People walk by massive poster of Stepan Bandera, a Ukrainian politician, in Kiev’s Independence Square. A controversial political figure, Bandera became an ally with Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union but was later imprisoned during World War II. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

The West may be feeling the chill of a new Cold War. But for Ukraine and Russia, no era or actor is more omnipresent in today’s crisis than World War II and Stepan Bandera.

Born in an obscure village in 1909, Bandera in the early 20th century fought for an independent Ukraine, which at the time was carved up between Poland and the Soviet Union. Honoring what they see as his legacy as a thorn in the side of the Soviets, Ukrainian nationalists have strung up a massive poster of their hero in this city’s Independence Square, using him as a rallying cry against the new menace in Moscow.

But if Bandera is idolized by some in the capital and western Ukraine, he is reviled as a fascist in much of the heavily ethnic-Russian east and south as well as in Russia itself. There, memories are still fresh of Soviet-era campaigns that sought to discredit Bandera, and his quest for a Ukrainian homeland, by playing up his ties to Germany’s Third Reich.

The fierce debate has made history a protagonist here, with love and loathing of a larger-than-life figure now vividly on display on Ukrainian streets.

Ivan Ivanovich, 86, a World War II veteran, walked to Independence Square to show his support for Ukraine. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

The dispute over Bandera has raised a difficult question for Ukraine: How do you unite a nation that clings to different heroes? With the uprising last month in Kiev now pitting nationalists against pro-Russian activists, slogans and placards in favor of and against Bandera are front and center at protests. He has become the single biggest icon of the crisis on the ground.

“Those people in Kiev are Bandera-following Nazi collaborators,” insisted Artem, a 35-year-old pro-Russian activist in the eastern city of Kharkiv who gave only one name.

The divisive power of Bandera has not been lost on Russian President Vladimir Putin. Last week, Putin welcomed Crimeans into Russia by declaring that he was saving them from new Ukrainian leaders who are the “ideological heirs of Bandera, Hitler’s accomplice during World War II.”

Putin and pro-Russian residents of Ukraine have sought to rally support by suggesting that to be a proud Ukrainian is something akin to being a fascist. It has not helped that some of the pro-Western nationalists still occupying Kiev’s Independence Square, also known as the Maidan, are black-clad far-right storm troopers who idolize Bandera.

On the same day Putin spoke, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk was forced to reassure his skeptical populous in the restive east and south. Speaking in Russian on national television, he pledged that “supporters of Bandera” would not pour into eastern and southern cities and towns on a quest to “re-educate” the population.

“The question of Bandera is not history for us. It is still about the present day,” said Oleh Martychenko, a 49-year-old Kiev businessman and Ukrainian nationalist. “The Russians want to call him a fascist, but I feel he was a hero for our country. Putin is using him to try to divide us.”

The shadow of war

More broadly, the current standoff is shadowed by World War II. In a country where millions died during the war, many have sought to turn the tables on Moscow’s propaganda, painting Putin’s Russia as “the new Nazis.” On Facebook and Twitter, pro-Western Ukrainians are referring to the Russian president as “Putler.” All around Independence Square are stickers with the Russian flag emblazoned with a swastika. The text reads: “The colors of the occupiers.”

In Kiev’s main square, booksellers peddle tomes that seek to explain the Nazi collaboration of Ukrainian nationalists as a means to an end — striking back at the Soviets.

Academics and politicians in Kiev are comparing Russia’s “land grab” in Crimea to Adolf Hitler’s 1939 invasion of Poland. Some in the West — including Secretary of State John F. Kerry — are echoing such comparisons.

This week, Kerry blasted the “nationalist fervor” in Russia, “which could, in fact, infect in ways that could be very, very dangerous. All you have to do is go back and read in history of the lead-up to World War II, and the passions that were released with that kind of nationalistic fervor,” he said.

‘Hero of Ukraine’

A poster reader "The Color of the Occupant," can be seen throughout Independence Square in Kiev. References to World War II are ever present around the Maidan. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

Bandera has long divided Ukraine — so much so that his status as a “Hero of Ukraine,” awarded in 2010, was annulled a year later after a national (and international) uproar. The motivation for his association with the Nazis, however, remains in dispute.

An adherent of fascist ideology, he formed what some scholars describe as a “tactical” relationship with Nazi Germany, with which Bandera shared common enemies. During World War II, his followers were accused of committing atrocities against Poles and Jews.

“He wanted to create a Greater Ukraine reaching from the River Danube to the Caspian Sea,” said Per Anders Rudling, an expert on Ukrainian history at Sweden’s Lund University. “He and his followers, similarly to the Nazis, advocated selective breeding to create ‘pure’ Ukrainians.”

By 1941, however, Bandera’s relationship with Hitler had gone south, and he was thrown into the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. He was released in 1944, however, to aid the Nazis (and Ukrainian nationalists) in black operations behind Soviet lines. On KBG orders, he was poisoned, dying in Munich in 1959.

Some in western Ukraine, however, portray his collaboration as a necessary evil in the fight against Joseph Stalin, who scholars say put Ukraine through the horror of an orchestrated famine that claimed millions of lives in the early 1930s.

“Do you know what Ukraine had gone through by the time of the war?” said Joseph Myhal, a 75-year-old retired miner in Kiev camped out in Independence Square. “Bandera was a freedom fighter for Ukraine! That’s what he was.”

In the south and east, however, views on Bandera are not as forgiving. In Crimea, Aleksandr Chemshit, a political scientist who heads the social studies department at Sevastopol Technical National University, said the fact that western Ukrainians refer to “World War II” instead of the “Great Patriotic War,” as Crimeans do, underscores the difference in values.

“For Crimeans, for people in southeast Ukraine, the Soviet Union was their motherland,” Chemshit said. “For the majority in western Ukraine, their heroes are those who fought for independence, the Banderas. Our heroes are those who went from Stalingrad to Berlin.”

Carol Morello in Sevastopol and Stephanie Kirchner in Berlin contributed to this report.