The Letter 'Z' Suddenly Seems Like It's Everywhere in Russia: What Does It Mean?

Letter Z in Russia
Letter Z in Russia

Viktor Antonyuk / Sputnik via AP

The letter "Z" all of a sudden seems to be everywhere in Russia amid the widely denounced invasion of Ukraine, even though the letter doesn't even exist in the Cyrillic alphabet.

The letter was first spotted painted by hand on thousands of tanks and other military vehicles along the Ukrainian border. Since the war began on Feb. 24, it has popped up on the sides of buildings in Russian cities, on social media, on hats and hoodies sold online and even on a Russian gymnast's uniform at the Apparatus World Cup in Doha, Qatar, leading to her being reprimanded

Brands highlighted the letter in logos. Regional officials have even added it to place names. Sick children, standing in a crooked line to form the letter, posed for pictures at a hospice.

It may be an unlikely way for Russians to share a view on the conflict — many of them in support of the fighting — given that the letter doesn't exist in the Cyrillic alphabet used in the language (its closest version looks more like a 3).

But the symbol has certainly caught on, that much is clear. Some experts said it had the hallmarks of propaganda.

"This is definitely a state-induced meme," one analyst told The New York Times. "There are always people receptive to this kind of message."

What the "Z" means to those using it is not always consistent, however.

Initially, it was believed to possibly be a marker for military vehicles — emblazoned with other letters and symbols — to avoid friendly fire. Or did it stand for zapad, the Russian word for west, where Russian troops were stationed in preparation for war?

Another theory suggested it stood for the last name of Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

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Letter Z in Russia
Letter Z in Russia

Kommersant Photo Agency/Shutterstock

The meaning of the letter came up in a heated exchange between the Ukrainian and Russian ambassadors to the U.N. during a Security Council meeting on Monday, according to the Times.

When the Ukrainian diplomat suggested "Z" stood for zveri, which means "animals" in Russian, the Russian counterpart insinuated an insult, saying his people understand who the animals really are.

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A writer for The New Yorker reports that Russia's Defense Ministry said the "Z" could be used to represent za, which means "for" in Russian so that when combined with the image of children, the message would be "for the children."

Written next to a word like "victory," it's understood as "for victory," which is how Russian officials have now explained use of the letter, per the Times.

Some protesters in Russia, where dissent is a risky pursuit, appeared to follow that last theory while holding signs that said zachem, according to The Guardian.

In English, the phrase is pointedly interpreted as "for what?"

Letter Z in Russia
Letter Z in Russia

AFP via Getty Images

Russia's attack on Ukraine continues after their forces launched a large-scale invasion on Feb. 24 — the first major land conflict in Europe in decades.

Details of the fighting change by the day, but hundreds of civilians have already been reported dead or wounded, including children. More than a 2 million Ukrainians have also fled, the United Nations says.

"You don't know where to go, where to run, who you have to call. This is just panic," Liliya Marynchak, a 45-year-old teacher in Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine, told PEOPLE of the moment her city was bombed — one of numerous accounts of bombardment by the Russians.

The invasion, ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin, has drawn condemnation around the world and increasingly severe economic sanctions against Russia.

RELATED: Ways to Help the People of Ukraine as Russia Launches War

With NATO forces massing in the region around Ukraine, various countries have also pledged aid or military support to the resistance. President Zelenskyy called for peace talks — so far unsuccessful — while urging his country to fight back.

Putin insists Ukraine has historic ties to Russia and he is acting in the best security interests of his country. Zelenskyy vowed not to bend.

"Nobody is going to break us, we're strong, we're Ukrainians," he told the European Union in a speech in the early days of the fighting, adding, "Life will win over death. And light will win over darkness."

The Russian attack on Ukraine is an evolving story, with information changing quickly. Follow PEOPLE's complete coverage of the war here, including stories from citizens on the ground and ways to help.