MARSHAL Georgy Zhukov is contemporary Russia’s national hero, seen as the man who defeated Hitler and saved Russia and Europe from the Nazis.
His reputation is that of a Russian patriot and an independent-minded general who stood up to the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.
Now, 70 years after the battle of Stalingrad in which he played a central role, maintaining Zhukov’s hero status chimes with the Putin regime’s efforts to boost its credibility by combining Russian nationalism with harking back to the glories of the Soviet past. But the obsession with Zhukov is also a popular one, as evidenced by a 12-part Russian TV melodrama aired earlier this year.
The series dealt with Zhukov’s rollercoaster postwar career and focused on his tangled personal life: he was married twice, had at least three serious affairs while married to his first wife and fathered two daughters outside marriage as well as two daughters within. The only time the four daughters came together was at his funeral.
But neither the feisty military hero nor the soap opera version of his life and loves tells the full story of Zhukov.
Based on extensive original archival research, my new biography debunks the many myths generated about the hero Zhukov — not least those created in the different versions of his self-serving memoirs. Stalin’s General shows that Stalin’s right-hand military man was a deeply flawed character of epic achievements.
In Aug 1942, on the eve of the battle for Stalingrad, Stalin made a crucial decision: he appointed Zhukov to be his deputy Supreme Commander. Stalin needed somebody at his side who would fight the upcoming battle the way he wanted it fought — ruthlessly and with unshakeable confidence in a Soviet victory.
This was not the first such assignment for Zhukov. When the Germans invaded Soviet Russia in Jun 1941 he’d conducted the first successful counter-offensive against Hitler’s Wehrmacht — the army that had already conquered Poland, Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium, France, Yugoslavia and Greece. In Sept 1941 Stalin had sent Zhukov to Leningrad to save the Soviet Union’s second city from imminent capture by the Germans. Then, in October, Stalin recalled Zhukov to defend Moscow from a German attack that had succeeded in advancing to within a few miles of the Soviet capital. In December, Zhukov launched a massive counter-attack that drove the Wehrmacht back. The German failure in front of Moscow was the end of Operation Barbarossa and of Hitler’s dream of conquering the Soviet Union in a single campaign.
Stalin’s new task was for Zhukov to stop the Germans taking Stalingrad, a stronghold on the Volga river that stood in the way of Hitler’s plans to capture the Baku oilfields, the source of 90% of Soviet fuel needs. In a ferocious three- month street-by-street battle for the city, the Germans won control of all but a small enclave. They were unable to dislodge the Red Army from a bridgehead on the west bank of the Volga — a position that allowed the Soviets to receive supplies and to threaten German positions in the city.
In November 1942, Zhukov unleashed a counter-offensive that succeeded in surrounding 300,000 German troops in Stalingrad. By the time the battle was done, the Germans had lost 50 divisions and, together with their Hungarian, Italian and Romanian allies, suffered a million and a half casualties. In Stalingrad alone 150,000 German soldiers perished.
After the stunning victory at Stalingrad, Zhukov was promoted to Marshal. Many more victories followed. In Jan 1943 he supervised the operation that broke the German blockade of Leningrad. In July that year he played a crucial role at Kursk where hundreds of German and Soviet tanks clashed in open warfare — a battle that destroyed the last remaining reserves of Germany’s panzer power.
In Nov 1943, Zhukov led the Soviet forces who recaptured the Ukrainian capital of Kiev and a few months later he was responsible for the liberation of Belorussia from German occupation. But the climax of Zhukov’s military career was yet to come with the invasion of Germany. It was troops under Zhukov’s command who captured Berlin in Apr 1945 in a battle that cost the lives of 80,000 Soviet soldiers.
So it was fitting that Zhukov then formally accepted Germany’s unconditional surrender on May 9, 1945, and, after the signing ceremony, celebrated by performing a Cossack dance.
His fame as the greatest Soviet general of the Second World War was reinforced by newsreel of the victory parade in Red Square in Jun 1945. Zhukov took the salute as he sat astride a magnificent white horse and later stood beside Stalin as 200 captured Nazi banners were piled against the Kremlin wall, much like Marshal Katuzov’s soldiers had thrown French standards at the feet of Tsar Alexander 1 after their defeat of Napoleon in 1812.
He seemed destined for a glorious postwar career as the Soviet Union’s top soldier. But within a few months he had been sacked as commander-in-chief of Soviet ground forces and banished to a provincial military command. It was said Zhukov had been disrespectful of Stalin and had claimed too much personal credit for wartime victories.
Zhukov could certainly be boastful, but in truth, Stalin was jealous of Zhukov’s popularity and wanted to send a message to his other generals — he was still the boss.
After Stalin’s death in 1953 Zhukov was rehabilitated and appointed Deputy Defence Minister. In Jun 1953 he personally arrested the security chief Lavrenty Beria, who was accused of plotting to seize power. In 1955 Zhukov became Defence Minister and attended the Geneva summit of the Great Powers, where he conversed with another general turned politician: President Eisenhower.
Zhukov’s new boss was Stalin’s successor as party leader Nikita Khrushchev, who at the 20th party congress in 1956 launched a fierce attack on the dictator’s brutal record of mass repression. He went along with this critique but was uneasy about Khrushchev’s attack on Stalin’s war leadership. Nonetheless Zhukov was instrumental in protecting Khrushchev from an attempted coup by party hardliners in 1957.
But, like Stalin, Khrushchev’s relations with Zhukov were strained by the Marshal’s independent streak and by the public attention lavished on him. In Oct 1957 Khrushchev, too, turned on him and dismissed him as Defence Minister.
Having become a retired non-person he decided to take solace in writing his memoirs, although while Khrushchev remained in power there was no hope of publication. But in 1964, Khrushchev was ousted. When, in 1969 his memoirs were published, they quickly became the single most influential Soviet account of the Second World War, selling millions of copies.
However, Zhukov did not live to savour his final triumph in the battle to rewrite history. He had suffered a severe stroke in 1968 and in 1973 his second wife, Galina, died of cancer aged only 47. He died in Jun 1974, aged 77. Zhukov’s state funeral was the biggest such occasion since Stalin’s death.
While he is a hero to many, he remains a controversial figure derided by others as an egotistical brute with an unjustly inflated military reputation who cared little for the fate of the troops under his command.
Yet the controversy surrounding Zhukov has also served to keep him alive in the public consciousness as a great general and hero of the Soviet Union who used brutal methods to defeat a barbaric enemy.
* Professor Geoffrey Roberts is head of the School of History at UCC. His biography Stalin’s General: The Life of Georgy Zhukov has just been published by Icon Books.