Half a century after his death at the hands of the K.G.B., Stepan Bandera, a World War II partisan, has not lost his ability to rally Ukrainians against Russia — and against each other.
Monuments to Mr. Bandera have sprung up across western Ukraine, his fight for the country’s independence glowingly recounted to schoolchildren on field trips, as if he were the George Washington of Ukrainian nationalism. But in eastern Ukraine and as far away as Moscow and Brussels, Mr. Bandera is reviled as a Nazi puppet.
This disputed legacy has ensured him a prominent role in today’s Ukraine. In a parting shot as his presidency was ending, Viktor A. Yushchenko named Mr. Bandera a “Hero of Ukraine,” one of the country’s highest honors.
Russia, Poland and Jewish groups see Mr. Bandera very differently. To them, he was a fascist who joined forces with the Nazis around the time that they attacked the Soviet Union, and whose independence movement was a front for Hitler. They said he ordered or condoned massacres of Jews and Poles by Ukrainian partisans.
Mr. Bandera’s champions respond that his association with the Nazis was brief and in the service of attaining Ukrainian independence. They pointed out that he was later detained by the Nazis and sent to a concentration camp. He was assassinated by the K.G.B. in 1959 in Munich, where he lived in exile.
Back in 2004 the West rallied to the ‘Orange Revolution,’ and the pro-Western forces in Ukraine. But the battle lines were not necessarily ideological, rather, they suspiciously divided along regional, linguistic and religious lines. The Ukrainian speaking west of the nation, and in particular the Eastern Rite Catholic regions which had long been part of the Polish sphere of cultural influence, supported the reformers, while the eastern and more Russian half of the nation was opposed. From what I recall back then the American media reported this dichotomy, but only in a cursory fashion, with the primary angle being the stand-off between pro-Western and pro-Russian factions. The incident with Bandera illustrates that in reality the deeper regional-historical gulf was probably the real driver, and a western Ukraine which had long been part of Poland-Lithuania would naturally want a closer relationship to Central Europe no matter the ideological particulars.
As for Bandera’s actions in World War II, the controversy should be no surprise. The peoples of the Baltics and the former Poland-Lithuania were squeezed between two brutal powers which had no use for them except insofar as they forwarded their own ends. Finland’s tactical alliance with Nazi Germany to counter Soviet aggression shows the hard choices that were made.