Hammer + Sickle = Death + Famine
Story by Cadmus
Illustrated by Oleh Smal
Most people born in the Soviet Union (or those who spent even a short time living there), have heard this poem. In the 1990s, it even appeared in the lyrics of a song by at least one band. Quoting it today on social media elicits a profound anger in Russians, who then join in a unified chorus of nostalgia.
It turns out this epigram, devoted to the Soviet state’s symbols, is not the product of folklore, as one might initially suspect. The sarcastic stanza first appeared in a German agitprop leaflet in 1941 serving as a kind of free pass to be taken into German captivity. The backside of the leaflet calls on the reader to surrender, promising both food and work. Marvelous propaganda! So good, in fact, people can recite these simple four lines more than eighty (!) years after the Nazis first put them into circulation.
There’s no better propaganda than the truth. The Stalin-era Soviet Union was obviously not the best place in the world to live. Millions of people died from famine, hundreds of thousands were exiled, hundreds of thousands more were shot. There was no logic to who would be imprisoned or killed. Anyone could be arbitrarily designated a kurkul (from the Ukrainian meaning wealthy farmer), or “enemy of the state,” or “foreign fascist spy.”
In some cases, these types of accusations ended in a bitter twist of irony. A great example is found in an episode from Ivan Bahryanyi’s semi-autobiographical novel Garden of Gethsemane (1950). It so happened when night fell over the prison, one of the inmates of the penitentiary on Sovnarkom Street in downtown Kharkiv, the “Armenian otaman” Karapetyan, would begin his traditional daily routine of entertaining his fellow brothers in misfortune. Packing tobacco into his pipe, he got a light from Engineer N., who was sitting beside him on the prison cell bench. After taking a drag, he looked N. straight in the eye, and said: “You built a nice prison here …Very nice… Thank you, brother…”.
In prison, when a fellow inmate is the man who designed the prison and is now its prisoner, there’s nothing left to do but live your life hoping a similar twist of fate will somehow pass you by. You experience a sense of temporary relief when they take your cellmate away, because it wasn’t you. At least not this time around. So, it’s no surprise this particular poem on a German propaganda leaflet about getting “f*cked” by the state resonated with the souls of Red Army soldiers.
Not all German propaganda was as successful. A leaflet with a picture of General Andrey Vlasov elicited disgust from Soviet soldiers and their commanders. It’s understandable because nobody likes a traitor. Initially, the Germans were in no hurry to send the Vlasovites to the frontlines. They did not see active combat duty until 1944, when the Germans thought the example of the ex-Soviet military commander, deserter, and defector would somehow show his former associates the “proper” path to take.
It should come as no surprise a poem making fun of Soviet state symbols was popular during the Stalin era. What’s more impressive is the fact it has survived to this day. Germany was crushed, along with its ability to print leaflets, so the words could no longer be read on paper. However, the poem spread by word of mouth and was quoted everywhere. As luck would have it, the poetic form simplified its commission to memory. And its constant repetition signified solidarity with its meaning. A lot of Soviet citizens genuinely felt the hammer and sickle represented something other than what was officially articulated.
The human mind has amazing capabilities: it can organize unrelated items into a system and see images in what is nothing but a random set of contours. At some point in our lives, we have all seen clouds that look like a cat, bear, boat, etc. In 1976, the Viking-1 spacecraft took pictures of Cydonia, a region in the northern hemisphere of the planet Mars. One of the pictures included an elevated landform with steep sides, which had the appearance of a human face. Scientists immediately explained this was an illusion, the result of the interplay between light and shadow. But there were those who insisted this image was proof of the existence of a heretofore unknown civilization on Mars. In the end, technological progress provided the opportunity to snap a better picture of the strange Martian mesa. And, as expected, in high-definition images, there is no human face visible.
The propensity to see things not really there is called pareidolia: from the Greek para, meaning “beside,” “near,” or “instead of,” and eidolon meaning “image.” Pareidolia of the human face is one of the most common visual illusions we encounter. Scientists have shown the same parts of the brain are used by a person trying to recognize a face as when distinguishing between real and fake ones. Humans inherited this practice from primates, who use it to identify predators. Nature’s intention was to make our social interactions easier, to help us distinguish between familiar and unfamiliar people, and to glean information from their appearance.
But the default software nature installed apparently contained a small glitch, and it produced wildly unexpected results. This glitch is what gives most conspiracy theories the opportunity to flourish: human brains can take random information and find within it proof of the existence of an organization or plot hiding some terrible secret. That the earth is flat, for example. Luckily, such behavior on the part of homo sapiens is most likely a deviation from the norm. On a grand scale, this power of the human brain provides an evolutionary advantage by allowing us to build complex civilizational social systems. It lets people agree the letter “А” symbolizes the [a] sound. Reading me right now, you simply need to decode these symbols. By creating a consensus certain symbols designate certain sounds, we invented phonetical writing. The only people who missed out on this social contract were doctors – nobody can read their handwriting.
Humanity has surrounded its everyday life with numerous symbolic systems only truly understood in their cultural contexts. Sometimes, our symbols can be taken quite literally. A person depicted in a painting symbolizes a person, and nothing else. In some cases, a symbol can be completely unrelated to its subject or its meaning. A red traffic light signals the requirement to stop; but, on its own, red is only a color. And, in some parallel galaxy, red could easily serve as the traffic signal to “go.”
But let’s leave this droll theorizing aside and consider another example. Take the painting Annunciation by Italian artist Fra Angelico from the 15th century. Its subject matter is the Archangel Gabriel informing the Virgin Mary she is pregnant. The painting shows a beam of light emanating from the sun (in the top left corner of the canvas) to the young woman seated in the archway of a Renaissance style portico (lower right corner). A conspiracy theory fan and friend of mine claimed this masterpiece is an example of aliens being depicted in classical artwork. When I pointed out this is an image of the Immaculate Conception, he looked at me as if I had been the one trying to convince him aliens exist, and not vice-versa. It would be interesting to see how a conspiracy theorist may have painted this particular biblical story in Fra Angelico’s place.
All joking aside, the beam of light as a symbol of the Immaculate Conception or a white dove representing the Holy Spirit in Renaissance paintings (how else are you supposed to draw a spirit?) are naturally interpreted differently today, six hundred years later, than they were understood by the artist’s contemporaries. To truly understand symbols, you must immerse yourself in their context.
The most important aspect of any symbol, in my opinion, is its ability to hold an infinitely large amount of information. The cross, for example, embodies all of Christian culture and the entire history of Christianity for millions of faithful. And for millions of atheists as well, for they too see the cross as symbolizing something. All the information expressed by the cross (essentially two lines intersecting at a right angle) would not fit on a single computer. Not even on many computers, because it consists of a countless number of pages containing a multitude of different stories sharing a single symbol in common. The human mind’s ability to fit a limitless amount of information in a simple symbol is astounding. This is, perhaps, one of the few advantages our minds have over machine intelligence. And one of the main reasons why we’re the ones making machines and not the other way around. For now.
From this perspective, a state symbol is a kind of zip file condensing the entirety of a modern people’s culture and history into a single image. A country’s emblem or flag is a quick way of communicating a lot of information about yourself in the shortest possible time. The person viewing the symbol obtains a certain amount of information from it, depending on the cultural context they’re seeing it in.
In ridiculing the Soviet’s intersecting hammer and sickle, German propaganda attempted to change this symbol’s cultural context, which was fairly limited at the time. In fact, its story spanned a single generation: the hammer and sickle image was invented in 1918 from scratch, so to speak, conceptually symbolizing the union of proletarians and peasants, which, according to Marxist-Leninist doctrine, were class allies against the bourgeoise. Communism was supposed to come after the subjugated masses’ victory in an international proletarian revolution. Their political ideology, therefore, was directed forward, towards a “bright future.” A paradise for the majority was to be built on the backs of a minority named/considered to be “the exploiters.” In other words, the communist ideology by default demanded a victim to be sacrificed. And although that victim was supposed to be the bourgeoisie, the peasants, supposedly the closest class allies to the proletariat, were the ones who suffered the most. They died by the millions from artificially created famines.
Nazi propagandists skillfully hit their mark when they came up with the little ditty about the Soviet emblem. But did the Nazis think their own symbol’s staying power would only last four years? Probably not. The swastika was not invented by the Germans. It had existed for thousands of years. The “hooked cross,” as the Nazis themselves referred to it, was approved by Adolf Hitler as the symbol of the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NSDAP, from the German meaning National Socialist German Workers Party) in the 1920s. The party’s red, white, and black flag repeated the color scheme of the flag of the German Empire, which was destroyed in the aftermath of the First World War.
The swastika was extraordinarily popular at the time. Its meaning was something along the lines of “Good luck!” and was considered to be a sign of good fortune. It was used by commercial brands like Coca Cola. Still, nobody claimed exclusive rights to it.
How the world came to love the swastika was the topic of a BBC article from October 23, 2014. Tracing the symbol’s history, the author mentioned a statuette of a bird carved out of a mammoth tusk and supposedly decorated with a pattern made of swastikas. Researchers dated the statue to the end of the Ice Age. The valuable find was made in 1908 during the excavation of the Mezine site in Chernihiv oblast, and is housed today in the National Museum of History in Kyiv. Referencing this bird statuette, some speculate the oldest known swastika was made on the territory of Ukraine. Numerous tall tales flow from this “claim to fame.” In reality, however, the markings on the bird were a pattern called a “meander” or “Greek key,” made by carving a single continuous line repeating this motif.
The swastika began gaining popularity among the Germans after Heinrich Schliemann excavated Troy at the end of the 19th century. Three thousand years separate us from this settlement where actual swastikas were found on pieces of broken ceramics. Many took this symbol as a specific sign indicating a higher level of civilization. Adherents of this perspective reasoned the swastika must have appeared everywhere the Aryans went. And being a higher and more civilized people, the Aryans were, of course, destined to rule the world.
Actually, the swastika’s dissemination can be explained in lots of different ways. For example, by the migration of peoples, once living in relative proximity to each other, to different parts of the world. Another possibility to consider is the trade and sale of ceramics, or anything else which happened to be branded with swastika logos. In the Bronze Age and early Iron Age, nobody demanded compliance to intellectual property laws and copyrights. A design on some dishware found its way to another city, where the locals became fond of the symbol, and began copying it for decorating their own dishes. From there, it could be passed on to more places. These two explanations are interconnected because they are not mutually exclusive. Tribes, whose culture incorporated the swastika, could have migrated and resettled, and started trading their ceramic wares.
There is no evidence the initial use of the swastika had any sacred meaning, or that it was used exclusively by members of a single ethnic group. There is also no indication the population of Troy migrated north, or Trojans originated in the north. And there is absolutely no proof at all Aryans are the only ones allowed to use swastikas, as the theory’s adherents profess. Would a Jew get struck by lightning if they drew a swastika?
Ignoring these historical inconsistencies and in defiance of common sense, the pseudoscientific theories continued to be spread by occult societies in Austria and Germany whose members included those who later became Hitler’s political partners. One of the articles of faith they espoused was the belief in the existence of a country called Thule, located in the Far North and home to the descendants of the original Aryans, who had survived the destruction of Atlantis. A society bearing the name “Thule” devoted its time to searching for antiquities in support of the migration-and-settlement-of-supreme-Aryan-race theories, all seasoned with the spice of Scandinavian mythology and magic. Runes, in particular, were popular among the group members for the sacral and mystical powers they were believed to contain.
Adolf Hitler’s irrational personality made him an ideal recipient of pseudoscientific theories: ideal in terms of the impact they had on him, as well as in his efforts to bring these theories to life. (He was no different from those who saw a Martian civilization behind the human face on Mars.) A German army corporal during the First World War, Hitler lamented the German Empire’s defeat and pined for revenge. The ideology of nazism, in contrast to communism, did not seek to build a “bright future,” but sought a return to a “bright past.” The freshest memory of past greatness which could be restored was the recently defeated Empire. That is why the NSDAP flag is cast in an identical color scheme with the Empire’s flag. The mythical “Aryan state” was a more distant but ultimate ideal. In its quest to make itself great again, Germany needed victims. Instead of the bourgeoisie, which were the sacrificial lambs of the communists, the Nazis targeted Jews, Slavs, and other untermenschen (from the German meaning subhumans). Both ideologies prioritized the rights of the majority over those of minorities.
In the end, nazism was destroyed in 1945. Hitler shot himself, and the swastika became a symbolic synonym for the Holocaust. The hooked cross is banned in some countries. In others, like in the USA, where symbols can’t be banned because of the First Amendment of the US Constitution’s freedom of speech protections, the swastika is only used by extremists. Whoever publicly displays a swastika for reasons other than education is guaranteed to wind up in social exile.
As a political-economic system, communism existed longer than nazism, finally coming to its demise in 1991. Even though some communist parties are still in power in their countries today, they were forced to accept serious reforms. Party members in countries like China and Vietnam rejected numerous ideological dogmas. Otherwise, they would have been forced to exclude the “enemy” class of successful capitalists from their party’s ranks. But what’s really interesting, is the hammer and sickle do not evoke as much negative emotion as does the swastika.
In Ukraine, the law condemning totalitarian regimes and prohibition of propaganda of their symbols was only adopted in 2015. The law’s adoption did nothing to remove the hammer and sickle from the shield in the raised arm of the Batkivshchyna-Maty (from the Ukrainian meaning Fatherland-Mother) monument, nor did it prevent some (thankfully) former members of Ukraine’s parliament from showing off these symbols in public. On December 31, 2020, for example, Ilya Kiva posted a photo of himself wearing a Russian fur earflap hat adorned with communist symbols on social media. Despite the (tepid) public outcry, he went unpunished. Contrast this to what happened after the March 20, 2021, protest in defense of pro-Ukrainian activist Serhiy Sternenko on Bankova St. in Kyiv, when a swastika magically appeared on the walls of the Office of the President. This too led to a public outcry, until it was proven the swastika was spray painted after the protest was over. Its appearance was a pure provocation. Incidentally, the discussion around removing the communist symbols from one of Kyiv’s most prominent monuments, the Batkivshchyna-Maty towering over the capital city from a hill overlooking the Dnipro River, only began a few months after the Russian army launched the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Significantly, refugees from the Soviet Union recognized the equivalence between the two totalitarian regimes and their symbols much earlier than the rest of the world did. They initiated the establishment of “Black Ribbon Day” in Canada way back in February 1986. Black ribbons became a symbol of the protest against the Soviet Union and its occupation of all their homelands. This day is now marked annually every August 23, on the anniversary of the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. In 1987, this initiative was picked up by the Baltic States, and its largest manifestation became the 1989 “Baltic Way” chain of freedom stretching across Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) adopted a resolution in 1996 on “Measures to dismantle the heritage of former communist totalitarian systems.” In time, most Eastern European countries encoded the ban on using the hammer and sickle imagery in law, the only exceptions being Belarus and Romania (although the latter banned its Communist Party back on January 12, 1990). An attempt to ban communist symbols was made in the European Parliament in 2005, but the idea of a pan-European prohibition was rejected after the hammer and sickle and five-pointed star were deemed inappropriate for inclusion in a law on racism. So, the issue was left for regulation by the individual member states at the national level.
In 2009, Vaclav Havel and Joachim Gauck initiated the designation by the European Parliament of August 23 as the “European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism.” This was a direct legacy of the Black Ribbon movement which began two decades earlier. Fast forward to 2019, and the European Parliament adopted another resolution, this one called “On the importance of European remembrance for the future of Europe,” a document equating, for the first time in history, the victims of the hammer and sickle with those of the swastika. It also expressed deep concern over the “continued use of symbols of totalitarian regimes in the public sphere and for commercial purposes” and Russia’s ongoing efforts to whitewash its totalitarian regime’s reputation.
The latter could not leave such a slap in the face unanswered. In December 2019, during a meeting of the Pobyeda (from the Russian meaning the Soviet victory in World War II) organizing committee, Vladimir Putin called the European resolution “baseless, unjustifiable lies.” A few weeks later, in January 2020, the US publication The National Interest published Russia’s official reaction to the Europeans in an article entitled “The Real Lessons of the 75th Anniversary of World War II.” This opus serves as sort of a guidebook to the Russian kingdom of crooked mirrors, whose subjects full-heartedly espouse “the human face” on Mars is real, and where they exhibit no common sense, as they try to recruit new members to their cult. This sect’s leader, incidentally, signed a law in July 2021 banning any comparisons of the current Russian political and military leadership’s goals and activities to those of either the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany.
Meanwhile, a number of communist parties do continue to operate in Europe. Communists are in parliament in the Czech Republic, for example. There are also fairly strong communist parties in both Italy and France. Their elected members sit in the European Parliament. However, certain progress has even been made among the ranks of European Communists when it comes to their understanding what their symbols really mean. The Communist Party of France rejected the hammer and sickle in favor of the five-pointed star, which led to disgruntled rumblings among their supporters. Still, you have to admit it’s inconceivable for there to be a Nazi party in the European Parliament today, or, for that matter, any party with a swastika in its logo.
Communism hasn’t had its Nuremberg. Nobody who committed crimes against humanity in its name has been sentenced at trial with the entire world watching. Driven to despair, Hitler ended his life by suicide. Stalin, in comparison, died a natural death following a stroke. The primary reason for this contrast is the Soviet Union ended up in the victors’ circle after the war, allowing it to prolong its existence. And because the greatest number of victims of the Soviet totalitarian system were killed during Stalin’s rule, this provided the basis for claiming a specific person, not an entire ideology, was to blame for the crimes. We don’t know what nazism would have looked like without Hitler. Perhaps Jews wouldn’t have been targeted for killing, but only for deportation from Europe. By the end of the war, the Nazis agreed to trade Jews for trucks filled with supplies and money. Saving people’s lives meant the Allies were inadvertently forced to support the Wehrmacht. In order to save their army from collapse, the Germans had to drop their racial theories. Some Germans even tried to assassinate Hitler. Now that’s something no Soviet ever tried to do.
Sometimes a purely mechanical approach is used to compare the evils caused by nazism and communism. It’s obvious what that approach is: comparing the number of victims. The explanatory section of the PACE resolution sets the number of victims of communism at a little under ninety-five million people (95,000,000!). One study attempted to propose 100 million victims but was mercilessly criticized for trying too hard to reach a round number. Whether or not this decreases the scope of the catastrophe is a rhetorical question. In the Olympics of Genocide, the Communists beat the Nazis hands down.
The argument that in each particular case it’s not communism, but a specific authoritarian leader who is to blame, should be rejected outright. There was mass murder and famine in every country where communist rule was established. To deny this connection means you’re either very stupid, or clearly biased. Bloody times followed communism wherever it went, the bloodiest typically occurring during the initial period of rule by its first leaders, who brought their murderous ideology to life with unforeseen zeal. In the Soviet Union, it was Josef Stalin (Vladimir Lenin was the first, technically speaking, although he only ruled for a very short time). It was Mao Zedong in China, Kim Il-sung in North Korea, and Pol Pot in Cambodia. Every single one of these countries was ravaged by famine. A popular joke during the period of Brezhnev-era stagnation went like this – in Russian: “Leonid Ilyich [Brezhnev], we’re moving towards communism, but there’s nothing to eat! Answer: Nobody said meals would be served on the journey.” Ironic, isn’t it?
After its first leaders were gone, communism did actually tend to soften. The heirs of the bloodthirsty tyrants understood spinning the flywheel of repression no longer made sense. The people’s power of resistance was fully broken. When you’re hungry, you think about finding food, not toppling the government. And it also made little sense for the rulers to keep killing their own subjects.
Unfortunately, there has never been any substantive trial nor verdict on communist terror and those who caused it. There are numerous reasons for this. The first one is political: conducting any tribunal was made impossible by the fact the Soviet Union enjoyed military might and veto powers in the United Nations. Today, Russia enjoys protection from prosecution by the power vested in their control of supplies of natural gas and their possession of nuclear weapons. And then there’s China, the world’s second-largest economy, where the Communist Party led by Xi Jinping is currently resurrecting the cult of Mao’s personality. While humanity revels in the technological progress it has made, it’s turning a blind eye to the suffering of millions in the name of political conjuncture.
In practical terms, the victims of communism have never received any compensation. This stands in stark contrast to Holocaust victims. Germany and its mega corporations pay cash to those people who suffered from the crimes of nazism. While it’s true no amount of money can bring back millions of lives, it is a palpable expression of the admission of guilt. Words tend to carry a lot more weight when the person uttering them pulls a few coins out of their pocket. Then it becomes more than words: it is direct action.
The lion’s share of the victims of communism fall to China (65 million) and the Soviet Union (20 million). And that’s only counting the dead, not all of whom have been recognized as victims. The victims are further divided into categories: those who died from famine, those who were shot, those sent into exile, and those imprisoned in concentration camps. One person suffered during the Stalinist repressions, while another became a prisoner of conscience under Brezhnev. To the east, in China, there were those who were bad at catching sparrows, those who died from famine as their harvest was consumed by insects, and those victims who were beaten to death by the hongweibings (from the Chinese meaning Red Guards) for failing to meet certain cultural standards. While individual crimes and tragedies are readily discussed in public, unfortunately, too little time is spent talking about the victims of communism in general, in big picture terms.
There have been instances when communists themselves have admitted to their own “excesses.” The Soviet Union took such a step after Stalin’s death, with the “rehabilitation” of a limited number of repressed persons. Nikita Khrushchev’s speech at the XX Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1956 was the culmination of the process debunking Stalin’s cult of personality. The new leader’s speech during the closed session shocked some of the older party members. There were even rumors Polish Communist Boleslaw Bierut’s heart attack on March 12, 1956, was caused by the emotional trauma he sustained from listening to the speech Khrushchev delivered at the congress. But there was really nothing revolutionary about the speech. All the repressions and purges of the past were blamed on the character flaws of his dead boss. And, despite the hullabaloo, the mustachioed tyrant’s embalmed corpse continued being displayed next to Lenin’s in the Mausoleum for another five years.
The process of rehabilitation picked up speed after Khrushchev’s speech. Somewhat. Case files were dug up from the archives and found their way back onto prosecutors’ desks, and, from there, were sent to the Supreme Court for commutation. Most of the commuted sentences were in cases brought forward by prisoners’ own family members. A few of the lucky ones even received a small compensation equivalent to a total of two months of minimum wage. The rank-and-file executors of the repressions went mostly unpunished. Only those at the very top of the security services were shot, primarily those who were a part of “Beria’s band.” It is bitterly ironic that the Soviet Rehabilitation Commission was headed by the General Prosecutor of the Soviet Union, Roman Rudenko, the same person who, during the repressions, had the honor of belonging to one of the “special troikas.” These were extrajudicial repressive organs with the power to issue and carry out death sentences. The victims of communism were being “rehabilitated” by one of their former executioners.
In 2018, Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, passed a new law on the rehabilitation of victims of political repressions. The old law, passed in 1991, did not include members of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and Ukrainian Insurgent Army among the victims, or any other people or groups who took up arms against the Bolsheviks, for example, the soldiers of the Ukrainian National Republic Army, or the peasants who revolted against collectivization. In May 2021, Ukraine’s Cabinet of Ministers passed the resolution which required finally starting the process of paying out compensation to the victims of repressions. The amount was calculated according to a simple formula: one monthly minimum wage (6,500 UAH in July 2022, equivalent to 175 USD) multiplied by the number of months of imprisonment. This not insignificant amount was welcomed by those few who had survived until then, since their pensions were quite meagre, due to the minimal number of years they had officially accumulated in the workforce.
Meanwhile, those who once sentenced Ukraine’s dissidents under the Soviets continue to peacefully collect their judge’s pensions from independent Ukraine. Take Hryhoriy Zubets, for example, the former deputy head of the Kyiv City Court, who presided over publicist Valeriy Marchenko’s case on March 13-14, 1984. Marchenko stood accused of violating Article 62 of the Ukrainian SSR Criminal Code: “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda.” The defendant was ruled to be a “particularly dangerous recidivist” and sentenced to ten years in “special regimen camps” followed by five years of exile. Marchenko died on October 5, 1984, in a prison clinic in Leningrad. Zubets, meanwhile, continued building his career: he was promoted to become the head of Kyiv City Court, then appointed a member of the Higher Qualification Commission of Judges in Ukraine, finally passing his judge’s robe on to his son as his legacy. On October 6, 2017, President Petro Poroshenko awarded Zubets with the Order of Prince Yaroslav the Wise for his “substantial personal contribution to the development of a rule of law-based state, for providing the defense of citizens’ constitutional rights and freedoms, for many years of seminal work, and for a high level of professionalism.”
Contrast that to the example provided by Poland in the late 1990s, when it demanded the extradition of Helena Wolinska-Brus from Great Britain. She was a military prosecutor in the communist Polish People’s Republic. Poland’s Institute of National Memory determined she had participated in one-sided investigations and unfair trials of members of the anti-communist Polish resistance during the 1950s. In 2006, she was stripped of her prosecutor’s pension along with her other state awards, and in 2007, the Military District Court of Warsaw issued a European warrant for Wolinska’s arrest. Only her death spared her a trial.
Ukrainians are gradually learning how to respect the victims of totalitarian regimes, but, unlike the Poles, Ukrainians still continue to reward their executioners.
Humanity, unfortunately, has failed to offer the victims of communism anything more than the opportunity to legally clear their good names. The victims of Soviet repressions (at least some of them) stopped being treated like felony criminals. But this was all they got. Compared to the victims of nazism, the victims of communism find themselves in a “lesser” category of victimhood. No retribution, no remorse, nothing but members of European Parliament sporting hammers and sickles on their party logos.
Why is that? Why can’t we condemn communism with the same fury and disdain with which we condemn nazism? It has to do with the numbers of victims. There were well over one hundred million victims of communism, because those who believed in that ideology were also its victims. They were fooled by their own elites and, as might be expected, by their own shortsightedness. The first to fall victim to any utopian belief system is the mind; only later does it spill into the physical world.
If we’re incapable of conducting a Nuremberg for communism, then can we at least not tolerate its symbols, which represent the murder of millions of people? Nazism promised a return to the “bright past” on the backs of supposedly racially inferior minorities. Communism was unsentimental about the past, because it was marching towards a “bright future” on the corpses of the hostile bourgeoise class and the supposedly allied peasant class. We need to remember this for the future: any political ideology promising a “bright future” for one part of society dependent on the sacrifice of another, regardless of its size, is no different, in essence, from either nazism or communism. Promises of paradise for a majority at the price of a minority will always end up creating hell in the here and now.
As the Kremlin scaled up its war with Ukraine, a new symbol spread like wildfire: the Latin letter “Z” also called a “zetka.” Russian state media has devoted significant resources to promoting what was initially a military marking. And, judging from the photos of various emblazoned cars, flash mobs, and Z merchandise, this newfound symbol struck a fairly resonant chord within Russian society. The Kremlin’s goal in promoting the new symbol is understandable: it’s trying to rally its citizens for the war against us.
The symbolic provocation proved successful because the Western media began obsessing over it. The major media players vied to outdo each other in their televised reports and published articles delving into this new Russian symbol of aggression. News agencies around the world reported on the one Russian athlete, who, during the gymnastics competition “Apparatus World Cup” held in Doha, Qatar, in March 2022, accepted his award while wearing a zetka on his shirt. That same month, they also reported how children being treated for cancer in a hospice in Kazan were assembled in the hospital yard to form the letter Z with their bodies while lying on the ground.
The major preoccupation in the reporting on the new Russian symbol was: “What does it mean?” Most would agree, initially, it was simply one of symbols used to mark military equipment, and was used alongside other letters, like “V” and “O” to prevent Russian soldiers from shooting one another. Foreign journalists’ interest into the hidden or obvious meaning of the letter Z was fueled by Russia. First, their Ministry of Defense explained it stands for Za pobiedu (from the Russian meaning for victory). Then it took on new meanings: Zа Putina (from the Russian meaning for Putin), Zа nashykh (from the Russian meaning for our guys), etc. These “Za whatevers” are well-suited to the Russian mentality, because they sound like a typical toast one might utter when raising a glass around the table.
The international media’s interest in Z’s “real,” “true,” or “initial” meaning only added fuel to the Kremlin propagandists’ fires, who, in turn, kept interest in the new symbol going. This technique of political technology is both simple and ingenious: keep promoting the letter Z while everyone else ponders its deep (or not so deep) meaning.
The essence of this new symbol was very accurately captured when it was christened the “Zwastika.” This name works well because the visual similarity between the two is striking: the Z looks like a Nazi swastika with its horizonal line missing. This is a good demonstration of how our brains interact with symbolic systems. A person is capable of recognizing even partially erased symbols. People can also recycle old forms into new ones, while modernizing and improving them in the process.
But let’s get back to the questions that need to be raised about this new Russian symbol. One of the most obvious is: Why did they decide on this Latin, very “western” and very un-Russian letter Z? Clearly, Russian society required consolidation around the war. But why did the war require the introduction of a new symbol, when the Kremlin’s imperial arsenal already had so many to choose from? Take your pick: a two-headed eagle, the hammer and sickle, a red five-pointed star, or the georgiyevskaya lenta (from the Russian meaning St. George ribbon), whose color scheme was copied from baroque and classical art and goes well with any modern color palette. But the Putin regime, for some reason, felt the need for, or even the demand for, a new symbol.
The superficial explanation is in the symbol’s form. More precisely, in the simplicity of copying the symbol. Any idiot can draw a Z, which makes it very similar to the swastika. But the deep underlying reason has to do with infusing the Z with meaning. We understand symbols from their context, but symbols are also capable of creating the context in which they are understood.
The war against Ukraine for Russia (which declares the war is directed outward, that is, to push a hostile enemy back from its borders, such as the entire NATO bloc of countries, or nazism, as they claim) serves an enormous purpose domestically. The Kremlin started this war in order to transform the Russian state down to its very core. The thing is, after the capture of Crimea, the Russian Federation found itself sitting on two chairs at once: on one, the Kremlin bosses had quenched some of its society’s imperial thirst; on the other, in view of the West’s weak response and the limited resistance on Ukraine’s part, the Russians continued to remain part of the globalized world, even though they had themselves opened the exit door. After eight years, the feeling of satisfaction from the annexation of Crimea had worn off, but grabbing any more land meant walking through the opened exit door once and for all, and slamming it as loudly as possible on the way out. It’s likely Putin wasn’t completely confident about how much Russian society would support the strategic move his state had made. For the globalized world offers a great many advantages in terms of life’s comforts: from the ability to travel and eat jamón, to furnishing your apartment with furniture from Ikea.
The decision was ultimately made in February 2022. The Kremlin’s final hesitation is laid bare in the turgid euphemism “special military operation” which Russians are required to use in lieu of the word “war.” As for the claim average Russians supposedly feared a war between Russia and Ukraine, the Levada Center recently reported the results of their annual survey of societal trends for 2021 where 43% of respondents felt Russia should “join the armed conflict on the side of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DNR/LNR)” and 65% supported making these territories part of Russia. Seizing Ukrainian lands ranks high in our northern neighbor’s hierarchy of needs, apparently higher than repairing roads in Karelia, buying a new iPhone, or eating a burger at McDonalds. All of this gives the Kremlin a colossal carte blanche for reconfiguring its authoritarian regime into a totalitarian one. And the letter Z, which was initially used for combat identification purposes, came to be heartily accepted by Russian society, and so became a symbol of this transition.
The world was shocked when terminally ill children in Kazan were forced to lie on the ground in their hospice yard to form a giant letter Z. But few if any discussed what, precisely, was so frightening about that particular flash mob. It horrifies us because the sick children’s fragile bodies are being exploited for propaganda purposes!
Questions like “What did the zetka (Z) mean in the first place?” or “Why did they pick a letter from the Latin alphabet and not their own Cyrillic?” are definitely secondary. We are witnessing a new totalitarian symbol growing in power right before our eyes. It already represents thousands of deaths and a variety of war crimes, from the plundering of toilets to executions and raping of civilians. Symbols may only be images, but behind their façade they can conceal stories of unspeakable suffering.
Behind every totalitarian symbol stands its victim. Sometimes, as in the case with the hammer and sickle, its target is an abstract group of people, like “the bourgeoisie.” Sometimes, as in the case of the swastika, and the analogous Z symbol, the targets are specific national groups – Jews and Ukrainians. So, the most important question we ought to be asking ourselves is: Have we done enough to condemn the totalitarian symbols of the past and ensured new totalitarian symbols do not become lethally powerful in the present?
Other stories written by Cadmus
Other stories illustrated by Oleh Smal