ACCORDING to a Russian proverb, “success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan”. This is borne out in the life and after-life of Marshal Georgy Zhukov, the man widely seen as the architect of the Red Army’s epic victory in the Great Patriotic War.
Stalin’s General: The Life of Georgy Zhukov
Icon Books, £25
In what he claims to be the “definitive” biography of Zhukov, Geoffrey Roberts draws on memoirs and declassified documents to give a more nuanced balance-sheet and show the petty, and sometimes deadly, jealousies that pitted Zhukov against his military and political rivals.
The battlefield curriculum vitae of this cavalryman remains a formidable one: Zhukov played a key role in the great turning-points of the war on the Eastern Front, from the defence of Leningrad and Moscow in 1941 to the giant encirclement of German forces at Stalingrad and the “Red Storm” that devastated Berlin. It is Zhukov’s men who raised the Soviet flag over the Reichstag.
Nevertheless, Roberts aims to meticulously set the record straight, demonstrating the disastrous shortcomings of some of Soviet High Command’s typically over-ambitious counter-offensives.
He also shows that if Zhukov was brilliant and brave, he was a vainglorious bully frequently economical with the military actualité. Indeed, his overweening ego, and equally irksome popularity with the masses, led both Stalin and Khrushchev to punish his “Bonapartist” tendencies and twice send him into exile.
If the Yeltsin years saw attempts to re-invent Zhukov as a non-Communist, ethnically Russian hero, with a fine statue erected to him off Red Square, Roberts rightly emphasises his loyalty to the Communist cause, and to Stalin in particular. Contrary to myth, there was no time at which Zhukov might have, like a 20th-century Napoleon, used his power and prestige to overthrow the Communist system; indeed, his last hurrah as a soldier was overseeing the bloody repression of the Hungarian insurrection in November 1956.
If private correspondence reveals the concerns and foibles of a lover, husband and father, Zhukov the man remains wedded to the harshness of combat and its aftermath. To the “pacifist” film Bridge On The River Kwai he far preferred The Guns Of Navarone.
Moreover, he adopted a frivolous and indulgent attitude towards the problem of mass rape of women by the Red Army: “Soldiers, make sure that in looking at the hemlines of German girls you don’t look past the reasons the homeland sent you here.”
Nor did this keen hunter seem to reflect on the act of killing fellow men, and of sending millions of conscripts to certain death at the hands of the Nazi war machine.
When Zhukov died in his bed in 1974, the exiled Soviet writer Joseph Brodsky wrote: “How much soldiers’ blood did he spill in foreign fields!/Was he sorry?/Did he remember them as he lay dying in civilian sheets?/Silence./What will he tell them when he meets them in hell?/“I waged war’.”