‘The Z-space Has Unexpectedly Become a Place For Political Thought’
November 14, 2023
Having carefully followed the Telegram channels of supporters of Russia’s war in Ukraine, writer Ivan Filippov discusses the diversity of views in this segment of Russian society, as well as how these people feel about the Kremlin and whether they can become a political force.
The original interview in Russian was published in Republic. A shortened version is being republished here with their permission.

Who should be considered the Z-community on Telegram?

Fundamentally, the Z-community is everyone who unconditionally supports the war. But it is extremely fragmented and patchy.

Is there some kind of Z-ideology, or is it a patchwork of views, positions, sentiments and statements united only by the idea of fighting against Ukraine?

Z-ideology is the ideology of a war that necessarily implies the military defeat of Kyiv and Russia’s victory in the “special military operation” (SVO). Everyone [there] basically agrees on this, but then the “ideological differences” begin.

Everyone has different ideas about all sorts of issues. What does victory look like? To ban or not to ban the Ukrainian language? Should we wipe out the entire Ukrainian population? What to do with Kyiv: Russify it or turn it into a giant cemetery?

Should we stop at Ukraine or conquer the Baltic countries and Poland too? Which of the post-Soviet republics needs to be “punished” after Ukraine – Kazakhstan, Armenia, Georgia? Even the ideas of Z-authors [Telegram channel authors] about the causes of the war can be completely different.

Having observed this community for so long, what can you say about their mental state? Are they normal or deviants?

They all want Russia to win in the war, but not all the authors are actually calling for war crimes and monstrous atrocities.
Some people sincerely believe in the greatness of the empire, in Russian weapons, in the superiority of Russians over everyone else, while others are making money from the Kremlin.
This community also considers idiotic the claims about “denazification” and other propaganda cliches, just like anti-war authors do, but many of them still really believe in the basic narrative about the “threat from NATO,” “protecting national interests” and so on.

As for military authors, among them are a lot of ideological people who have been fighting since 2014 and, it seems, fundamentally cannot imagine life without war.

For example, the author of the channel Ubezhishche No 8 (Shelter No 8) once wrote a very revealing text about the mood in the army, which boils down to a simple premise: I do not see the point to the war, I am absolutely indifferent toward Ukraine, but since they sent me and gave me money, then so be it – I will fight.

My colleagues and I, who also study Kremlin propaganda, came to the conclusion that the thoughts of all these authors have one common quality: they see a problem that requires a solution, give clear and reasonable arguments, reason logically about the problem but... stop literally a meter away from the correct conclusion.

Though Z-authors write that there are problems all around, primarily corruption and abuse of power, and freedom of speech, fair courts and fair elections are lacking, to say the least, at the same time none of them offers an answer to the question: “how did this happen?” I guess it just happened itself.

You could probably say that
“All Z-authors are imperial in some sense. Not necessarily monarchists, although there are plenty of them too, but generally they are people who dream of living in a great, powerful country.
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu inspecting a weapons depot. Omsk, June 2023. Source: Wiki Commons
A new Soviet Union. To be a citizen who is coddled by the empire and feels great because he was born there. About a year ago, several authors complained bitterly about how the attitude toward Russia in the West had changed: we understand that they cannot love us, but why have they stopped being afraid of us? How dare they not be afraid of us!

You are talking about some kind of evolution, reflection on their thinking. But what were the events that drove this? Clearly, it is probably the arrest of Strelkov, the rebellion and murder of Prigozhin, and failures at the front. How is all this reflected in their “evolution?”

Here we can add the withdrawal from Kharkov Region, the surrender of Kherson, the failure to capture Kyiv, Prigozhin’s complaints, Bakhmut, the conflict between Prigozhin and Shoigu and the murder of Prigozhin.

The story of Igor Strelkov is extremely important for the Z-community. Not because he was an unquestioned authority; on the contrary, many did not like him, many were enemies with him, many were delighted at his arrest.

Still, some authors listened to his analysis of military operations and his predictions. Strelkov was the first truly popular author to write openly about defeats and predict troubles at the front, for which he was mocked and called a “whiner.”

But some of his predictions eventually came true. And the worse things were going at the front, the more ferociously Strelkov criticized Putin. And other Z-authors began to too...
But when Strelkov went to jail, there was a ringing silence. Now if you read a direct attack on or an insult toward Putin in a Z-channel, it means the author is abroad.
It is interesting how the Z-community reacted to Prigozhin’s murder. All the major Z-channels have no doubts that the Kremlin killed him.

But how did they write about it? For example, such a major channel as Rybar’ wrote: “the worst thing about the whole situation with the fallen/blown up/shot down plane is that the population has already decided who the culprits are […]. If evidence is provided that the plane was blown up by the British, people will still blame the Ministry of Defense. Not out loud, of course. […] And this is the worst outcome in the entire history of the public showdown between the PMC and the Russian Ministry of Defense.” This was written by a channel that is rather loyal to the Ministry of Defense; other Z-authors were much harsher and more frank.

Disappointment in Putin was an unexpected result of the evolution of Z-views, brought on by events.

This is never stated directly (at least by Z-authors still living in Russia), but
“Generally they are extremely disappointed in Putin. He turned out weak in their eyes.
An ATACMS missile being launched. Source: Wiki Commons
They want him to be a commander, a visionary, for him to go to the front with the soldiers, to spend every second of his life on ensuring Russia’s victory.

They are infuriated that Putin constantly talks about how he was deceived by the West. For them, Putin is a loser. Who gets fooled? Losers.

ATACMS missiles recently appeared on the battlefield. How did the Z-community react?

The Z-community was shocked by the attack on the airfield in occupied Berdyansk using ATACMS (where the Russian Air Force lost, according to various sources, up to seven helicopters at once). But besides being upset, they are also outraged, and literally every author is writing that nowhere – neither in Russia nor in the occupied territories – have protective shelters been built for planes and helicopters. They are outraged because this is a simple security measure that has not been realized for more than a year. They want those responsible shot (as always).

But most importantly, Z-authors are outraged by the fact that first Russia threatens terrible retaliation for supplying [Ukraine with] long-range missiles, draws red lines and then does nothing.

World politics has also given the Z-community the conflict between Hamas and Israel. What are they saying about that?
About 70% were delighted by the tragic events in Israel. They really do not like Israel, one reason being that it has sheltered many Russians who fled the war.
The police station in Sderot, Israel, following the recent Hamas attack. October 2023. Source: Wiki Commons
“Since you took our traitors in, now get what is coming to you.”

They relish all the deaths in this war, post all the most terrible videos that Hamas puts out, uncensored. They rejoice at the death of Israeli civilians and wish Hamas victory. They race to write about the crimes of the “Israeli military” in Gaza. Plus, in certain places old banal anti-Semitism is visible.

Let me emphasize that this is not a mainstream position, but there is more anti-Semitism in Z-channels every day.

They are delighted about the Hamas attack on Israel mainly due to the hope that America will not be able to support two wars at the same time and, instead of Ukraine, will supply weapons to Israel – and all this would help Russia.

How would you describe the mood prevailing in this milieu now?

I realized a long time ago that there is no point in judging their moods by what they write on a specific day. They have huge mood swings. Today they may write: “everything is lost!” And tomorrow: “Kyiv will be taken for sure!”

Still, it is certainly possible to identify some general vector. The feelings that the Z-community is experiencing today are confusion and anxiety. Confusion because they do not understand why no one seems to be “trying to win the war.” This is where suspicions grow, primarily toward Putin – he does not want to wage a real war. Moreover, he cannot even offer society a vision of victory.

But even today if you ask 20 Z-authors what victory in the SVO means for Russia, you will get different answers or none at all. At the same time, there is a feeling of bitterness and disappointment because the SVO is like make-believe, but people are dying for real.

A recent trend is for Z-authors to recall their texts from a year ago where they complained about problems in the army. They remember to say: “and nothing has changed since then.”

All together this creates anxiety.
They suspect that the Kremlin is preparing for negotiations, which means betraying national interests.
Some of them even seriously believe that the Kremlin may agree to surrender Crimea, which would be a disaster for them.

In your opinion, what is the size of the Z-community?

I am not a sociologist, and I can only talk about what I sense. At the end of September, VTsIOM presented data according to which the “war party” in Russia is 15%. I think the real figure is 8-10%. If we put together all those complaints, lamentations, contempt for society for not supporting the war enough, then one gets the impression that the Z-community is incredibly marginal.

How many subscribers do the largest Z-channels have?

There are channels with 2,000 subscribers, the largest is 2.7 million. Between those extremes, most have from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands.

If you read all this Z-content, is it possible to form a more or less adequate picture of military-political processes?

I have been reading more than 200 channels for the second year now, and from what I read I can basically imagine how things are at the front. Or, to be more exact, how the military community sees things.

But when studying this, I am interested not so much in the situation at the front, but in the mood of the authors. What they are thinking and feeling, how they see the course of and outlook for the war.

One of my main conclusions, and it is based on thousands of Z-texts: today in Russian society, the war is supported by a minority. Contrary to the widespread myths and propaganda, the war is unpopular and has never enjoyed and does not enjoy mass support.
The war partyis a marginal minority representing the interests of a very small segment of Russian society.
Chechnya leader Ramzan Kadyrov being interviewed at a polling place, 2021. Source: Wiki Commons
And, most importantly, the Z-authors know this; they are extremely saddened by this fact and endlessly whine about it.

What is the relationship between the Z-community and Russian nationalism?

The main bond of the Z-community that unites both the most bloodthirsty and the most vegetarian is chauvinism. Chauvinism is capable of uniting authors such as Marina Akhmedova, a member of the Presidential Council for Human Rights, and fighters from the group Rusich, who openly call themselves Nazis and do not hide the war crimes they have committed.

When the Z-community unites, it is always against someone. Against Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Jews, ethnic crime perpetrated by diasporas, national minorities.

Everything connected with [the head of Chechnya Ramzan] Kadyrov and the regime in Chechnya provokes a real explosion of hatred. This is especially noticeable in military channels.

Could the Z-community create some kind of oppositional political force that in the future would be able to compete even with the Kremlin?

To me, it seems naive to think of them as some kind of political force. They voice the thoughts, aspirations and fears of a certain part of society. I repeat, this is a marginal part of society.

If we take, for example, military channels, then the main thing they write about is how wrong the people are, how the people do not support the war, how they pretend that it does not exist, how they live their own lives, have fun, how we are dying on the battlefield but they will not put the country on a war footing. This is the most popular topic in Z-discussions. In their minds, supporting a war means either fighting yourself or doing your best to help those who are fighting.

All summer, Z-channels discussed a second wave of mobilization. They wrote: dear comrades, the front really needs your lives, so there will be mobilization. But they warned: though the state has resolved the issues related to mobilization, there are big problems with provisions for those who have been mobilized; so right now, get what you need for the front, look for RUB 200,000 to buy equipment, no one will equip you, and without equipment you will quickly be killed. Thus, they quite objectively talk about the abilities and capabilities of the Russian state and the Russian army.

As for whether they can become an opposition, after Strelkov’s arrest we saw that they are very afraid of the current government. So, I am far from the opinion that something can be made of them. Sure, they represent some part of the electorate. Yes, they write things that are unpleasant for the Kremlin. Moreover, as one channel wrote the other day,
“They periodically are accused of ‘discrediting the Russian army’ and pay fines. That’s why they are against censorship.”
They are against corruption because corruption makes it impossible to win a war. They regularly write about corruption in the army, which is still flourishing. They are for fair trials, because if the institution had existed in the country, Strelkov would not have been sent to jail. They are for fair elections, because in fair elections it would be possible to elect people who stick up for their position and veterans of the SVO.

When you analyze what they believe in, you get a radical oppositional party, definitely in the opposite direction from United Russia. But it seems like a small, insignificant community incapable of political organization. So, it is unlikely to become a real opposition.

And, by the way, they themselves understand this. Some write: soon the men will return from the war and restore order at home. But others, who are smarter, object: why do you think that the people who return from the war will be allowed to do anything?

Overall, I have the feeling that at this point the entire Z-community and Telegram channels in general do not pose a particular problem for the Kremlin.

What is the practical purpose of your monitoring and analysis of Z-content?

There are few examples of living political thought in Russia. Throughout the years of Putin’s rule, the political field has been steadily cleared; in recent years, independent media was cleared. So, the Z-space has suddenly become a place for political thought. And this is not in people’s kitchens, but out in the open – anyone can read it. How the war changed for the people who supported it, what they thought, what they hoped for, what they were worried about, how they analyzed what was happening – in this distorting mirror you can see the interesting history of the war.

What predictions can be made about the war based on the content in Z-channels?

I do not have secret knowledge. But the mood in Z-channels is not one of victory. The last text that was written about the occupation of Kyiv, if my memory serves me correctly, was about a year ago. They have already found an excuse for why everything is like this – because Russia is at war with the whole world. There is disappointment in Putin, in the course of the war: we do not attack, and when we do, it is “meat grinders;” we are on the defensive all the time, but we cannot win a war on the defensive, we have not put the country on a war footing...

Can we conclude from all this that they understand that Russia has already lost the war? Not necessarily, it seems to me. Although, indeed, if at the beginning there was a lot of talk about victory in this war, now this topic is simply ignored. In a word, few people want to look far ahead, because there is complete uncertainty there.
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