The Russian invasion of Ukraine has shown no signs of slowing down and while international public support for the Ukrainian people continues to rise, there comes an unsettling reality that another nationalist symbol is taking shape.
Ivan Kuliak, a Russian gymnast, has sparked outrage and is due to face disciplinary measures for what the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) has described as “shocking behaviour.” The 20-year-old athlete who placed third at the Gymnastics World Cup event in Doha, Qatar was seen sporting a Russian war insignia while standing on the podium. What makes the matter even worse, however, is that Kuliak displayed the symbol right next to Ukrainian winner and gold medalist Kovtun Illia.
As the gymnasts stood on their respective podiums, Kuliak’s shirt displayed a prominent letter ‘Z’—a symbol that has been repeatedly seen on Russian military machinery and tanks involved in the invasion of Ukraine. The letter seems to have been used on the gymnast’s shirt in place of the Russian flag which has been banned by numerous sporting bodies including the gymnastics’ governing body.
The incident is to be investigated. In a statement FIG said: “The International Gymnastics Federation confirms that it will ask the Gymnastics Ethics Foundation to open disciplinary proceedings against Kuliak following his shocking behaviour at the Apparatus World Cup.”
“The FIG adopted further measures against Russia and Belarus on 4 March. From 7 March 2022, Russian and Belarusian athletes and officials, including judges, are not allowed to take part in FIG competitions or FIG-sanctioned competitions.”
First spotted on Russian vehicles starting 22 February as part of the on-the-ground invasion of Ukraine, the letter ‘Z’ appears to also have been adopted as an alt-right war cry by pro-Russian nationalists. Insider, in a detailed analysis of the origins and meaning of the letter, cited theories made by Kamil Galeev—a former Galina Starovoitova Fellow on Human Rights and Conflict Resolution at the Wilson Center—on Twitter. Galeev explained that some theories have suggested it’s shorthand for “za pobedy,” which is Russian for “victory.”
So while it may seem that the world is on Ukraine’s side, and rightly so, the reality is that Russia has its fair share of public support for the war. With over a million views, a video surfaced in early March that showed far-right Serbian protesters voicing their solidarity with Russia—they are seen sporting that same ‘Z’:
The horrors surrounding the Russian invasion of Ukraine are hard to miss—as the tragedies rise, so do the views on TikTok videos. Amid the trauma of this war comes a form of ‘warcore’ content we have never experienced before. Beginning as a defining term for a fashion trend, it appears that the aestheticisation of war now comes in video format.
Initially coined by Vogue as a response to the menswear shows of 2019, ‘warcore’ was used as a term to describe fashion’s reaction, or perhaps reflection, of the events of the wider world. In the midst of a year that had the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a deepening humanitarian crisis in Yemen, a worsening Trump presidency, a global #Metoo movement and troubling climate change impact, it’s safe to say there was a lot going on—and fashion followed suit.
“Arguably, this strain of warcore clothing is reflective of the violence, chaos, and widespread anxiety in the world at large. Athleisure, gorpcore, workwear and streetwear are all obvious antecedents, what’s new is the sense of survivalism,” Vogue writer Steff Yotka explained. With such a statement, one must wonder who such ‘survivalism’ is for. Fashion’s ‘reflection’ of the times may actually just be a co-option of a struggle and an aestheticisation of war.
In 2019, Troy Patterson wrote about the trend in The New Yorker where he pointed to the 1996 work of critic Suzy Menkes in The New York Times in which she noted “the linkage of fashion with war [as] problematic” and suggested that the industry’s “raiding of blood-soaked references” may appear “crassly exploitative.” Such analysis can be applicable beyond the realm of warcore fashion into the current cultural reactions to war, or more accurately the Russian invasion of Ukraine, online. It is where performative activism, an obsession with graphic content and ‘aesthetic’ converge to create a TikTok-like warcore.
Patterson’s words ring as true today as they did in 2019, “Now, in a time of endless war, heedless consumption, and great social stratification, all bets are off.”
SCREENSHOT spoke to one Ukrainian citizen on the day the current immediate offence began—24 February—and revealed her views on the sinister “reality show” element of the war on her people. “The last two weeks became especially tensive. People are different all over the world so there were diverse reactions to the situation,” she said. At the time, she went on to share that she felt “doomed” by the situation, wishing for more to be done to help the country.
“I feel like the whole world is watching, empathising and can’t do anything. It reminds me of times when everyone was watching Squid Game. We are like the next reality show to people.”
And a reality show it seems to be. In the strange dystopian-like world we live in, the biggest war to hit a European nation since World War II is being watched on TikTok. This is, of course, not the first time social media has been used in times of war; made clear by writer Gugulethu Khumalo for SCREENSHOT in her piece Following the Tigray genocide, here’s how the African youth is redefining politics on TikTok, both TikTok’s role in Africa and Facebook’s use in the Arab Spring were citied. The arguments of social media’s positive use in spreading information to the masses are without doubt valid and true—it helps cut through the censorship of some major news organisations or governments to show people evident on-the-ground reality. However, what is surfacing today has become a little more than just that.
The ‘aesthetics’ of war have reached beyond the menial realms of clothing and have developed into a deeply intriguing, as well as ultimately tragic, cultural phenomenon online. Away from the typical content we have witnessed surface among times of war on social media comes a movement that edits gruelling, painfully traumatic and violent moments into music dominated, short trailers of sorts.
Perhaps made with good intention at heart, and possibly even a motivating or encouraging element for those affected by the horrors of this invasion, such clips fit the bill. It is a strange part of the emotional discourse online that rightly aims to spread as much support for Ukraine as possible, however, there is something insidious to be said about individuals editing real horrific events into a punchy montage.
These are real Ukrainians with real trauma who are having their lives movie-fied for likes into a, much like SCREENSHOT’s Ukrainian source cited, Squid Game–like “reality show.” Speaking of Squid Game, in an article by Jack Ramage titled Why are we all so damn obsessed with death game TV? which seeks to address the immense popularity of the genre, the writer largely explained that there is very little research out there to better understand such phenomena but stated “horror can be a satisfying experience of ‘unrealism’—the enjoyment of knowing, for a fact, that it’s all fake anyway.”
This time, however, it’s not fake, it’s real. But it appears that large pools of social media users have yet to understand this. Users have been using footage from other crises, like that of a Palestinian girl, and wrongfully labelled it as being from Ukraine—with nearly a million likes on the video, that is cause for some serious concern. Instead, TikTok users have turned legitimate blood-shed into a romanticised Call of Duty–like (COD) game they play on TikTok with the ‘Ghost of Kyiv’ as their choice player.
It is ironic that I wrote such a statement alluding to COD before stumbling upon a comment on the above video, with over 30,000 likes, that writes, “There is no way this doesn’t become a COD mission.” Yes, that’s a real comment.
Our society’s worrying infatuation with being an observer to murder, war and violence has perhaps played its role in our overall desensitisation to war itself and its impact on human beings—especially for those of colour, in the Middle East and Africa, whose similar experiences with war are not met with the same support, empathy or respect.
Not to mention there are real dangers in finding yourself immersed in the warcore side of the internet. It’s not just those well-meaning videos aiming to share the news or rightly advocate for Ukraine and its freedom, others with ulterior motives have access to such tools too. Reports have surfaced that Russian powers are also pushing their own tactics in this ‘digital war’ by using fake Ukrainian social media profiles to promote its propaganda. Despite some pushback from social media platforms that have aimed to block Russian activity, these trailer-filled trenches online run deep.