As events continue to play out, “Z” has instantly become the most ominous symbol in the world’s culture and economy.
A symbol of the Russian military, “Z” is appearing on vehicles and T-shirts across Russia and in the pro-Putin sectors of the world as a sort of state-induced meme.
Its ubiquity is having a worldwide impact. “America, it seems, has rediscovered its voice,” points out Thomas L. Friedman, columnist for the New York Times. The war in Ukraine, he argues, may ultimately have a greater impact on our economy and our arts than any event since World War II. “Liberal societies can look and act dumb and divided – until they aren’t,” he observed, and many leaders in Hollywood and the arts concur.
Whether in orchestral performances, sports or movie release dates, the war has stirred such a lightning impact across the world that it has left leaders bewildered. “Suddenly war is not a video game on TikTok,” observes one American CEO, whose companies produce games and sports across pop culture. Video game footage played on TikTok has falsely been represented as Ukraine war footage, confounding CNN’s leaders, for example, who realize its younger demo has never witnessed real war.
Ukraine is, of course, history’s first full-fledged “social media” war and hence subject to the widest potential distortion. Yet its impact is even more disruptive. The emotional blow of the war will spread as many as 2 million refugees across Europe, with humanity once again uprooted.
“The sheer drama of Ukraine has disrupted my life,” remarks one Oscar-nominated director on the awards circuit. “I have discarded my next film to find a story that deals with these events. Everything else seems too small. ”
Ukraine is vaguely reminiscent of the Spanish Civil War of the late 1930s, he observes, when the ordeal of one brave nation changed the attitudes of artists worldwide.
On an economic level, the war’s impact has been profound, with some 220 companies pulling out of Russia, from Netflix to McDonald’s. The upshot, economists feel, will be to create a full-fledged recession in Russia. The opening of McDonald’s in Russia “symbolized the opening of the USSR to the West,” said a former managing director, Marc Carena, and by closing 850 locations that link has now ended. The pledge of the oil giants to leave Russia will have an even broader impact, of course.
The disruption of the information pipeline will have a more complex impact, experts agree. Netflix and TikTok are suspending their services, and Facebook, too, has been blocked. Even video games like Minecraft are no longer available. The unprecedented digital blockade has pushed Russia into isolation.
So has the cultural cutoff. Orchestras have abruptly shut down, with opera and ballet companies leaving artists stranded around the world. “I couldn’t believe this could happen,” said Ivan Kozlov, director of the Kyiv City Ballet, whose 30 dancers are stranded in Paris. “We are in shock,” he told reporters.
Not since World War II has Europe and the West witnessed such a vast flow of refugees, telling their stories of hospital bombings and the dread of bomb shelters. Dwight Garner, book critic for the New York Times, predicts the emergence of a vast library of books dealing with the Ukrainian refugee crisis. “Literature and the arts are fueled by crises of migration and its aftermath as writers try to capture the texture of upended lives,” he writes.
One sector of pop culture that has been emboldened by the Ukraine crisis is cable TV news, but its response has also been occasionally bewildering. CNN was just recovering from a top management convulsion – the firing of Jeff Zucker– when its news teams were dispatched posthaste to cover the Ukraine war. Its ratings, however, have soared.
The Fox News response has been more muted. Its star anchor Tucker Carlson predicted for weeks that Putin would not start an invasion and Steve Bannon declared on Fox News, “Putin ain’t woke – he’s anti-woke.” Wall Street Journal columnist William A. Galston recently reminded readers that Donald Trump had originally hailed the Russian invasion as “savvy” if not “genius.”
One Hollywood studio executive, who does not want to be named, predicted: “The Ukraine story will have a dominant influence on our stories and how we tell them for decades. This is a milestone event in our history. We can’t yet recognize that since we’re in the middle of it. “
“Keep your eye on the ‘Z’,” he seems to be warning.