World and Nation

‘Hero of Ukraine’ Bandera splits nation, both inside and out

STARYI UHRYNIV, Ukraine — Half a century after his death at the hands of the KGB, Stepan Bandera, a World War II partisan, has not lost his ability to rally Ukrainians against Russia — and against each other.

Monuments to Bandera have sprung up across western Ukraine, his fight for the country’s independence glowingly recounted to school children on field trips. But in eastern Ukraine and as far away as Moscow and Brussels, Bandera is reviled as a Nazi puppet.

As his presidency was ending, Viktor A. Yushchenko named Bandera a “Hero of Ukraine,” one of the country’s highest honors. That touched off a political battle. Already, eastern Ukrainians have held protests, burning Bandera in effigy.

Viktor F. Yanukovich, who succeeded Yushchenko as president last week, has come under pressure to revoke the award, not only from Russia but also from the European Parliament. Such a move, though, would stir a backlash in western Ukraine.

Yanukovich who is from eastern Ukraine, has criticized the award, but has so far not said what he will do about it.

The reactions to the Bandera honor highlight a schism that has caused so much instability in Ukraine in recent years. Nationalists in the west speak Ukrainian and loathe Russian influence. In the east are Russian speakers who feel a kinship toward Moscow.

Bandera is famed in western Ukraine for leading the drive for independence against the Soviet Union and Poland in the 1930s and 1940s. In 1941, at the height of the upheaval of World War II, he issued a proclamation declaring Ukraine an independent state. It did not realize that goal until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, but he is regarded by some as a founding father.

“Every people, every nationality, has a right to their own government and their own history,” said Stepan Lesiv, director of a Bandera museum here in Staryi Uhryniv, a village in southwestern Ukraine where Bandera was born.

Russia, Poland and Jewish groups see Bandera very differently: To them, he was a fascist who joined forces with the Nazis around the time that they attacked the Soviet Union. Bandera was assassinated by the KGB in 1959 in Munich, where he lived in exile.

Yushchenko’s decision seemed intended to secure his reputation as a president who reinvigorated the Ukrainian nationalist movement. It certainly did not escape his notice that the move would enrage Russia, his nemesis.