Look at Moscow through the lens of Russian state television, and everything seems to be going swimmingly for President Vladimir Putin.
On Friday, the Kremlin leader attended a concert at the capital’s Luzhniki stadium to mark the eighth anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. The show, in effect, was a pep rally for Putin’s war in Ukraine.
Putin appeared in front of a flag-waving crowd in front of a podium that read, “Zа мир без нацисма” – “For a world without Nazism” – a sort of marketing slogan-slash-propaganda case for the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The slogan even made use of the letter “Z,” which is morphing into the official symbol of support for Putin’s war: the Cyrillic letter “З” in the slogan was replaced by a Z, evoking the markings first spotted on Russian military vehicles ahead of the February 24 invasion.
For those Russians who don’t support the war, life under the sign of the ‘Z’ is becoming increasingly grim.
Take a look at social media posts by some opposition activists. On March 16, Olga Misik – a youthful activist best known for reading a copy of Russia’s constitution in front of riot police at an anti-government demonstration – posted a photo of a Z spray-painted in white on her apartment door.
“Don’t sell out the motherland, bitch,” the accompanying graffiti read.
Another democratic activist posted a similar photo on Friday, the Z tag spray-painted in black along with graffiti accusing them of being an “enemy of the people.”
Hunt for internal enemies
But why the vitriol, if everything – as Putin reassures his people – is going to plan?
Part of it may be explained by a speech Wednesday evening by Putin, who told Russians that there were fifth columnists – enemies – among the ranks of their fellow countrymen.
“The West will try to rely on the so-called fifth column, on national traitors, on those who earn money here with us but live there,” Putin said.
“And I mean ‘live there’ not even in the geographical sense of the word, but according to their thoughts, their slavish consciousness.”
The Russian people, Putin added, will “always be able to distinguish true patriots from scum and traitors, and simply spit them out like a gnat that accidentally flew into their mouths, spit them out on the pavement.”
Putin’s call for the “self-cleansing of society” should disturb anyone with even a passing familiarity with Russian and Soviet history. The hunt for internal enemies became the pretext for the Great Terror, the wave of show trials, imprisonment and executions that Joseph Stalin launched in 1937.
During that campaign, the Soviet government exhorted citizens to inform on neighbors, co-workers and even family members over any suspicion of disloyalty.
The Z campaign has a similar grassroots element. No one, it seems, is being forced to tape the Z on the window of their car, or spray-paint the door of a well-known oppositionist. But the images appearing on social media signal a real atmosphere of fear and intimidation.
Putin has said Russia “will definitely implement all our plans” in Ukraine. But as Russian troop casualties mount in Ukraine – Russia’s official military death toll is still frozen at under 500, a figure not updated since the beginning of March – it’s clear that the wrath of the authorities will be directed at anyone who is not toeing the official line.
Take the Rosgvardia, Russia’s National Guard, Putin’s domestic security force. Open-source research and anecdotal evidence suggests that Rosgvardia units – which are lightly armed and equipped – have taken heavy losses in the fighting in Ukraine.
Rosgvardia is well practiced at crushing domestic dissent in Russia, where its riot control troops are best known for jailing political demonstrators. But those forces were likely not well prepared for major combat against Ukrainian units outfitted with effective anti-tank weaponry and armed drones.
And that’s a worry when it comes to Russia. Viktor Zolotov, the general who heads Rosgvardia, has a vengeful streak. He is best known for threatening in 2018 to turn Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny into a “tenderized beefsteak” after Navalny published an investigation into Zolotov’s alleged involvement in a corruption scheme.
Such threats have a bad habit of being predictive in Russia. Navalny is currently in a Russian penal colony after surviving nerve-agent poisoning.
And the ruthlessness with which Russia has cracked down on anti-war protests suggests the tactics of the authorities may become more heavy-handed. OVD-Info, a monitoring group that tracks arrests and detentions at political demonstrations, says more than 15,000 people have been detained in anti-war protests around the country. Police have been observed brutally beating some demonstrators.
So where does that leave Russia, and Russians? On Sunday, Russia’s communications watchdog Roskomnadzor ordered the closure of two online news outlets, Agentura.ru and Mediazona Central Asia, Russian state news agency TASS reported Sunday.
That leaves Russians with two fewer sources of independent information. And some opposition-minded Russians – with dark humor – are now referring on social media to the “Z” as the “Zвастика” (Zwastika), a comparison that could easily land them in jail.