Z is for zombie—Russia’s meme war against Ukraine
The origin of the “Z” sign in the Russia-Ukraine War has been the subject of debate since it was first sighted on Russian tanks and gymnasts’ singlets at the start of the invasion in February. “Z” does not appear in the Russian alphabet and explanations have been unconvincing, ranging from field markings to a new coinage signifying “Victory.” But the source will seem obvious to anyone who has played the video game World War Z. The “Z,” pronounced both “zed” and “zee” in the game, stands for zombies.
After the invasion of the Crimea in 2014, Ukrainians quickly dubbed the Russians and their allies “orcs” after the warrior monsters of The Lord of the Rings and Warhammer universes. Russia became Mordor. The Russian response took six years, only emerging after the release of World War Z as a multi-player online game in 2019.
World War Z had a strong Russian slant from the start. It was developed by Saber Interactive, with programmers recuited from St Petersburg Aerospace University and the Kalashnikov Technical University in Izhevsk. The game includes a Moscow level which does not appear in Max Brooks’s original 2006 novel or in David Fincher’s 2013 film adaptation.
Saber revamped the game in 2021 with another new level set on a Russian submarine base in Kamchatka, Siberia. The game’s premise is that civilisation is under attack from an endless wave of virus-spreading zombies. When Vladimir Putin escalated his invasion of Ukraine two years into the Covid pandemic, claiming an existential threat from hordes of Nazi drug addicts, the parallels must have seemed apposite. The real-life Russo-Ukraine war is routinely dubbed the Z-War in Russia, as though the online and real wars are two sides of the same battle.
The roots of the World War Z franchise lie in a survival guide to a Zombie apocalypse written by Brooks, an Emmy Award-winning Saturday Night Live writer. The Zombie Survival Guide (2003) reads like a deadpan comic turn. Brooks, the son of Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft, established a more serious tone with the 2006 novel by drawing on accounts of the Second World War.
Inspired by the zombie game Left4Dead, Saber, which began life in St Petersburg but is now owned by Sweden’s Embracer Group, licensed World War Z. As in the novel, different nationalities must band together to save humanity from a greater threat. In Saber’s game, the Russians include a Cossack-dressed fighter named Timur and a female warrior with the Ukrainian name Oksana. The Moscow level is set around the Kremlin, in the GUM department store and the Pushkin State Museum. In the Kamchatka-set episode, Japanese fighters must save Russians in order to complete the level. Also, like Brooks’s novel, the game sees major cities sacrificed for the greater good. The Kremlin is discovered to be fitted with a nerve agent that will be activated if the city comes under foreign occupation. Gamers must trigger this apocalyptic defence before moving to the next level.
World War Z contains nothing that could be seen as anti-Ukrainian propaganda. Yet it insistently plays on the idea that Russia is engaged in an extermination-level war which demands suicidal defensive acts. The zombie threat is described as a “horde,” evoking the Turkic nomadic tribes on Russia’s borders. The final victory over the horde came in the 18th century, when Russian and Cossack forces toppled the Crimean khanate. Although Cossacks are also Turkic, they were Russian allies. (In fact, by the 19th century, Cossack cavalries were no more Turkic than French Zouaves were Algerian: they were imperial regiments in fancy dress.)
Historian Kamil Galeev, who has Crimean heritage, argues Putin is fighting a war of acquisition to build a Russian homeland retro-engineered on the dubious basis of the geographical spread of Old Russian and the reach of the Orthodox faith. Galeev, writing on Twitter, sees the Z-War as white supremacist, based on Russia’s idiosyncratic notions of Europe and Christianity. The war looks different through Russian eyes, because Russia has created its own memes about Europe and Christianity, as well as ideas about the subhuman swarms at its borders, to explain the war as a defensive action.
Galeev points to the Russian film Brother 2, which sees a Russian humiliate an American gangster, leaving him alive when his Ukrainian henchmen are exterminated. In the film, the assassin recites a nursery rhyme before killing the henchmen. The same nursery rhyme has become a meme in the Z-War, recited in TikTok and YouTube videos by both politicians and fighters.
Yet Galeev believes Russians have a weaker sense of loyalty than westerners suppose. Patriotism is transactional, and there is no deep sense of traditional values. All that keeps Russia together is fear and favour from the state, and the threat of humiliation from the outside. This is why memes that reflect extreme violence strike a chord.
Of course, shoot-em-up games are ubiqtous. Russians are great at making and playing them, but they are not alone in drawing on the imagery. (In the Arab Spring, militias edited their own videos to resemble games.) When Ukrainians depict Russia as Mordor and enemy soldiers as Orcs, it is odds-on that they are also thinking of the battle as a video game. But the Ukrainians are using a metaphor to insult an enemy, while the Russians are adopting a meme, the Z-War, to describe their own actions: they are playing a game, one that demands the stakes are constantly raised—perhaps to a level at which Russia itself ceases to exist.
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