Stalin’s General: The Life of Georgy Zhukov, by Geoffrey Roberts, Random House, New York, 2012 $30
Soviet Russia’s greatest general rose from poverty to triumph in World War II, surviving dismissal by both Joseph Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev to live on as a national hero. British historian Roberts has pored over Zhukov’s personal papers, his unexpurgated memoirs and recent Russian scholarship to write a definitive account of an impressive if only intermittently sympathetic commander.
A cobbler’s son, Zhukov (1896–1974) joined the imperial army in 1915 and the Red Army in 1918, less out of ideology than a desire for a military career. Lack of interest in politics did not save colleagues from Stalin’s 1937–38 military purge, but Zhukov, by that time a corps commander, survived, probably through pure luck.
In 1939 he commanded Soviet forces that routed Japanese units in an obscure border war, culminating in the Battle of Khalkhin Gol. While Zhukov received credit for the Red Army’s first great victory since the revolution, Roberts points out that he faced troops far inferior to the 1941 Wehrmacht.
Stalin died before Zhukov and other generals wrote their memoirs, so no one should be surprised at who gets the blame for the Soviet Union’s initial thrashing by Adolf Hitler, but no one emerges unscathed. Taking war with Germany for granted, Soviet leaders assumed their defenses would hold until they could organize counteroffensives. Appointed chief of the Red Army General Staff in 1940, Zhukov accepted the plan. The invasion occurred sooner than expected and in much greater force.
While Zhukov’s memoirs claim he spoke his mind to an anxious Stalin in summer 1941, Roberts find no contemporary evidence and concludes the general followed orders, organizing counteroffensives with generally disastrous results. Sent to Leningrad in September, he stabilized defenses and then led Moscow’s resistance after October. His dramatic counteroffensive in December received prominent praise in Soviet press and newsreels, a sure sign of Stalin’s approval.
Success convinced Zhukov the Wehrmacht had shot its bolt, but several Soviet offensives during spring and summer 1942 were bloody failures. Historians and Zhukov himself prefer to concentrate on the Battle of Stalingrad, in which he played a prominent role, and he went on to similar roles in the decisive 1943 victory at Kursk and the 1945 capture of Berlin.
In 1946 an increasingly paranoid Stalin demoted Zhukov to an obscure post. Around the time of Stalin’s 1953 death the general was recalled and became minister of defense, only to be forcibly retired by a jealous Khrushchev in 1958.
Despite Roberts’ admiration, readers will struggle to find in Zhukov the virtuosity of Erwin Rommel or George Patton, the charisma of Bernard Montgomery or the political sophistication of Dwight Eisenhower. Zhukov had a talent for handling large armies while possessing a command style unpleasant even by Soviet standards, behaving tactlessly to subordinates and colleagues while enforcing draconian discipline among the lower ranks.
In the Orwellian atmosphere of the Soviet Union one couldn’t be too careful, even in private correspondence, so Roberts’ new material is not dramatically revealing. Little turns up to soften Zhukov’s stolid public persona and brutal, authoritarian command style, though there’s no arguing with success.