The Wall Street Journal: How the letter ‘Z’ became a Russian pro-war symbol

When 20-year-old Russian athlete Ivan Kuliak stepped onto the podium at the Gymnastics World Cup beside event winner Illia Kovtun from Ukraine, a barely discernible symbol on his uniform prompted an official investigation into his conduct and widespread condemnation from the international community.

The letter Z—taped in white over Mr. Kuliak’s white shirt as he received his bronze medal for the parallel bars at a ceremony in Doha, Qatar, on Saturday—has emerged for those supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a symbol of pride in the attacking armed forces. In the West, it is being condemned as a sign of nationalist sentiment.

The International Gymnastics Federation, which on Monday barred Russian and Belarusian athletes from its events, said it had opened disciplinary proceedings against Mr. Kuliak.

The letter first began appearing on Russian tanks and armored vehicles as they massed near Ukraine’s border days before Russian troops crossed the border. Military analysts say the letter, along with other markers, is used by the Russian military as identifiers to distinguish their equipment on the battlefield from that of Ukraine.

An expanded version of this article appears on

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