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December 1, 2012

Zhukov: The Soviet General

Henrik Bering on Stalin's General: The Life of Georgy Zhukov by Geoffrey Roberts

Geoffrey Roberts. Stalin's General: The Life of Georgy Zhukov. Random House. 400 Pages. $30.

Soviet marshals were known for their fondness for outsize hats and a chest load of medals, and on this point of military splendor, Marshal Zhukov, the man who had crushed Hitler’s panzers and conquered Berlin, was in a class all by himself. In his memoir Berlin Command Frank Howley, who later became commandant of the U.S. sector, provides a portrait of Zhukov from the Allied victory parade in Berlin on September 7, 1945, which combines close observation with sly satire:

Marshal Georgi Zhukov was there in all his glory. He wore robin’s egg blue trousers, with yellow stripes, topped off with a dark green blouse and a bright red sash. Across his chest, and almost down below his hips, hung so many decorations that a special brass plate had to be worn to house this immense collection, giving the impression of being riveted to the Russians chest.

The decorations included the highest order of the Soviet Union, as well as many from the Allies. Zhukov was a big man, with a big, broad chest, but there was no room left. In an emergency, he had hung one decoration, a gold saucer affair, on his right hip.

By contrast, George Patton, standing in for Eisenhower and normally not known for his modesty, on this occasion clearly operated on the principle that less is more: Patton “was dressed in a simple battle jacket, with a few ribbons, but his gleaming boots and polished helmet outshone all of Zhukov’s medals. As far as I can remember, nobody else attracted the slightest attention,” wrote Howley.

Zhukov’s attendance in the Berlin parade had followed the immense victory parade in Moscow on June 24, 1945, where Zhukov took the salute riding on a white Arab charger, and where Soviet soldiers flung Nazi banners and regimental standards before the Kremlin Wall, just as Marshal Kutuzov’s forces had done in 1812 with Napoleon’s beaten standards.

But favor was fleeting in Stalin’s Russia: Shortly after having been appointed commander in chief of the Soviet ground forces, Zhukov found himself relegated to the sticks, posted to the Odessa military district in the Crimea, and accused of a host of evils: of “unworthy and harmful conduct,” of corruption, and of disrespect towards Stalin by passing himself off as the chief architect of the Soviet victory.

After which followed a reputational rollercoaster for Zhukov: After Stalin’s death, he was back in favor under Khrushchev, only to be discarded again, until finally being resurrected under Brezhnev. Today, in nationalist Russia, he is a cult figure, and hailed as the greatest military figure in the nation’s history.

As Geoffrey Roberts makes clear in his biography Stalin’s General, a variety of views exist on Zhukov. One end of the scale is represented by the late John Erickson of the University of Edinburgh, who rated Zhukov “the greatest soldier so far produced by the 20th century. On the simplest reckoning, he is the general who never lost a battle.” The counterview sees him as a primitive brute who commanded by fear and threats and to whom the lives of his troops were as expendable as metal washers. He certainly stunned Eisenhower by revealing that his way of clearing minefields was to let infantry run through them.

As Roberts explains in his introduction, when setting out, it had been his intention to write a critical biography that would explode the myths that had grown up around Zhukov and serve as a corrective to earlier assessments of him in English. Like Erickson’s, they have tended towards the panegyric by leaning too heavily on Zhukov memoirs, which, through invaluable due to their access to the war archives, are heavily biased. As Roberts got deeper into the material, this approach was scrapped in favor of a more balanced one of weighing the marshal’s strengths and his weaknesses. “Zhukov was neither the unblemished hero of legend nor the unmitigated villain depicted by his detractors,” he writes.

Which is fine, as it is the purpose of military biography to deliver a coolly analytical appraisal of its subject’s military abilities, be he German, Soviet, or Japanese, while never forgetting what kind of regime he represented. Roberts doesn’t: “While his victories over the Nazis served humanity well, they also helped to buttress a system that was itself highly authoritarian and harshly repressive.”

By scattering old power structures, revolutions open possibilities for ambitious men. As had been the case with the French Revolution, which paved the way for Napoleon and his marshals, so it was with the Russian Revolution and a generation of Soviet commanders. Of modest peasant stock, Zhukov had been conscripted into the Tsarist army and promoted to nco. In 1918, he had joined the newly formed Red Army; he was decorated for bravery in the war against the Whites, and had risen steadily in the ranks.

His reputation was made in defending Mongolia against the Japanese northward expansion. In the battle of Khalkhin Gol in August 1939, through canny use of misinformation, he pulled off a double envelopment of the Japanese forces like the one achieved by Hannibal against the Romans at Cannae, every commander’s dream. As Roberts notes, his victory had consequences for the U.S.: together with Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, it contributed to the Japanese shift to a southern strategy, ending in the attack on Pearl Harbor.

In a reshuffle following the Red Army’s less than impressive win over the Finns in the 1939–40 war, Zhukov was recalled from the east to command the Kiev district, the largest in the Soviet Union, and charged with coordinating the region’s role in the nation’s war plan which identified Germany as the main enemy. And because of Zhukov’s success in war games, Stalin made him chief of the general staff in January 1941, though Zhukov himself had pointed out his lack of experience for this job.

Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s invasion of the ussr in June 1941, caught Stalin off guard, as he had long hypnotized himself into believing that he could remain on the sidelines and build up his army while the capitalist nations exhausted themselves against each other. To avoid furnishing Hitler with the slightest pretext for invasion, he refused to put the border forces on alert, let alone order a full mobilization, stubbornly ignoring the reports of the German troop movements. “Mobilization means war,” was Stalin’s message to Zhukov.

The result of Stalin’s miscalculation was devastating: Because of the Soviet failure to disperse their aircraft, almost 4,000 were destroyed in the first three days, and whole armies were cut off and swallowed up in what the Germans call Kesselschlachten, cauldron battles.

The question here is how much of the blame for this catastrophe attaches to Zhukov: Stalin’s 1937 purge of the military had decapitated the Red Army, not a brilliant move given that Hitler in Mein Kampf had made plain his intention of enslaving the Slavs. The prime target of the purge was Marshal Tukhachevsky, the Red Army’s commander in chief. According to Roberts’s figures, altogether 34,000 officers were purged, many of whom were shot or died in prison; 11,500 were later reinstated. There is no evidence that Tukhachevsky was plotting against Stalin. But as Tukhachevsky’s biographer Thomas G. Butson aptly noted in the Tsar’s Lieutenant, in Stalin’s mind, real threats and imagined ones tended to coalesce. To him, opportunity equaled intent.

The effects on Soviet planning were disastrous. Tukhachevsky had been the proponent of an offensive doctrine of combined arms operations in depth, along similar lines as those considered by German Panzer generals. As Condoleezza Rice points out in her essay Soviet Strategy, after Tukhachevsky’s removal, further development of his ideas stopped, but attack remained the order of the day, despite the fact that in their first offensive against the Finns in the 1939–40 war, Soviet troops demonstrated their lack of mastery of the cooperation of arms. Predictably, in the opening phase of World War II, Red Army attacks were ineffective, and they proved equally inept at defensive maneuvering, many remaining in place when about to be overrun. Those that did retreat did so head over heels and with staggering losses.

While he did not believe that Soviet forces could have stopped the Germans in the initial stage of the war, and though the published version of Zhukov’s memoirs remains guarded on the subject, “Zhukov was more honest than most in accepting a share of responsibility,” writes Roberts. “He was also perceptive enough to see that the origins of the error lay deep in the Red Army’s history and culture.” In an unexpurgated passage from the memoirs quoted here, Zhukov notes that “at that time, our military theoretical science generally did not consider the profound problems of strategic defense, mistakenly considering it not so important.”

As a result, says Rice, the Red Army field regulations of 1942, though still emphasizing offensive action as the war winner, now proclaimed defense a “normal form of combat,” but it had to be a flexible and mobile defense, not what Stalin correctly characterized as “stupid and pernicious linear tactics.”

Among further consequences of the catastrophe Roberts cites the return of political commissars with veto powers over military decisions and the use of so-called blocking detachments, whose task it was to shoot on the spot anyone turning tail. As Stalin later told Admiral King at Yalta, “It takes a very brave man not to be a hero in the Soviet army.”

A number of Soviet generals paid for the disaster with their lives, but Stalin chose not to hold it against Zhukov, particularly since he proved his aggressiveness at Yelnya in the Smolensk area by furiously counterattacking the German invaders.

Hitler’s initial intent had been to capture Leningrad and then on to Moscow. Holding the nation’s second city, with its symbolic significance as the cradle of the Revolution was vital, says Roberts, as its capture would allow the Germans to mount a flanking attack on Moscow from the north, and Stalin dispatched Zhukov to do the job. The Russian and German forces in the area were roughly equal, just under half a million men each, but the Germans had two tank divisions and they owned the air.

Zhukov’s message to his troops, if not exactly inspirational, had the virtue of clarity: “All commanders, political workers, and soldiers who abandon the indicated line without written order from the front or military council will be shot immediately.” By organizing a deep, echeloned defense of the city with dense minefields, he managed to stabilize the front. “In less than a month, Zhukov had mastered the gravest crisis, organized an effective defense, and repaired morale, as well as restoring discipline which had crumpled disastrously before his arrival,” Roberts quotes Erickson as saying. The American military historian David Glantz spoke of “the miracle on the Neva.”

Among the less euphoric voices heard in the book is Russian historian Vladimir Beshanov, who recalls that Zhukov’s mission had been to lift the blockade. But that took another three years, by which time over a million soldiers were dead, and a million civilians had died of starvation and forced evacuations.

Though Zhukov’s feat at Leningrad wasn’t quite what it was cracked up to be by the Zhukov myth, Roberts deems it “relatively successful nevertheless”: “Zhukov’s achievements compared well with the disasters suffered elsewhere by the Red Army.” What Leningrad also did, he reminds us, was to tie down about a third of the German forces in 1941.

As the going got tough around Leningrad, Hitler switched targets, opting for Moscow while leaving Leningrad besieged. For Zhukov, who had been named commander of the western front, the challenge was now to mount the defense of Moscow, where panic was imminent. To calm the fears, it was announced that Stalin remained in the city, and that Zhukov was in charge of the capital’s defense. Both The Red Star, the army’s newspaper, and Pravda, carried his photo, the first time that had occurred for a front commander.

Desperately short of soldiers, his recipe for the capital’s defense was similar to that of Leningrad, Roberts writes: “Draconian disciple; no surrender and no retreat; counterattack wherever and whenever possible.” Pour encourager les autres a couple of commanders were executed, punishment for having ordered an unauthorized retreat.

Zhukov was himself forced to pull back to new defensive positions, says Roberts, but through constant counterpunches and last minute withdrawals he sapped the strength of the German troops. A German decision to regroup allowed Zhukov to bring in an extra 100,000 troops, 300 tanks, and 2,000 pieces of artillery, and the Russians felt confident enough to celebrate the anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution with a parade in Red Square, where Stalin reeled off the names of the great Russian military heroes who in the past had saved the motherland from foreign invaders.

At the end of November, after Zhukov had received additional reserves, the German advance finally ground to a halt just outside Moscow’s suburbs.

In his memoirs, Zhukov praises Stalin for having saved Moscow: “By his strict exactingness Stalin achieved, one can say, the near impossible.” But he also strives to portray himself as his own man, distancing himself from some of Stalin’s blunders. However, “reading Zhukov’s orders, edicts, and records of conversation during the battle of Moscow, he comes across mainly as a general willing to execute the orders of his superiors without demur and who expected the same of those serving under him,” writes Roberts. “It was, above all, Zhukov’s disciplined attitude that endeared him to Stalin, not his supposed forthrightness or insubordination.”

His advance on Moscow having run out of steam, Hitler once again changed direction, this time heading for the southern oilfields of Baku to cut off the Stalin’s energy supply.

However, instead of a single thrust towards Baku, Hitler, in order to protect his flank, chose to divide his offensive to capture Stalingrad, and the task of defending the city bearing the dictator’s name again fell on Zhukov.

In the three-month battle, the city saw some of the most desperate fighting of the war, sucking in men and materiel. At one point the German Sixth Army held 90 percent of the city, but in Zhukov’s counteroffensive, 300,000 German and Axis troops were encircled. The Luftwaffe’s attempts to keep them supplied from the air proved unsuccessful, and the 90,000 German survivors surrendered, including Paulus, their commander, making this the key turning point of the war. Total Axis casualties at Stalingrad amounted to 1.5 million, and 2.5 million for the Russians.

As a reward, Zhukov became Stalin’s deputy. As Erickson notes “At a stroke Zhukov was transformed from ‘visiting fireman’ to threatened fronts into the chief engineer of the Soviet military machine.” Significantly, the political commissars were abolished during the battle of Stalingrad, to convey the message that Stalin now had confidence in his military.

After the Wehrmacht’s Erich von Manstein, with his famous “backhand blow,” had recaptured Kharkov, Ukraine’s second city, Zhukov’s intuition told him that the next German move would be to strike in the direction of the Kursk salient to shorten their defense line. Roberts details his preparations, an in-depth defense of some 200 to 250 miles riddled with antitank strong points, and mustering 3,489 tanks, 19,794 artillery pieces, and 2,650 aircraft, and with another 1,500 tanks kept in strategic reserve. In Zhukov’s words, the goal was to “wear the enemy out in defensive action, destroy his tanks, and then . . . by going over to an all-out offensive we will finish off the enemy’s main grouping.”

In this, the greatest tank battle the world had ever seen, quantity trumped quality: One on one, the German Panther and Tiger tanks were superior to the Russian t-34s, but there weren’t enough of them: “The Russians lost more tanks,” writes Roberts, “ but they could afford it, and Hitler was forced to call off the attack.”

Following Kursk, it was now the time for the great Russian offensives, and Roberts lays out the battles for Ukraine, followed by the offensive in Belorussia, codenamed Bagration, then Warsaw, and then on to Berlin via Poznan. Enjoying a 5.5-to-1 advantage in manpower, 7.8 in tanks, 5.7 in armor, and 17.6 in aircraft, Soviet forces covered the distance from Warsaw to Poszan, 120 miles further west, in just one week. Among Zhukov’s tactical preferences Roberts mentions his inclination to hold back his armor until day two or three of an offensive, letting his artillery and air force soften up the German defenders, and then unleash his tanks en masse to wreak havoc. A bit more on Zhukov’s tactics would have been welcome.

Acutely aware of its political significance, Stalin was determined to capture Berlin, irrespective of costs, and encouraged a race to Berlin between marshals Zhukov and Konev, with Marshal Rokossovsky protecting their flank. The Germans, fearing payback for their savagery in Russia, were stubbornly defending their homeland and were by now experts at fighting retreats. Accordingly, says Roberts, the casualties suffered by the Red Army were proportionally greater than at any other time since the catastrophic opening phase of the war.

As had been the case with Stalingrad, Berlin constituted a veritable fortress, where the Germans had created three defensive zones, 30 miles deep. In a favorite method, says Roberts, the Russians would fire the artillery shells straight into buildings, collapsing them with the defenders inside. The butcher’s bill for the drive to Berlin came to over 350,000 Russian casualties, with some 80,000 dead, which Roberts compares to the 25,000 casualties suffered by the U.S. at Iwo Jima.

Though Zhukov had to share in the taking of Berlin with Konev, it was his troops who hoisted the Soviet flag over the Reichstag on April 30, 1945, and it was he who accepted the German surrender on his master’s behalf on May 9.

Serving under the Stalin, the man of steel, had certainly required nerves of steel — titanium, rather — but while delivering victories to Stalin, Zhukov had been reasonably safe; with the war over, Stalin now perceived him as a threat. As had been the case with Tukhachevsky, Roberts notes, there is no sign of disloyalty on Zhukov’s part, but again, that is beside the point, and packed off to Odessa he was. To cope, he tried to carry on as if nothing was amiss, but “In 1947, I feared arrest every day, and I had a bag ready with my underwear in it,” Zhukov wrote.

After Stalin’s death in 1953, the task of arresting Lavrentiy Beria, Stalin’s kgb chief, fell on Zhukov, and must have been particularly gratifying. A collective leadership followed, consisting of Khrushchev, Molotov, and Bulganin, but triumvirates have a way of not lasting; in the internal power struggle, Zhukov backed Khrushchev. “Only you could do it. I will never forget that,” Khrushchev gushed. In recognition, Zhukov was appointed Minster of Defense in February 1955, and planned the suppression of the Hungarian Revolution the following year.

But Khrushchev’s gratitude proved short-lived. Having themselves gained power by force, Soviet leaders were always wary of Bonapartism, the prospect that a popular general would take over, and like Stalin, Khrushchev feared Zhukov’s popularity. The sneak attack came on a Central Committee meeting in October of 1957, with Mikhail Suslov, the party’s ideologue in chief, acting as the lead attack dog. The charges were the by now familiar ones: that Zhukov was seeking to weaken the party’s control of the army and that he was hogging the limelight for the World War II victory, to which were added new accusations that he was hoarding power and that he had failed to prepare for the German attack.

As Roberts notes, fellow officers were lining up to denounce him: He quotes Marshal Rokossovsky: “His way of commanding was literally obscene; we heard nothing but continuous cursing and swearing mixed with threat to shoot people.” His close friend Ivan Bagramyan dismissed him as “simply a sick man. Self aggrandizement is in his blood,” while Konev, the man whom he raced to Berlin, was busy taking shots at his war record in Pravda.

“For me personally, the word of the party was always law,” Zhukov later responded. He was not disputing the party’s leading role but, according to Roberts, what he did believe was that political officers should restrict themselves to a propaganda mission, and butt out of the military decisions. In Zhukov’s view, “the guarantee of party control was that the commanders would or should be dedicated communists themselves,” writes Roberts.

But, while no Bonapartist, Roberts certainly sees him as guilty of “political naïveté and personal hubris.

As was the Soviet way, having been put through the wringer, he was written out of World War II, while Khrushchev’s role in the defense of Stalingrad was magnified to an absurd degree. “He came to consider Khrushchev’s betrayal of him in 1957 as greater than Stalin’s in 1946, ” writes Roberts. Thus when he started writing his memoirs during this period, he was writing for “the table and for history.”

A gradual rehabilitation occurred under Brezhnev, and after a battle with the censors, his memoirs were published. Prodded by his wife, Zhukov had performed the requisite groveling for Brezhnev, in one place stating that he wished he had consulted with then Colonel Brezhnev on some issue. As Roberts notes, the idea that a field marshal should consult a lowly political commissar is absurd, but as Zhukov noted, “the wise will understand.”

His funeral in 1974 was the biggest show in town since Stalin’s, and, says Roberts, “marked the beginning of the Zhukov cult.” He now has his equestrian statue at the entrance to Red Square, two military decorations bear his name, and a host of biographies have been written.

According to Roberts, though a well-read man, Zhukov was no intellectual or great conceptual thinker. He did have operations that failed. His military moves may have lacked the finesse, say, of those of von Manstein, but he knew how to handle huge masses of men and materiel. “His talent was for deployment, not for creative innovation or imaginative flair in battle,” writes Roberts. Thus, “while Zhukov did not excel as ‘the best ever’ in any one field of military endeavor, he was the best all-round general of the Second World War.”

Regarding his command style, the way a commander commands is in many ways dependent on the kind of army he heads, which is why military experience does not always translate from one army to another. As Roberts notes, the great part of the Soviet Army was made up of poorly educated peasant conscripts, many of whom were not particularly warmly disposed towards a regime that was responsible for the forced collectivization in the countryside in the 1930s. And they were up against the best trained and most brutally efficient army Europe had ever seen. “It is difficult to envisage how such an army could have been held together in the terrifying conditions of the ferocious fighting that obtained during the Soviet German war except by a regime of harsh discipline and exemplary punishment,” Roberts writes.

According to Roberts’s figures, some 158,000 Soviet soldiers were executed during the war, while others were packed off to penal battalions which only offered a man an even chance of survival. “There is no hint that Zhukov ever regretted or even had second thoughts about any of the harsh measures he authorized.”

But as for his willingness to sacrifice his troops, says Roberts, though by temperament offensively minded, experience taught him how to withdraw when necessary and also how to conserve his troops. And though his losses were high, they do not seem to exceed those of his colleagues. “Certainly the troops under Zhukov suffered no greater casualty rates than those of other generals, including those such as Rokossovsky, who had the reputation of being a more benign commander.”

“What distinguished Zhukov was his exceptional will to win,” concludes Roberts. “Zhukov’s reliance more on energy and vigor than on imagination to achieve his goals was consonant with the prevailing ethos of the Soviet system. So a particular component of Zhukov’s great success was that he was a Soviet general, and it is unlikely that he would have been effective in any other army.”


Henrik Bering is a writer and critic.