The mural 'St. Javelina', which depicts a symbolic figure of Madonna holding a US anti-tank missile system 'Javelin' - used by the Ukrainian army in the fight with Russian troops - on the wall of an apartment block in Kyiv (Kiev), Ukraine, 25 May 2022.
© EPA-EFE/OLEG PETRASYUK   |   The mural 'St. Javelina', which depicts a symbolic figure of Madonna holding a US anti-tank missile system 'Javelin' - used by the Ukrainian army in the fight with Russian troops - on the wall of an apartment block in Kyiv (Kiev), Ukraine, 25 May 2022.

From Z to Saint Javelin: symbols of the two sides of the war in Ukraine

Wars have their symbols. They can be insignia, often carrying a sinister connotation, associated with the forces in conflict – the swastika, the hammer and sickle, or the seal of Muhammad,  used as a banner by the Islamic State. “Killroy was here”, drawn by American World War II soldiers almost everywhere they went, has been described as the first viral meme in history  “Lily Marlen” was listened to and hummed by Germans and Allies alike. In the Yugoslav wars, the Serbs would make the three-finger sign of Orthodox brotherhood, and the examples could go on.

The war in Ukraine is no exception to this rule and is associated with its own set of symbols, from the Z that became the symbol of the Russian invasion to the “Holy Javelin”, invented by Ukrainians in the early part of the war, when the Javelin anti-tank systems basically saved their country.

Moscow uses such symbols to justify the invasion, but also to get men to go to war - and here they turn to characters like Babushka Z or the schoolboy Alyosha. Kyiv, on the other hand, seeks to strengthen the spirit of resistance of the population by showing the heroism of those who are fighting but also the ability of Ukraine to resist, marked by symbols such as the Azvostal plant or the ceramic rooster, and to defy the invaders with insults like “Idi nahui!”. Another purpose is to strengthen the Ukrainian identity, and here historical symbols are used, such as the trident of the armed forces.

Russia’s symbols, a mix of operational markings, Imperial and Soviets insignia and propagandistic characters. Letters that herald death: Z and V

People walk past a letter Z installation on display as part of decoration for Christmas and the New Year holidays in Moscow, Russia, 20 December 2022. ©EPA-EFE/MAXIM SHIPENKOV

The most famous symbols of Russian aggression are the letters Z and V, written in paint on tanks and combat equipment sent to Ukraine; some observers have even compared the Z to the Nazi swastika from World War II.

Ukrainian military analysts, who have worked with the Russian or Soviet military in the past, say these letters represent the direction of the offensive  or the geographical deployment of troops. Z – “zapad” (west) and V – “vostok” (east). Also, in the second half of 2022 tanks appeared on the front with the inscriptions O, Y or other such combinations that would show where from the combat vehicle was brought to the front. However, because the two letters spontaneously became the symbols of the so-called “special military operations”, in March 2022 the Russian Ministry of Defense explained that Z stands for “Za pobedu”  (to victory), V – “Sila v pravde” (Truth is a force), and ZV together - "Zadacia budet vipolnena" (The order will be fulfilled). Despite the many hypotheses on this topic, letters Z and V will remain the main symbols of the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, being used in various combinations by the Russian propaganda.

The Ribbon of Saint George, an imperial relic used to celebrate the Soviet Union

The black-orange ribbon was first used by Empress Catherine II, who introduced the order of “Saint George” to decorate the Russian military. The communist regime banned the use of this symbol of the Russian Empire, later introducing a similar ribbon, called the “guard ribbon”. So, the ribbon of St. George has nothing to do with the USSR and especially with the heroic battles of the Soviet military against the Nazi troops,  as the Russian press is trying to convince us.

Out of the two symbols, Putin's regime created just one, promoting the idea that the two ribbons are identical or linked. In 2005, the ribbon of Saint George was established as a symbol of Victory Day over Nazi Germany in Russia, and an annual campaign was launched to distribute these ribbons among the population.

In 2014, in Ukraine, the ribbon of Saint George became a symbol associated with the pro-Russian separatists , and the Ukrainian authorities decided to drop it. At the moment the symbol of the Russian army is being used in the war in Ukraine to encourage the armed aggression. In his New Year's speech, Vladimir Putin addressed his citizens surrounded by soldiers wearing the ribbon , which is  banned on the territory of several states, including Lithuania and the Republic of Moldova, as a symbol of aggression and violence.

Babushka Z – the old woman who appeared in front of the Ukrainian army with a Soviet flag

In early April 2022, a video showing an old woman saluting the Ukrainian military with a red Soviet flag went viral. The pensioner believed that the Russian troops had entered the town of Dmitrievka, in the Kharkiv region, and told the Ukrainian military that she and her husband  “had waited and prayed for them, for Putin and for all the people”. After taking the flag, the Ukrainian soldiers offered her food. Seeing that one of the soldiers threw down the Soviet symbol, she refused the help of the Ukrainians. The old woman (in Russian – “babushka”) said she was very fond of the USSR flag that her parents had fought for and accused Zelensky of not knowing how to talk to Putin, thus causing the war.

A picture taken during a visit to Mariupol organized by the Russian military shows a Russian serviceman adjusting the Soviet flag on a statue of a grandmother in Leninsky Komsomol Square in downtown of Mariupol, Ukraine, 18 May 2022. @EPA-EFE/SERGEI ILNITSKY

The Russian media quickly picked up on the topic, and images of Babushka Z filled the Internet in Russia, while street paintings of her were being drawn across the country. In Mariupol, but also in a number of cities in Russia, monuments dedicated to the old woman with the Soviet flag were erected , with the aim of justifying the war and convincing the public opinion that there are people who are “waiting to be liberated” and cannot endure the “Nazi persecution” in Ukraine. Russian men were encouraged to join the army to defend the old women of Ukraine.

Alyosha – the child symbol of the support for the “special military operation”

On August 8, 2022, Vladimir Putin declared that the symbol of the “special military operation” is  a 1st grader named Alyosha  from the Belgorod region, who greets and waits by every military convoy sent by Moscow to Ukraine. Russian television stations made a series of reports from the village where Alyosha lives . Some parliamentarians from pro-Putin parties have stated that Ukraine will be defeated in the war because children “who dream of peace” believe in victory, including the 8-year-old schoolboy from the Belgorod region.

A series of articles appeared on social media about the schoolboy Alyosha who dreams of becoming a soldier to defend the elderly and children, just as those sent to fight in Ukraine are doing now.

The Alyosha symbol is used by the propaganda of the Russian Federation to encourage the enlistment of men in the army and to raise public awareness by comparing the tranquility and peace of Alyosha's village with the stress children in Ukraine are subject to, children who, according to the Russian state media, are “persecuted by the Ukrainian authorities” because they are Russian speakers.

Ukraine’s symbols are about the national identity and key moments in the war. The trident and the red-black flag

A view of bread for refugees, territorial defense members and servicemen with a symbol that looks like a trident, a national Emblem of Ukraine, in the South Ukrainian city of Odesa, Ukraine, 18 April 2022, amid the Russian invasion. @EPA-EFE/STEPAN FRANKO

In addition to the yellow-blue national flag of Ukraine, an important symbol in the war is the red-black flag. It is known as a flag of the Ukrainian nationalists from the Second World War period. Under this flag, which Ukrainian forces had also used during the clashes that took place between 2014 and 2022, the Kyiv army has liberated a number of cities in Donbass and Kharkiv, taking over the symbol from the troops involved in the military clashes in the east of the country in the years 2014-2022. According to the decision of the local councils of Ukraine, this flag, symbolizing  the land of Ukraine and the blood shed on it for freedom , was hoisted in addition to the state flag on a number of buildings in cities and villages: schools, town halls, factories, etc.

Another symbol of Ukrainian resistance in the war is the trident – ​​the state coat of arms which can be seen on the uniform of President Volodymyr Zelensky during speeches given to various international forums or addressed to Ukrainian society. Russian propaganda has tried to prove to the public opinion that the trident is an version of the swastika, but without much success. In reality, the trident was taken over in the Ukrainian political tradition from the Zaporizhzhian Cossacks of the 17th century who, in turn, had taken it over from the princes of Kievan Rus’. They seem to have gotten it from the Kingdom of Bosphorus, a Hellenistic state that existed on part of the current territory of Ukraine, the trident being the symbol of the Greek god Poseidon.

Historians claim that the trident became an important symbol for the Kievan state after the Christianization of Russia , being considered a variation of the cross. Zelensky used this symbol, reminding Ukrainians that all Zaporizhzhian Cossacks fought in the past against the invaders. Moreover, the president of Ukraine would appear in front of the cameras in a military uniform or T-shirt, reinforcing his image as a fighter with the help of the trident, which symbolizes fighting, faith and truth.

Azovstal plant

The “Azovstal” plant in Mariupol became a symbol of Ukrainian resistance in this war. After Mariupol was surrounded by Russian troops, thousands of people remained in the basements of the plant, including children, women, and fighters. Military observers were amazed by the bravery of the Ukrainian soldiers, most of them from the “Azov” regiment, who put up enormous resistance despite the incessant bombardment and the numerical superiority of the Russian enemy . After three months of fighting, on May 20, 2022, the Ukrainian soldiers surrendered in captivity, having no contact with the armed forces for more than 2 months. The Ukrainians had no realistic chance of rescuing the fighters at “Azovstal”, the last bastion of resistance in the city devastated by Russian bombing. The Ukrainian plant and fighters continue to be a symbol of bravery and courage in this war.

 “Idi nahui!” The insult with which the Ukrainians greeted the Russians

The Ukrainian border guards on the island of Snakes were taken prisoner by the Russian army in February 2022. They became the authors of the Ukrainian slogan, which later became an important symbol in the war with Russia, after, on the second day of the invasion, at the request of the cruiser “Moskva” to surrender, the crew received the reply: “Russian warship, idi nahui”, an insult which would translate into “go fuck yourself”.

A person using a mobile phone takes a picture of postage stamps at a Post Office in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, Ukraine, 23 May 2022, on the occasion of the official release of the second of a series of Ukrainian postage stamps titled 'Russian warship - Done!'. @EPA-EFE/MYKOLA TYS

The slogan became a symbol of Ukrainian resistance in the war and appeared everywhere - including on road signs, intended for the invading army, on which the names of towns in various directions had been replaced with “Idi nahui”. The Ukrainian postal service “Ukrposta” issued stamps featuring the Russian ship and a Ukrainian border guard, and people queued for 8 hours to buy a stamp. One of them  was sold at an international auction for 5 million hryvnias  (about 125 thousand euros). The money was transferred to the account of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

After the cruiser “Moskva” was sunk by a Ukrainian Neptune missile, the Ukrainian postal service printed 5 million more stamps with the slogan  “Russian warship, done!”.

The ceramic rooster – the symbol of invincibility

After a ceramic rooster, standing on a kitchen cabinet, remained intact following one of the bombings in Borodyanka in the Kyiv region, the object became a symbol of Ukrainian invincibility. It all started with  a photo published on social media  showing a partially collapsed building after the attack. Among the rubble, one could see how a kitchen cabinet remained intact, and a ceramic rooster sat intact on top of it. The photo went viral, the rooster acquired new meanings. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and then-British Prime Minister Boris Johnson each received a rooster-shaped ceramic jug from a Kharkiv woman during an unannounced visit as a symbol of resistance.

After Borodyanka was liberated and demined, the cabinet was dismantled and  handed over to the National Museum of the Revolution of Dignity  as a national symbol of Ukrainian invincibility.

“Chervona Kalyna” - the song of hope for peace

“Chervona Kalina” (“The Red Viburnum” is a traditional Ukrainian song, which acquired political meanings after, in the middle of the war with Russia, it was sung in  Saint Sophia Square in Kyiv  by the performer Andrii Hlivniuk of the band “Boombox”, armed and equipped as a member of the territorial defense unit. “Chervona Kalyna” was also performed by the legendary Pink Floyd, who recorded a new song for the first time in thirty years, with proceeds from sales going to support Ukraine.

“Chervona Kalyna” practically became the anthem of the defenders of the homeland. This song can be heard on the radio, on television, on the streets and on the front lines. The lyrics of the song represent the drama that Ukraine is going through, compared to the branches of a viburnum bush, which will rise and grow back strong after a great storm.

Article made for project
Fake News - Fake reality: Social resilience through critical thinking.

The project is carried out by the Association of Social Alternatives in partnership with the Association of the International Alliance of Romanian Journalists and the Center Iași County of Resources and Educational Assistance and benefits from a financing amounting to 148,055.00 euros, through the Active Citizens Fund Romania program, funded by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway through the 2014-2021 EEA Grants. The contents of this material do not necessarily represent the official position of EEA and Norwegian grants 2014-2021; for more information access

We work together for a green, competitive, inclusive Europe.

Details about the project here:

Marin Gherman

Marin Gherman

Follow us on Google News

10 minutes read
Viktor Orbán is showing signs of despair
Viktor Orbán is showing signs of despair

Viktor Orbán’s aggressive speech delivered in the Hungarian Parliament is evidence of Hungary’s lack of solutions to an economic crisis amplified by Orbán’s own policy-making, as well as of its growing isolation at EU and NATO levels.

Ioana Dumitrescu
Ioana Dumitrescu
29 Sep 2023
What Kremlin agents are doing in Poland
What Kremlin agents are doing in Poland

From cyberattacks to railway disruptions, Poland faced during the past several months a wave of incidents, many of them having the hallmarks of Russian intelligence.

Michal Kukawski
Michal Kukawski
25 Sep 2023
Bulgaria: steps to limit Moscow’s influence and a flood of pro-Russian narratives
Bulgaria: steps to limit Moscow’s influence and a flood of pro-Russian narratives

Bulgaria has been facing an uptick in pro-Russian disinformation, just as the country’s pro-Western government is questioning Moscow’s influence – and moves – in the country.

Svetoslav Todorov
Svetoslav Todorov
15 Sep 2023
Moldova takes over Gazprom’s pipelines and challenges hundreds of millions of USD worth of debt
Moldova takes over Gazprom’s pipelines and challenges hundreds of millions of USD worth of debt

Moldova, less reliant on Russian gas imports: Gazprom loses control over Moldova’s gas transport network, whereas Chișinău authorities say the country’s 700-million-dollar debt to Gazprom is a sham.

Corneliu Rusnac
Corneliu Rusnac
11 Sep 2023