LVIV, Ukraine (Reuters) - Of all the medals on his military tunic, it is the one marking his role in the UPA Ukrainian nationalist resistance fighting Nazis, Poles and Soviets in the war that ended 70 years ago on Saturday that gives Vasyl Chelepys the most pride.
Gaunt and white-haired, he is now 92 and loses himself in memories of combat, arrest, comrades executed, a commuted death sentence and years in a Soviet labor camp in the Arctic circle.
It was a time of tangled loyalties in western Ukraine, but now, as then, he regards the main adversary as Russia, a feeling the Ukrainian government is tapping into as the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two approaches.
Chelepys is one of many Ukrainians who, with government encouragement, view the event as bitter-sweet, Russian-backed separatism in east Ukraine eclipsing any sense of past triumph over Nazi tyranny.
“It’s an undeclared war. Why did they come here?,” Chelepys asks of Russians fighting with Russian-speaking Ukrainians against the military, describing President Vladimir Putin’s Russia as “aggressive, without logic and without morality.”
With Ukrainian servicemen dying almost daily despite a ceasefire, Kiev’s pro-Western government is using the anniversary to highlight Russian belligerence.
Public-service advertisements make a direct link between the patriotic valor of World War Two and the sacrifices in today’s fight against separatists, a conflict that has already killed more than 6,100 people.
In one, a young soldier says he has his grandfather’s wartime Soviet Order of the Red Star in a pocket over his heart before strapping on his helmet to go and join his combat unit.
Spurning what is expected to be a display of military swagger in Moscow on Saturday, Kiev plans to put the accent at home on reconciliation rather than triumphalism and victory.
But some Ukrainians fear associating the struggle in World War Two with today’s struggle against Russia will deepen splits in a politically divided population and hand propaganda gifts to Moscow, which equates Kiev with treachery and fascism.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk accuses Russia, which suffered huge wartime losses, of monopolizing credit for the defeat of Nazi Germany, and reminds Ukrainians of their own country’s sacrifices including 8 million dead.
He has ditched the Soviet-centric title of “Great Patriotic War” in favor of “World War Two” used in most of Europe, part of a national rebirth by the pro-Western authorities following the ousting of the Moscow-backed Viktor Yanukovich last year.
His government says the anniversary weekend may be a pretext for attacks by separatists or Russian agents in Kiev and other cities - and is drafting in tens of thousands of extra police.
Most TV channels in Kiev on Thursday broadcast 1939 as the start of World War Two, a break with the traditional Soviet start date of 1941 when Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union despite an earlier deal to split eastern Europe between them.
In another break with the past, several newscasters wore poppies as a European symbol to remember the war dead.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, like U.S. and European leaders, is steering clear of Moscow’s May 9 spectacle and has made May 8 a day of reconciliation to try to unite Ukrainians with different views of World War Two against Russia.
Putin has also used the anniversary to whip up patriotism, as well as hostility toward Kiev and has warned against what he sees as attempts by other countries to rewrite history and play down the role of Russians in defeating Nazi Germany.
“Their goal is obvious: to undermine Russia’s power and moral authority,” he told a committee organizing Russia’s anniversary events.
Nikolai Patrushev, Secretary of Putin’s advisory Security Council, complained in an interview with army newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda about “the short memories of the political elites in some countries that used to be parts of the Soviet Union.”
“Most openly and cynically, fascism is reborn in the Baltic States and Ukraine. They make heroes of criminals whose hands are red with the blood of their compatriots,” he said.
He was referring partly to wartime nationalist leader Stepan Bandera, seen in areas of western Ukraine as a hero of the independence struggle but regarded by Poland and Israel as well as Russia as a terrorist and Nazi collaborator who died with the blood of thousands on his conscience.
It was a time of mass killings of tens of thousands of Poles and Jews as well as Ukrainians. Many people lay much of this bloodshed at the door of the UPA’s struggle for independence - a fact which makes a decision by parliament to recognize it as a legitimate organization a controversial one.
Lviv-based historian Yaroslav Hrytsak believes the April decision was a misjudgment which will rebound on national unity and hand Putin easy ammunition to support Russia’s view that the ousting of Yanukovich was the work of ‘fascists’.
“This is not the time to introduce such a divisive issue,” he said in an interview in Lviv. “It is a dangerous move by the government to differentiate too much from Russia on the war. May 9 is still a sacred day not only in the east of Ukraine but also in the south,” he said.
The Ukrainian resistance fought for independence in western Ukraine during the turbulence leading up to World War Two and beyond - against Soviet power - well into the 1950s.
Much of western Ukraine was Polish territory before the war and the region became a battlefield involving opposing Nazi and Soviet forces with UPA fighters often swapping sides.
Over the years, attempts at a historical rehabilitation have sparked anger from those Ukrainians who fought in the Soviet army and accepted the return of Soviet rule after it.
Chelepys, in an interview in his apartment in the suburbs of Lviv, once Poland’s Lwow, recounted how he joined the UPA in 1941 when he was a teenager.
“I fought them all - Poles, Germans, Bolsheviks. For me, they were all occupiers,” he said of that time of shifting borders, invasion and changing allegiances.
He was sentenced to death after the war by the Soviet authorities as an ‘enemy of the people’, a sentence commuted to a term in a labor camp in Kolyma near the Arctic circle.
“I was there 9 years, 3 months and 9 days,” he said. He was rehabilitated in 1992, after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Asked about today’s war in the east, he says: “Of course I would go and fight. We (the UPA) were always on the front line. Our slogan was ‘freedom or death’.”
Additional reporting by Lyubov Sorokina in Lviv and Timothy Heritage in Moscow; editing by Philippa Fletcher