When ‘Z’ meant joy, freedom and humour to Russians and Ukrainians

For Oleksandr Demianenko, a 36-year-old Ukrainian videographer and musician, the highlight of every year during his twenties was KaZantip. It was Eastern Europe’s biggest electronic music festival and was held each August between 1993 and 2013 in Crimea.

“I thought about KaZantip all year round,” says Oleksandr, who is now based in Tbilisi, Georgia and became a festival organiser in 2009. As the event drew closer, spring and early summer brought stress, then after the festival, in the autumn and winter, came “creativity, ideas and plans for the next year,” he


With its warm climate and Mediterranean landscapes, the Crimean peninsula had for decades represented the perfect summer vacation getaway for Russians and Ukrainians alike – and for festivalgoers during the KaZantip years. The event took its name from its first location near Crimea’s Kazantip peninsula on the Azov Sea and had “Z” as its official symbol.

When in 2022 the letter Z became a symbol of support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Oleksandr says he was “hurt and sad”.

For people like Oleksandr, Z signified more than a weeks-long rave party. It was a temporary way of life that celebrated personal freedom, self-expression and joy.

KaZantip started in August 1993 as an underground event with a couple of DJs mixing after a windsurfing contest. Very quickly, the sports dimension faded, and soon raves were organised in an unfinished nuclear reactor. The event was cemented as a festival after moving 200km (124 miles) west to the village of Popovka on the Black Sea coast in 2001.

KaZantip was conceived as a social utopia, a safe space for young people who valued diversity and creativity. Happiness was paramount. “KaZantip Republic” or the “Z Republic” had its own territory – a few hectares of beach fenced by a wall. Its self-proclaimed president was a Russian citizen and a former windsurfer named Nikita Marshunok.

KaZantip reached international recognition in its second decade, attracting up to 100,000 visitors according to former organisers, and lasted anywhere from 10 days to a month and a half. A transnational community grew around it with devoted fans primarily from Ukraine and Russia, but also from other post-Soviet countries and beyond.

‘Radically different’

“I would have liked Z to remain on our flying banners in Popovka, on stickers, T-shirts,” Oleksandr says. “Our Z and the Kremlin Z are the same letter, and yet we see such a radically different use.”

Many former festival organisers and participants, Russian and Ukrainian alike – were horrified to see the symbol of their endless summer parties become an emblem for those supporting Russia after it launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24.

“Some 10 years ago, all fans of electro music associated the letter ‘Z’ exclusively with the annual KaZantip festival, and now this symbol is flaunted on armoured cars and tanks of the so-called ‘liberators’. Resentment and pain!” wrote the Russian musician and blogger Kirill Bagus on his Telegram channel.

There are different theories as to how the letter Z became a symbol of war for Russia, including the letter being promoted after being used to mark equipment and vehicles in a Russian military district.

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