Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, on Thursday renamed its Soviet-era Moscow Avenue after a Russian figure accused by the Kremlin of siding with the Nazis during World War II.
Kiev’s local council decided that one of the bustling city’s main northern arteries will now honor Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera.
The decision is in line with the push against totalitarian regimes such as the Communist Party that Ukraine launched after the February 2014 ouster of its Russian-backed leader and the decision by the new leaders to anchor the country’s ties to the West.
Dozens of Lenin monuments have since fallen as authorities took out their outrage against a lifetime of Soviet rule.
Bandera, who died 55 year ago, remains a deeply divisive figure in Ukraine, glorified by many in western Ukraine as a freedom fighter but dismissed by millions in eastern and southeastern Ukraine as a traitor to the Soviet Union’s struggle against the occupying German army.
Bandera was a leader of Ukraine’s nationalist movement in the 1930s and 1940s, which included an insurgent army that fought alongside Nazi soldiers during part of the Second World War. Bandera’s supporters claim they sided with the Nazis against the Soviet army, believing that Adolf Hitler would grant Ukraine independence.
He was assassinated in 1959 by the KGB in West Germany.
“The fact that Moscow Avenue was renamed in honor of a nationalist — there is much more politics here than common sense,” Russian parliament member Kazbek Taysayev told Moscow’s RIA Novosti state news agency.
“And this is a fascist policy that the fascist authorities in Kiev are leading in Ukraine.”
Both icon and demon
Bandera was detained and handed a death sentence by Warsaw in the 1930s for fighting Poles who occupied a predominantly nationalist western part of Ukraine after World War I.
The sentence was later reduced to life in prison — a punishment that became meaningless once the Nazis invaded Poland and established their own rule over the east European state in 1939.
Bandera escaped into neighboring western Ukraine and soon became the head of the radical wing of the Organisation of Ukranian Nationalists (OUN).
Moscow accuses Bandera and his OUN fighters of siding with the Nazis once they invaded the Soviet Union in 1941.
Historians think Bandera believed that Hitler would grant Ukraine independence or at least partial autonomy once the Nazis conquered Moscow.
Bandera declared independence days after the Nazis moved into Ukraine — a decision that proved nearly fatal because the German Gestapo almost immediately detained him and put him in a concentration camp.
Bandera won back Germany’s support in 1944, and he was released. The German army was hoping the Ukrainian insurgents could stop the advance of the Soviet army, which had regained control over much of eastern Ukraine by then. Bandera set up a headquarters in Berlin and oversaw the training of Ukrainian insurgents by the German army.
His group also was involved in the ethnic cleansing that killed tens of thousands of Poles in 1942-44. The Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists portrayed Russians, Poles, Hungarians and Jews — most of the minorities in western Ukraine — as aliens and encouraged locals to “destroy” Poles and Jews.
Bandera continued to lead his OUN forces against the Soviets from self-imposed exile in what was then Western Germany until 1959 — the year he was finally shot dead with a poisoned bullet by a KGB agent in Munich.
The complex figure is an icon for Ukrainian nationalists who is widely reviled by Russia and viewed with great skepticism by Israel.
But Ukrainian parliament member Oleksandr Brygynets said Bandera Avenue marked only the start of a wholesale change in Kiev.
“Dear friends, Bandera Avenue is a good thing, but it is not enough,” Brygynets wrote on Facebook.
“We also need an airport named after Ivan Mazepa.”
Mazepa was an ethnic Ukrainian who fought alongside Sweden in its losing 1709 war with Russia and is also demonized by Moscow.