Academic journal article Policy Review

Zhukov: The Soviet General

Academic journal article Policy Review

Zhukov: The Soviet General

Article excerpt

Zhukov: The Soviet General

GEOFFREY ROBERTS. Stalin's General: The Life of Georgy Zhukov. RANDOM HOUSE. 400 PAGES. $30.

SOVIET MARSHALS were known or their fondness for outsize hats and a chest load of decorations, 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 U.S. commandant of the city, 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, exploding the myths that had grown up around Zhukov and to serve as a corrective to earlier assessments of Zhukov 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. …

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