Book review: Stalin’s General: The Life of Georgy Zhukov by Geoffrey Roberts

In December 1942, Field Marshal Zhukov’s picture appeared on the cover of Time magazine. He was described as “Stalin’s favourite”. It was dangerous as well as flattering to be so close to the Supreme Commander: Zhukov kept a bag packed with spare underwear in case of his sudden arrest.

Stalin’s General: 
The Life of Georgy Zhukov

by Geoffrey Roberts

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Icon Books, 375pp, £25

Stalin required absolute obedience and constant success. Being his favourite aroused the jealousy of other commanders and meant that Zhukov’s survival depended solely on Stalin. In later years he would be demoted and humiliated by Stalin and then vilified again by Khrushchev when Stalin’s own legacy was ridiculed after his death. It is not surprising it has taken time to determine the exact nature of his contribution to Soviet and indeed world history.

This is the first biography to establish beyond doubt what has long been hinted at by historians – that Zhukov was the most successful and influential of the Second World War generals. He was the main architect of the Soviet dismissal of Hitler, wreaking such damage on the German army that victory was ensured in western Europe.

This is an objective and very readable assessment of Zhukov’s contribution to the Allied war effort. Geoffrey Roberts, an expert on Russian history and author of a book about the battle for Stalingrad, has drawn on new material which means he has relied less than previous biographers on Zhukov’s self-serving memoirs, which were written mainly to secure his reputation when he was sidelined by Khrushchev. The irony is that Zhukov had no need to improve on the facts: he comes out as the leading general on the basis of the evidence.

Roberts’s research has been meticulous and he makes a convincing case for Zhukov. In the West, we assume that British or American generals such as Montgomery or Eisenhower were the leading commanders. We are wrong: Zhukov was the main architect of the victory over Hitler and the Axis armies. It was difficult for western countries after 1945 to accept that a product of “militarised socialism” could bring freedom to western democracies while endorsing brutal suppression in his own country.

Stalin and Zhukov shared many similarities in their background and characters. They were both from peasant families with disciplinarian fathers and mothers who wanted them to experience as much formal education as was available. Both men were practical rather than intellectual, and both were dedicated Communists (although Zhukov slightly less so than his master). Their style of management was hands-on and over-directive. They were capable of great harshness to their immediate subordinates but also cared for their close circle. Particularly important in the relationship between the two was Stalin’s willingness to listen to honest advice – which suited Zhukov’s tendency to give the unvarnished truth.

That habit worked during the war but caused a fracture in their relationship in later years. Roberts describes the wartime relationship as “a partnership that was to lead the Red Army to the brink of complete catastrophe before leading it to the greatest victory in military history”. Neither grasped the imminence of the German attack in 1941 and then they misjudged its strength.

Zhukov is best known for his role as saviour of Leningrad and Moscow, victor of Stalingrad, liberator of Poland, Belorussia and the Ukraine before becoming the winner of the race to Berlin, where he accepted the formal German surrender.

His reward was to take the salute at the victory parade in Red Square but by now he was on more dangerous territory than war-torn Europe. He was more popular than Stalin and his success had brought him enemies within the military and the Communist party. Three months after being recalled to Moscow and one month after the victory parade, he was sacked. Very soon his name was omitted from official records and from the paintings of the Red Square parade.

He never recovered his position in Stalin’s lifetime but deft manoeuvring in support of Khrushchev brought him back into favour as minister of defence before being dismissed again in 1958. The 
Sunday Times described Zhukov as “the greatest soldier so far produced by the twentieth 
century” – good for his legacy but not good for his relationship with Khrushchev, who resented his popularity.

Zhukov was then subject to KGB surveillance until his return to the party’s inner circle under Brezhnev. Nothing, however, could dent his fame as “the great general who had saved the Soviet Union from catastrophic defeat by Hitler and then led the country to a great victory”. His funeral in 1974 was the biggest state occasion since Stalin’s death – and there was nothing his jealous detractors could do about that. In 1995, 50 years after the fall of Berlin, President Yeltsin dedicated a statue to him outside the Kremlin.

This book is an example of high quality biography. It is meticulously researched and objective in its judgments. It is an important contribution to understanding the Soviet psychology as well as the history of the Second World War.