted this image and its legacy for good. Curiously, the Russian regime itself is greatly contributing to this process by tying the symbols of the Soviet struggle against Nazism in the 1940s to this year’s unjustified and unjustifiable war in Ukraine.
Nevertheless, received ideas and, even more so, affectively charged unconscious associations are slow to change—in this case, their alteration is definitely slower than real-time events. The recently overcome reluctance of the German chancellor Olaf Scholz to send weapons to Ukraine is not limited to pragmatic reasons and desire to avoid WWIII. His reluctance is further explicable with regard to the specifically German trauma of the previous world wars and the view of the Soviet Army as the “liberator of Europe.” The same uncritical backdrop may be spotted behind the arguments in support of the official German position recently advanced by Juergen Habermas.
The retrospective coloring of historical judgment shows that history is much more than a dispassionate record of events; it is a dynamic, living web of interpretations. We are not doomed to a false choice between purely objective facts and revisionism, with its often-groundless contestation of those fact. Instead, we ought to observe, carefully and critically, who interprets historical materials, how, and for what purpose, as well as when and where. What does the 2022 equation V Day = Z Day in Putin’s Russia convey? Is it a simple betrayal of Soviet anti-Nazi fight? How does this betrayal unfold in the name of the very ideals and people it betrays? Only such precise questioning, which avoids readymade labels and conclusions, is capable of untangling the complexities of the historical web. And this is a lesson in the meaning of history, which Putin has taught us, largely despite himself.