Rash of ‘disturbing’ pro-Putin ‘Z’ stickers plastered throughout Ukrainian Village sparks fear, anger, sadness
The symbol is alarming to Chicago’s Ukrainian community, especially as support for the country’s fight against Russia has waned since the war started nearly two years ago.
Stickers bearing the letter “Z” appeared on buildings throughout Ukrainian Village this week.
The simple letter might not mean much to many Chicagoans, but Svitlana Iva-Ugryn knows exactly what it means — and was disturbed to see one on her office window.
The symbol signifies support for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
“For Ukrainians, it’s a very triggering symbol because it’s on these military machines that invaded Ukraine, especially in the territories where people were tortured, killed and where the mass graves were found,” Iva-Ugryn said.
And to underscore that message, the sticker that appeared on the windows of the office she shares with her husband in the Near Northwest Side neighborhood carried Russian words meaning “for the victory.”
Iva-Ugryn is an immigration attorney and her husband, Vitaliy Ivanyshyn, is a therapist. Ivanyshyn found one of the stickers on their office window at about noon Monday.
The letter Z, which doesn’t exist in the Cyrillic alphabet in Russia and Ukraine, was first used by Russians to mark their tanks as they massed near the border just before the invasion last year. Its specific meaning is murky, with different theories being suggested.
But no matter its origins, the symbol has come to stand for something sinister, Ukrainian-Americans say.
It is a “symbol for Russian fascism,” Liliia Popovych of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America told the Sun-Times.
“They’re basically trying to tell us that they’re going to reach Ukrainians everywhere,” Popovych said. “It’s not just a war for territory, they basically want to erase all of the Ukrainians.”
And the sudden appearance of the symbol is especially alarming to Chicago’s Ukrainian community as support for the country’s fight against Russia has waned since the war started nearly two years ago.
To see that symbol on their window brought “a mix of anger and also sadness,” Ivanyshyn said. “Anger for how people can do that. And sadness because I don’t understand why. Why do people exist like that, with that hate?”
‘It feels like an attack’
At first, Iva-Ugryn worried it was a personal assault because of the Ukrainian flag hanging in their window. But when she went on Facebook, she learned that other Ukrainian businesses, the Ukrainian National Museum, St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral and St. Nicholas Cathedral School had all been marked.
“The Ukrainian school is most disturbing to me. There are refugee children there. Imagine that for them,” Iva-Ugryn said. “It’s disturbing because we didn’t know why it’s happening right now. It’s the second year of the war, and all of a sudden for this to happen, it feels like an attack.”
She wonders if it’s in part because of the ongoing tension in Congress over supplying additional aid to Ukraine.
The Z symbol has appeared across Russia and in social media, but Iva-Ugryn, who came to Chicago with Ivanyshyn 16 years ago from western Ukraine, says she’s never heard of it surfacing in Chicago. So this week’s incidents have put the city’s Ukrainian community and many others on edge.
“Everyone is very, sickly worried,” Iva-Ugryn said.
Iva-Ugryn and Ivanyshyn have ordered cameras for outside their office. She took the image of the sticker to the 12th District police station to report it.
“The police didn’t understand the gravity of this happening because they didn’t know what the meaning is of this sign,” Iva-Ugryn said. “But because I personally drove there and showed the officer articles with pictures of those military cars and machines, then he understood.”
‘Posted to intimidate our Ukrainian community’
Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th), whose ward includes Ukrainian Village, condemned the action, calling it “an intimidation tactic against those who oppose Russia’s war against Ukraine.”
The stickers were also posted on the Ukrainian Village Veterinary Center and its mural, businesses on Chicago Avenue and on a “Help Support Ukraine” banner, along with other places throughout Ukrainian Village, according to Villegas and Iva-Ugryn.
“Make no mistake: these stickers were posted to intimidate our Ukrainian community,” Villegas said in the statement.
About 54,000 people of Ukrainian heritage lived in the Chicago area as of February 2022, and many call the Ukrainian Village neighborhood home.
“I hope Ukraine can get as much support as we need from the United States because this is not just our war,” said Popovych of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America.
Iva-Ugryn opened her immigration law practice on Chicago Avenue just before the Russian invasion in February 2022.
She hoped she’d be able to ease into working with clients, but that never happened. Her caseload quickly filled with people seeking refuge from Ukraine in Chicago.
‘We now need even more help’
When the war broke out, Chicago showed strong support for Ukraine, especially other ethnic groups like the Polish community, Iva-Ugryn said. People started to learn more about the country, its history and the complicated relationship between Ukraine and Russia.
“Ukraine was put on the map,” Iva-Ugryn said. “Chicago Bulls were sending players to the school. The media started showing up to our events and rallies.”
But now, nearly two years later, that attention and support has waned.
“People are getting used to it, they see it now as some kind of local mess,” Iva-Ugryn said. “But that’s the problem, we are now in the second year and are seeing a change of dynamic. We now need even more help than in the beginning because the situation is quite dire.”
Iva-Ugryn recently spent three weeks in her home country, including a short stint near the front lines in Slavyansk, a city in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. Soldiers shared their worries about countries like the U.S. losing interest in their cause.
“We just want politicians to stop playing with people’s lives,” Iva-Ugryn said. “We want people to understand this is not a question of politics, this is a question of our physical survival.”
Contributing: Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere