STARYI UHRYNIV, Ukraine -- 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 school children 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.
That touched off a political battle that may make it more difficult for Viktor F. Yanukovich, who succeeded Mr. Yushchenko as president last week, to address the ethnic, regional and historical passions that divide the country.
Already, eastern Ukrainians have held protests, burning Mr. Bandera in effigy. Mr. Yanukovich, who campaigned on a platform of improving relations with Russia, 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.
Mr. Yanukovich, who is from eastern Ukraine, has criticized the award, but has so far not said what he will do about it. “I think that the president of Ukraine should be the president of all Ukraine and not just one part,” he said.
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. With Mr. Yanukovich’s inauguration, Ukraine has gone from one pole to the other, and the question is whether a Yanukovich presidency can change this dynamic.
Mr. Yanukovich’s narrow victory at the polls, while deemed free and fair by most monitors, did not give him much of a mandate. The loser in the presidential race, Yulia V. Tymoshenko, is clinging to her job as prime minister, and Mr. Yanukovich must oust her if he wants to carry out his agenda.
He can do so either by building a new coalition in Parliament or calling new elections. It may be harder for him to succeed at either if emotions are rubbed raw in the west of the country, where pro-Bandera sentiment is strongest.
Mr. 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 Mr. Bandera was born. “Bandera, and many in Ukraine, have struggled for and died for this goal.”
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.
Still, even his supporters regard him as an incendiary figure, which accounts for the timing of the award. Mr. Yushchenko issued it only after he had failed in his bid for another term in the first round of Ukraine’s presidential elections in January.
After the announcement, he visited the Bandera museum here. “Glory to Stepan Bandera! Glory to Ukraine!” he wrote in the museum guestbook.
Mr. 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.
Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin predictably lashed out, saying that in giving the award, Mr. Yushchenko had not only offended Russia, but had also “spit in the face” of countries that supported the 2004 Orange Revolution, which Mr. Yushchenko helped lead.
Mr. Putin himself has become a regular partisan in the conflicts in the former Soviet Union over who controls the narrative of history and whose memorials will stand. Since the Soviet collapse, former republics have tried to create identities distinct from Moscow by doing away with Soviet symbols and disseminating their own perspectives on pivotal events.
Nikolai Svanidze, a Russian historian who serves on a Kremlin panel intended to combat “attempts to falsify history,” said the world often failed to understand the trauma suffered by the Soviet Union in World War II, when 25 million Soviet citizens died. Mr. Svanidze said that to honor someone with links to the Nazis was to sully the sacrifice of those people.
He compared some other former Soviet republics to teenagers who were asserting their individuality.
“They reject everything that seems unpleasant to them, that seems alien to them, or unnatural to them, everything that gets in the way of their own sense of identity,” he said.
Some Ukrainians described that view as condescending and self-serving.
“In the Russian mentality, there must always be an enemy,” said Mykola Posivnych, a Ukrainian historian and expert on Ukrainian partisans. “This enemy, Bandera, is very useful to them.”
Mr. Lesiv, the museum director, said the issue was even simpler: Russia has never come to terms with Ukrainian sovereignty. He said people in western Ukraine would rise up if Mr. Yanukovich tried to withdraw the Bandera award.
“For Ukrainian nationalists,” he said, “there is no such word as capitulation.”