Visitors to Moscow can hardly fail to notice the equestrian statue by Red Square commemorating Georgy Zhukov’s ride at the head of the Victory Parade in 1945. The monument bears testimony to the fact that the Soviet Marshal’s reputation was sky-high in 1995 when it was erected at the command of President Yeltsin, who also created two new military decorations in Zhukov’s honour. During his lifetime he was not always so well regarded. In particular, he was demoted by Stalin and Khrushchev in turn, allegedly for insubordination to the top political authority.
Born in 1896 to a cobbler father and a peasant labourer mother in Kaluga Province, young Georgy moved to Moscow as a boy to work as a furrier. After the outbreak of the First World War he was conscripted into the tsarist cavalry, was wounded and decorated for bravery. In 1918, after the Russian Revolution, he enlisted in the Red Cavalry, was again wounded and decorated for bravery. He soon joined the Communist Party, advancing up the rank ladder while avoiding the purges. He first came to prominence as the organiser of victory over the Japanese in the Far East in 1939.
The rest, we might say, is history. Those of us of a certain age will have vivid memories of how Zhukov and his fellow generals such as Rokossovsky (born near Warsaw and speaking Russian with a Polish accent) and Timoshenko (facetiously dubbed Tim O’Shenko by the Irish) led the Red Army to victory over the Nazi invader. Having defeated the enemy, however, the Red Army leaders had to struggle for their historical reputation. Zhukov in particular had to answer charges ranging from grievous error in the face of the first onslaught in 1941 to a vainglorious insistence on being first in the race for Berlin in 1945.
Geoffrey Roberts judiciously picks his way through the thicket of controversy, while drawing a distinctive portrait of the successive stages of a glittering career in which his hero preferred the battlefield to the desk, paying great attention to the detail of deployment. As for his personal life, like many a senior officer away from wife and family, he took to himself a PPZh (polevaya pokhodnaya zhena, or field wife) during the war. At the war’s end he collected a vast amount of booty. He also often exhibited a great joie de vivre, learning to play the accordion and enjoying a singsong and a dance. A bit of a film buff, he found The Bridge on the River Kwai ‘too pacifist’, preferring ‘something with shooting’ like The Guns of Navarone.
The jacket photograph is evocative: Zhukov in Marshal’s uniform with a sash and many medals talking animatedly to an interpreter concentrating on the flow of words, while Field Marshal Montgomery attentively waits for the translation. Like Montgomery, Zhukov was dedicated to meticulous planning. Both of them made sure that they built up overwhelming force to achieve victory. And both of them provoked jealousy and hostility as well as love and respect. Among American generals, Eisenhower was Zhukov’s favourite, especially as a manager of the organisation of millions of soldiers. But Eisenhower was by far Zhukov’s superior as a diplomat and politician.
For the leading western authority, the late John Erickson, Zhukov was the greatest soldier of the 20th century; some Soviet analysts placed him above the tsarist Marshals Kutuzov and Suvorov. Roberts does a large measure of justice to Stalin’s general, who survived the vagaries of Russian politics, to die of a stroke in 1974 in his thoroughly researched and well-written book, which will give pleasure not only to his fellow specialists and Second World War enthusiasts but also to a wide circle of readers.
Paul Jones is author of Minutes to Midnight: History and the Anthropocene Era from 1763 (Anthem Press, 2011)
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