At the entrance to Red Square, a large, striking statue greets visitors. Erected in 1995 in time for the 50th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany, it depicts Marshal Georgy Zhukov on his Arabian horse during the 1945 victory parade—and confirms his status as Russia’s national hero. The British historian Geoffrey Roberts is convinced that Zhukov deserves this place of honor, since he was “the best all-around general of the Second World War.”
Yet in this meticulously researched new biography, Roberts also points out that Zhukov was “a deeply flawed character of epic achievements . . . neither the unblemished hero of legend nor the unmitigated villain depicted by his detractors.” That judicious verdict is right on target. But there are all sorts of problems in writing a new biography of Zhukov, and evaluating his record. Roberts navigates many of them skillfully, while tripping up on others. After all, it’s hard to set the record straight about someone who served as Stalin’s right hand, helped crush Hitler, and went through alternating periods of lionization and denunciation.
The first challenge is that of sources. While immensely valuable, Zhukov’s famous memoirs—whether in the officially sanctioned version that was first published in 1969, or the numerous revised versions that followed later and included previously censored passages—were (not surprisingly) written to cast the author in the most favorable light and to assure his exalted place in history. They were also often short on the kind of personal details that make for a rich autobiographical portrait, chronicling instead a fairly predictable sequence of events. This makes it difficult for Roberts to avoid following a somewhat similar pattern at times, describing the military and political context in detail, but finding it hard to offer a three-dimensional portrait of Zhukov.
As for other military and political leaders who wrote about Zhukov, their portrayals of the man often depended on timing: Were they provided when he was riding high, or when he was abruptly cast aside by Stalin or, later, by Nikita Khrushchev?
Roberts works hard to set the record straight where he can. According to Zhukov’s account, for instance, he was born into poverty in 1896, and sent off at age 12 to Moscow as an apprentice furrier, working long days under harsh conditions. But Roberts points out that, while his family was poor and the young Georgy was flogged on more than one occasion, he was “a relatively privileged peasant.” The furrier apprenticeship, under the tutelage of an uncle who ran the business, served him well, and he was able to continue his education at night school. Before he was drafted to fight in World War I, he had finished his apprenticeship and was already making a good living.
More significantly, Zhukov, who fought not just in World War I, but also in the civil war following the Bolshevik Revolution, claimed that he narrowly escaped Stalin’s purges of the military’s top ranks in 1937-38. By that time, Zhukov was already an accomplished officer known for exercising strict discipline. And while he had every reason to keep a packed bag in case he was arrested, as his daughter Ella remembers, Roberts notes that there is no documentary evidence to support his claim that “the necessarily fatal documents were prepared on me,” as he put it in an interview in 1971. In reality, Zhukov was like many of his peers who managed to keep their heads down and survive the purges, benefiting from the disappearance of many of their superior officers, which cleared the way for faster promotions of those behind them.
Despite the title of his book, Roberts combines that clear-eyed assessment of Zhukov’s position at the height of Stalin’s purges of the military with an almost benign characterization of his subject’s view of the Soviet tyrant. He describes Zhukov as “both a loyal communist and a devotee, albeit a mild one, of the growing cult of Stalin’s personality.” Similarly, Roberts downplays the impact and scope of the purges in the military, pointing out that several thousand of the dismissed or imprisoned officers were reinstated later. Compared with Stalin’s other purges, he argues, this one was “relatively restrained.”