Share This Article

There was a big spread, with plenty of vodka, when war correspondent Alexander Werth attended a Soviet victory party in the ruined city of Stalingrad in February 1943.

A red-faced colonel, who had consumed a good number of drinks, exclaimed to Werth: “We’ve done them in–half a million of them! I worship Zhukov. He planned the whole thing, he and our great Stalin.

“Hitler’s best divisions were destroyed there. And who destroyed them? We Russian people did it! Why is Stalingrad important, I ask you? Because he who won the Battle of Stalingrad has also won the war. That’s why.”

As later events would prove, the colonel was not exaggerating. The Battle of Stalingrad, where the Red Army encircled and destroyed Field Marshal Friedrich von Paulus’ Sixth Army, was the turning point of the war on the Eastern Front and was–along with the concurrent battles of El Alamein and Guadalcanal–a major turning point for the Allies in World War II.

In and around Stalingrad, at least 247,000 Germans died, and more than 94,000 surrendered. The Sixth was the first German army to surrender. The bitter Soviet counteroffensive, fought from November 1942 to February 1943, showed dramatically what the Red Army could achieve when operations were properly planned.

The architect of the victory was Marshal Georgi Konstantinovich Zhukov, the most decorated soldier in Soviet history and the first field commander of World War II to be made a marshal of the Soviet Union. Acclaimed as a “highly talented and brave leader” who successfully carried out Stalin’s plans for repulsing the Germans at Moscow, Stalingrad and Leningrad, he became the symbol of the Soviet Union’s titanic struggle to break the back of the Wehrmacht.

At the end of the war, Zhukov received the highest decorations of his own government and those of Britain and America. And yet, for many years, he was relegated to the status of “unperson” after being ousted by Stalin in 1946 when the dictator became jealous of Zhukov’s fame. He almost fell victim to the purges of the infamous Lavrenti Beria, head of the Soviet secret police, and was saved only by Stalin’s intervention. After Stalin’s death, Zhukov became minister of defense, but in 1957 Premier Nikita Khrushchev stripped him of all his titles.

He re-emerged after Khrushchev’s fall in 1964 but was not fully rehabilitated as a legitimate national hero until after his death in 1976, as shown in Otto Preston Chaney’s masterful biography, Zhukov (University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Okla., 1996, $39.95). Chaney, a former U.S. Army colonel and professor of national security studies at the Army War College, has written a highly detailed portrait of Zhukov that will stand as a definitive work for many years.

Exhaustively documented and written with considerable understanding, this is a biographical tour de force. Using the marshal’s own memoirs and previously censored papers, Chaney deftly walks the reader through the long and distinguished career of the Soviet Union’s greatest soldier–from his role in major battles against the Japanese in Mongolia in 1938-39, to his triumphant entry into Berlin in 1945, and on through his postwar treatment at the hands of the Communist system.

Zhukov was one of the first Red Army officers to recognize the importance of the tank in modern warfare. The author describes how Zhukov worked tirelessly (it was said that he could sleep, listen and think at the same time) to mechanize the Red Army in the 1930s.

Zhukov, says Chaney, was an outstanding leader. He was iron-willed, demanding and methodical, and he paid close attention to details. Yet he rarely lost his temper or self-control, he was attentive and sensitive, and he showed concern for his subordinates. He even helped his commanders overcome family problems.

The marshal trusted his staff and listened patiently to their opinions on tactics and organizational questions, but once he made a decision, his orders were to be carried out without question. His guiding principle was, “If you don’t know how, we’ll teach you; if you don’t want to, we’ll make you.”

Zhukov was an energetic, organized man with great self-discipline. He did not tolerate lazy windbags, but he related to those who worked hard, creatively and with some fire. He was meticulous in his oversight and prepared himself carefully for work. He had an exceptional memory and did not rely on notes, only on maps.

Besides brushing the fullest portrait yet of the military Zhukov and his momentous campaigns, Chaney provides an engaging look at Zhukov’s personal life. Off-duty, he was sociable and knew how to enjoy himself. He took part in games and dances with young people, was humorous and sincere, and never showed pomposity or arrogance.

At home, although he would not tolerate dishonesty or hypocrisy, he was a kind and loving husband and father. He read constantly, and his dacha contained about 20,000 books, mostly on military history.

The foreword to Chaney’s book was written by Malcolm Mackintosh, a British army liaison officer who was attached to the Soviet army during World War II. He is a senior fellow in Soviet studies at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

Zhukov is a thorough examination of a great soldier that belongs in every military library.