Sic Transit Gloria:
The Rises and Falls of Marshal Georgy Zhukov
Of all the moments of triumph in the life of Marshal Georgy Konstantinovich Zhukov nothing equaled that day in June 1945 when he took the salute at the great Victory Parade in Red Square. Zhukov, mounted on a magnificent white Arabian called Tspeki, rode into the square through the Spassky Gate, the Kremlin on his right and the famous onion domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral directly ahead. As he did so a 1,400-strong orchestra struck up Glinka’s Glory (to the Russian Motherland). Awaiting him were columns of combined regiments representing all the branches of the Soviet armed forces. In the middle of the square Zhukov met Marshal K. K. Rokossovsky, who called the parade to attention and then escorted Zhukov as he rode to each regiment and saluted them.
When the salutes were finished Zhukov joined the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin on the plinth above Lenin’s Mausoleum and gave a speech celebrating the Red Army’s victory over Nazi Germany. The sky was overcast and there was a drizzling rain that worsened as the day wore on. At one point Zhukov’s hat became so wet he was tempted to remove it and wipe the visor but desisted when he saw that Stalin was making no such move.
As a former cavalryman Zhukov relished the salute portion of the proceedings. Giving a speech that would be seen and heard by millions of people across the world was a different matter. The idea made him anxious and he prepared as thoroughly as he could, even rehearsing the speech in front of his daughters Era and Ella, who were so impressed they burst into spontaneous applause. The delivery of the speech was carefully crafted, with prompts in the margin directing Zhukov to speak quietly, then louder, and when to adopt a solemn tone.
Zhukov seemed more than a little nervous but it was a commanding performance nonetheless. His delivery was halting but emphatic and reached a crescendo with his final sentence: “Glory to our wise leader and commander—Marshal of the Soviet Union, the Great Stalin!” At that moment artillery fired a salute and the orchestra struck up the Soviet national anthem.
After his speech Zhukov reviewed the parade standing beside Stalin. Partway through there was a pause in the march while, to a roll of drumbeats, 200 captured Nazi banners were piled against the Kremlin wall, much like Marshal Kutuzov’s soldiers had thrown French standards at the feet of Tsar Alexander I after their defeat of Napoleon in 1812. The parade over, the day ended with a fabulous fireworks display.
Stalin’s choice of Zhukov to lead the parade evoked no comment. He was, after all, Stalin’s deputy supreme commander and widely regarded as the main architect of the Soviet victory over Adolf Hitler’s Germany, a victory that had saved Europe as well as Russia from Nazi enslavement. Newsreel film of the parade that flashed across the world only reinforced Zhukov’s status as the greatest Soviet general of the Second World War.
When the German armies invaded Soviet Russia in summer 1941 it was Zhukov who led the Red Army’s first successful counteroffensive, forcing the Wehrmacht to retreat and demonstrating to the whole world that Hitler’s war machine was not invincible. When Leningrad was surrounded by the Germans in September 1941 Stalin sent Zhukov to save the city from imminent capture. A month later, Stalin recalled Zhukov to Moscow and put him in command of the defense of the Soviet capital. Not only did Zhukov stop the German advance on Moscow, but in December 1941 he launched a counteroffensive that drove the Wehrmacht away from the city and ended Hitler’s hope of subduing the Red Army and conquering Russia in a single Blitzkrieg campaign.
Six months later Hitler tried again to inflict a crippling blow on the Red Army, this time by launching a southern offensive designed to capture the Soviet oilfields at Baku. At the height of the German advance south Zhukov played a central role in masterminding the Soviet counteroffensive at Stalingrad in November 1942—an encirclement operation that trapped 300,000 German troops in the city. In July 1943 he followed that dazzling success with a stunning victory in the great armored clash at Kursk—a battle that saw the destruction of the last remaining reserves of Germany’s panzer power. In November 1943 cheering crowds welcomed Zhukov as he and the future Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev drove into the recaptured Ukrainian capital of Kiev. In June 1944 Zhukov coordinated Operation Bagration—the campaign to liberate Belorussia from German occupation. Bagration brought the Red Army to the gates of Warsaw and the capture of the Polish capital in January 1945 and marked the beginning of the Vistula-Oder operation—an offensive that took Zhukov’s armies through Poland, into eastern Germany, and to within striking distance of Berlin. In April 1945 Zhukov led the final Soviet assault on Berlin. The ferocious battle for the German capital cost the lives of 80,000 Soviet soldiers but by the end of April Hitler was dead and the Soviet flag flew over the ruins of the Reichstag. It was Zhukov who formally accepted Germany’s unconditional surrender on May 9, 1945.
Following Zhukov’s triumphant parade before the assembled legions of the Red Army, Navy, and Air Force in June 1945 he seemed destined for an equally glorious postwar career as the Soviet Union’s top soldier and in March 1946 he was appointed commander-in-chief of all Soviet ground forces. However, within three months Zhukov had been sacked by Stalin and banished to the command of the Odessa Military District.
The ostensible reason for Zhukov’s dismissal was that he had been disloyal and disrespectful toward Stalin and claimed too much personal credit for victory in the Great Patriotic War, as the Soviets called it. In truth, Zhukov’s loyalty to Stalin was beyond question. If anyone deserved the appellation “Stalin’s General,” he did. Zhukov was not slow to blow his own trumpet, at least in private, but that was characteristic of top generals the world over, including many of his colleagues in the Soviet High Command—who all voted in favor of Stalin’s resolution removing him as commander-in-chief. What Stalin really objected to was Zhukov’s independent streak and his tendency to tell the truth as he saw it, a quality that had served the dictator well during the war but was less commendable in peacetime when Stalin felt he needed no advice except his own. Like Zhukov, Stalin could be vain, and he was jealous of the attention lavished on his deputy during and immediately after the war, even though he had been instrumental in the creation of Zhukov’s reputation as a great general. Stalin’s treatment of Zhukov also sent a message to his other generals: if Zhukov, the most famous among them and the closest to Stalin, could suffer such a fate, so could any one of them if they did not behave themselves.
According to his daughter Era, Zhukov was not a man given to overt displays of emotion, even in the privacy of his family, but his demotion and exile to Odessa caused him great distress. Later, he told the Soviet writer Konstantin Simonov: “I was firmly resolved to remain myself. I understood that they were waiting for me to give up and expecting that I would not last a day as a district commander. I could not permit this to happen. Of course, fame is fame. At the same time it is a double-edged sword and sometimes cuts against you. After this blow I did everything to remain as I had been. In this I saw my inner salvation.”
Zhukov’s troubles were only just beginning, however. In February 1947 he was expelled from the Communist Party Central Committee on grounds that he had an “antiparty attitude.” Zhukov was horrified and he pleaded with Stalin for a private meeting with the dictator to clear his name. Stalin ignored him and the anti-Zhukov campaign continued. In June 1947 Zhukov was censured for giving the singer Lidiya Ruslanova a military medal when she had visited Berlin in August 1945. Shortly after, Ruslanova and her husband, General V. V. Krukov, were arrested and imprisoned. “In 1947 I feared arrest every day,” recalled Zhukov later, “and I had a bag ready with my underwear in it.”
The next development was even more ominous: an investigation began into the war booty Zhukov had extracted while serving in Germany. According to the report of a party commission Zhukov amassed a personal hoard of trophies, including 70 pieces of gold jewelry, 740 items of silverware, 50 rugs, 60 pictures, 3,700 meters of silk, and—presumably after casting a professional eye over them—320 furs (he had been a furrier in his youth). Zhukov pleaded that these were gifts or paid from his own pocket but the commission found his explanations insincere and evasive and concluded that while he did not deserve to be expelled from the party he should hand over his ill-gotten loot to the state. In January 1948 Zhukov was demoted to the command of the Urals Military District based in Sverdlovsk.
Further punishment came in the form of treating Zhukov as an “unperson.” He was written out of the history of the Great Patriotic War. Paintings of the 1945 Victory Parade omitted him. A 1948 documentary film about the battle of Moscow barely featured Zhukov. In a 1949 poster tableau depicting Stalin and his top generals plotting and planning the great counteroffensive at Stalingrad Zhukov was nowhere to be seen.
But as early as October 1949 there were signs of Zhukov’s rehabilitation. That month Pravda carried a funeral notice of the death of Marshal F. I. Tolbukhin and Zhukov was listed among the signatories. In 1950 Zhukov, along with a number of other senior officers, was reelected to the Supreme Soviet of the USSR. In 1952 the second edition of the official Great Soviet Encyclopedia carried a short but favorable entry on Zhukov, stressing his important role in the realization of Stalin’s military plans during the war. In October 1952 Zhukov was a delegate to the 19th Party Congress and he was restored to candidate (i.e., probationary) membership of the Central Committee. Incredibly, Zhukov believed that Stalin was preparing to appoint him minister of defense.
In March 1953 Stalin died and Zhukov was a prominent member of the military guard of honor at the dictator’s state funeral. Zhukov’s appointment as deputy minister of defense was among the first announcements made by the new, post-Stalin Soviet government. Zhukov’s rehabilitation continued apace with his appointment in February 1955 as minister of defense by Khrushchev, Stalin’s successor as party leader. In July 1955 Zhukov attended the great power summit in Geneva of Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States—the first such gathering since the end of the war. There he met and conversed with President Dwight Eisenhower, with whom he had served in Berlin just after the war. “Could the friendship of two old soldiers,” wondered Time magazine, “provide the basis for a genuine easing of tensions between the U.S. and Russia?”
As minister of defense, Zhukov emerged as a prominent public figure in the Soviet Union, second only in importance to Khrushchev. In June 1957 Zhukov played a pivotal role in resisting an attempt to oust Khrushchev from the leadership by a hard-line faction led by Vyacheslav Molotov, the former foreign minister. Unfortunately for Zhukov his bravura performance in the struggle against Molotov turned him into a political threat in Khrushchev’s eyes. In October 1957 Zhukov was accused of plotting to undermine the role of the Communist Party in the armed forces. Among Zhukov’s most active accusers were many of the same generals and marshals he had served with during the war. Khrushchev sacked Zhukov as minister of defense and in March 1958 he was retired from the armed forces at the relatively young age of sixty-one.
During the remainder of the Khrushchev era Zhukov suffered the same fate of excision from the history books he had experienced during his years of exile under Stalin. In 1960, for example, the party began to publish a massive multivolume history of the Great Patriotic War that barely mentioned Zhukov while greatly exaggerating Khrushchev’s role. Another expression of Zhukov’s disgrace was his isolation from the outside world. When American author Cornelius Ryan visited the USSR in 1963 to research his book on the battle of Berlin, Zhukov was the only Soviet marshal he was prohibited from seeing.
Zhukov took solace in writing his memoirs. His authorial role model was Winston Churchill, whose memoir-history of the Second World War he had read when a restricted-circulation Russian translation was published in the USSR in the 1950s. Churchill’s motto in composing that work was that history would bear him out—because he was going to write the history! Zhukov seems to have harbored similar sentiments and his memoirs were designed not only to present his own point of view but to answer and refute his Khrushchevite critics, even if that meant skewing the historical record in his own favor.
While Khrushchev continued to rule the Soviet Union there was no chance Zhukov’s memoirs would be published. When his daughter Ella asked him why he bothered he said he was writing for the desk drawer. In October 1964, however, Khrushchev was ousted from power and there began a process of rehabilitating Zhukov as a significant military figure. Most notably, the Soviet press began to publish Zhukov’s articles again, including his accounts of the battles of Moscow, Stalingrad, Kursk, and Berlin.
Zhukov’s second rehabilitation rekindled interest in him in the West, which had faded somewhat after he was ousted as defense minister. In 1969 the American journalist and historian Harrison E. Salisbury published an unauthorized translation of Zhukov’s articles in a book called Marshal Zhukov’s Greatest Battles. In his introduction to the volume Salisbury famously described Zhukov as “the master of the art of mass warfare in the 20th century.” Most reviewers agreed. John Erickson, the foremost British authority on the Red Army, writing in The Sunday Times, said “the greatest soldier so far produced by the 20th century is Marshal Georgi Zhukov of the Soviet Union. On the very simplest reckoning he is the general who never lost a battle. . . . For long enough the German generals have had their say, extolling their own skills . . . now it is the turn of Marshal Zhukov, a belated appearance to be sure but the final word may be his.”
When Zhukov’s memoirs were published in April 1969 it was in a handsome edition with colored maps and hundreds of photographs, including some from Zhukov’s personal archive. The Soviet public was wildly enthusiastic about the memoirs. The initial print run of 300,000 soon sold out and millions more sales followed, including hundreds of thousands in numerous translations. The memoirs quickly became—and remain—the single most influential personal account of the Great Patriotic War.
Excerpted from Stalin's General by Geoffrey Roberts. Copyright © 2012 by Geoffrey Roberts. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.