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.”
At the very least, both assertions create somewhat misleading impressions. As Robert Conquest pointed out in his seminal study The Great Terror, the purges hit senior officers the hardest, including 3 of the 5 marshals, 13 of the 15 army commanders, 50 of the 57 corps commanders, and 154 of the 186 divisional commanders—and this is only a partial list. Khrushchev argued that the purges were one of the reasons why, in June 1941, the Soviet Army was so woefully unprepared for the German invasion: “So many were executed that the high command as well as middle and lower echelons were devastated,” he wrote. “As a result our army was deprived of the cadres who had gained experience in the civil war, and we faced a new enemy unprepared.”
It’s not quite clear why Roberts feels compelled to characterize Zhukov as a “mild” devotee of Stalin, when so much of his book is focused on his service under the Soviet leader. True, once Zhukov rose to his dominant position in the military command during World War II, he appeared to be somewhat less personally intimidated by Stalin than most senior officers. But his loyalty was beyond question. As was his willingness to resort to the kind of brutal methods that were considered de rigueur for any faithful disciple.
Zhukov’s major break came in May 1939 when he was assigned to the Far East, where Soviet and Japanese troops were fighting intense battles along the Khalkhin-Gol River on the disputed Mongolian-Manchurian border. He improved intelligence-gathering, trained his troops hard, and caught the Japanese unawares with a major new offensive that resulted in a decisive victory in August. In the process, he also demonstrated the kind of ruthlessness that would mark his entire military career. While preparing for the Khalkhin-Gol offensive, he announced the execution of two soldiers for cowardice. And he was quick to proclaim: “Death to the despicable cowards and traitors!”
Under Stalin, those were never idle threats. Both the Soviet dictator and Zhukov did not hesitate to order their troops into battle even when the odds were stacked against them—casualty calculations simply weren’t a factor. In some cases, such sacrifices of their men were justified by the results; in others, this approach led to countless squandered lives. And that was on top of those who were killed outright by Soviet firing squads. During World War II, the Soviets executed 170,000 of their own troops. And after German forces scored their initial series of victories on the Eastern Front, Stalin and his generals often would not permit retreats—even for tactical reasons—and set up “blocking battalions” to machine gun anyone who disobeyed.
Roberts mentions such practices but doesn’t dwell on them. Instead, he focuses on Zhukov’s career as he is at first caught up in the disaster following Hitler’s launching of Operation Barbarossa against the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. At Stalin’s behest, Zhukov issued orders for counter-offensives that were completely unrealistic and ensured staggering losses. But after taking charge of beleaguered Leningrad, he stayed there long enough to arrest the German advance, setting the stage for what would be the 900-day siege of that critical city, and then raced back at Stalin’s command to organize the defense of Moscow.
Nearly two million Soviet troops perished in the various stages of the battle for Moscow, and it was as much Hitler’s mistakes as Soviet resistance that led to the sputtering-out of the German drive on the capital’s outskirts. While this represented the first defeat for the Wehrmacht since its invasion of Poland in September 1939, it wasn’t until the Battle of Stalingrad a year later that the Soviet Union could claim a decisive triumph. Zhukov was involved in the planning of that action, but Roberts points out that he almost certainly exaggerated his role. At the same time, he was directly responsible for the abject failure of Operation Mars, which had been designed to sweep away the remaining threat to Moscow in the Rzhev-Vyazma region.
As Soviet forces recovered from their initial defeats and gained momentum, Zhukov was able to burnish his status as the architect of victory, particularly after his troops finally seized Berlin. His personal triumph was short-lived, however: When Stalin launched a new round of purges in 1946, Zhukov was denounced as “an exceptionally power-loving and self-obsessed person.” One of the additional charges against him was that he “expects submissiveness and cannot bear dissent.” This may have been accurate, but it also demonstrates that Stalin had no sense of irony.
The other irony in Zhukov’s career was that he helped Khrushchev win power by participating in the arrest of Stalin’s feared secret police chief Lavrenty Beria after Stalin’s death in 1953, and served as defense minister under the leader who launched the de-Stalinization campaign. During Zhukov’s tenure, his devotion to brutal repression against perceived foes remained undiminished. When the Hungarians sought to break away from Soviet domination in 1956, he was typically unequivocal in his recipe for action: “Remove the rotten elements. Disarm the counterrevolution. Everything must be brought to order.” The resulting bloodshed was hardly surprising.
For all his attempts to sort through Zhukov’s record judiciously, Roberts points out that “winning in war tends to trump all criticism of the conduct of particular battles or operations.” But where his biography falls short is in examining just how much Stalin, Zhukov, and the others who constituted the political and military leadership of the Soviet Union were responsible for nearly losing the war at first—and for contributing to its astronomical toll. Russian historians estimate approximately 27 million Soviet citizens died during the war, of which at least 8.6 million comprised Soviet military personnel. Stalin’s refusal to believe the numerous warnings of his own spies and Western powers that Hitler was about to attack, and the subsequent calamitous series of military decisions in the early days of that conflict, as ordered by Zhukov and other commanders, magnified the tragedy.
For all that, Zhukov deserves his place on his horse in front of the entrance to Red Square. He learned from his early mistakes and eventually led his troops to victory, commanding the respect of Allied generals and leaders who recognized that the Germans suffered their greatest losses at the hands of his forces. Without those losses, Hitler’s Germany would have ruled Europe much longer than it did.
But Zhukov’s “flawed character,” as Roberts puts it, also suggests why the new Russia still has so many difficulties in honestly confronting its recent history. Even in the case of the country’s most acclaimed military commander, the Stalinist “flaws” are all too evident, and the price that his countrymen paid for them remains all too high.
Andrew Nagorski, vice president and director of public policy at the EastWest Institute, is the author of Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power.