Stalin's General: The Life of Georgy Zhukov

Stalin's General: The Life of Georgy Zhukov

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by Geoffrey Roberts

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Widely regarded as the most accomplished general of World War II, the Soviet military legend Marshal Georgy Zhukov at last gets the full-scale biographical treatment he has long deserved.
A man of indomitable will and fierce determination, Georgy Zhukov was the Soviet Union’s indispensable commander through every one of the critical…  See more details below


Widely regarded as the most accomplished general of World War II, the Soviet military legend Marshal Georgy Zhukov at last gets the full-scale biographical treatment he has long deserved.
A man of indomitable will and fierce determination, Georgy Zhukov was the Soviet Union’s indispensable commander through every one of the critical turning points of World War II. It was Zhukov who saved Leningrad from capture by the Wehrmacht in September 1941, Zhukov who led the defense of Moscow in October 1941, Zhukov who spearheaded the Red Army’s march on Berlin and formally accepted Germany’s unconditional surrender in the spring of 1945. Drawing on the latest research from recently opened Soviet archives, including the uncensored versions of Zhukov’s own memoirs, Roberts offers a vivid portrait of a man whose tactical brilliance was matched only by the cold-blooded ruthlessness with which he pursued his battlefield objectives.
After the war, Zhukov was a key player on the geopolitical scene. As Khrushchev’s defense minister, he was one of the architects of Soviet military strategy during the Cold War. While lauded in the West as a folk hero—he was the only Soviet general ever to appear on the cover of Time magazine—Zhukov repeatedly ran afoul of the Communist political authorities. Wrongfully accused of disloyalty, he was twice banished and erased from his country’s official history—left out of books and paintings depicting Soviet World War II victories. Piercing the hyperbole of the Zhukov personality cult, Roberts debunks many of the myths that have sprung up around Zhukov’s life and career to deliver fresh insights into the marshal’s relationships with Stalin, Khrushchev, and Eisenhower.
A remarkably intimate portrait of a man whose life was lived behind an Iron Curtain of official secrecy, Stalin’s General is an authoritative biography that restores Zhukov to his rightful place in the twentieth-century military pantheon.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
Roberts…has written in Stalin's General what is likely to stand for some time as the most comprehensive biography of Zhukov.
—Jonathan Yardley
From the Publisher
Advance praise for Stalin’s General
“At long last we have a full biography of Marshal Zhukov. Geoffrey Roberts has written a well-informed, judiciously balanced, and lively account, covering not only Zhukov’s role in 1941–1945 as a frontline commander and Stalin’s closest military advisor but also his formative experiences in the prewar Red Army, his complex family relationships, his place in Cold War military planning, and his lapses into political disfavor under both Stalin and Khrushchev. There is a wealth of new material here, including firsthand insights from Zhukov’s relatives. A three-dimensional picture emerges of the peasant boy who became the greatest general of World War II. This is a splendid book, comprehensively detailed, readily understood, and it is essential reading for anyone interested in the Russian-German conflict or the Soviet experience.”—Evan Mawdsley, author of December 1941 and Thunder in the East
Library Journal
Marshal of the Soviet Union as of 1943 and hence a key player at the battles of Moscow, Stalingrad, and Kursk, Georgy Konstantinovich Zhukov was a leading general of World War II. In fact, some scholars argue that he effectively won the war for the Allies. Roberts has written extensively about the war in Russia and should deliver a thoroughgoing biography for lay reader and scholar alike.
Kirkus Reviews
A welcome new biography of the ruthless Red Army general who defeated the Nazis and then spent decades alternately disgraced and rehabilitated in Soviet Russia. Roberts (History/University College Cork; Stalin's Wars, 2007, etc.) relies less on his subject's self-glorifying memoirs and more on newly available archival material in Russia. Zhukov's relationship with Stalin emerges as a key, fascinating aspect to the story, as Zhukov, a rising cavalry commander in the rapidly modernizing Red Army, managed to escape being a victim of the army purges of 1937-38 and was then appointed on his first important mission for Stalin: to "conduct a purge" of the Japanese from the Mongolian-Manchurian border in 1939. The victory at Khalkhin-Gol was the Red Army's first real triumph, deflecting the Japanese from Russia and establishing Zhukov as a brilliant offensive field commander who kept his cool under fire and was not averse to administering draconian discipline to his own men. Stalin had neglected defensive preparation of the Motherland in favor of the counterattack, and he summoned Zhukov after the disastrous response to Hitler's Operation Barbarossa. From victory at Yel'nya to saving Leningrad and Moscow ("no surrender and no retreat; counterattack wherever and whenever possible") to Operation Bagration in Belorussia, Zhukov spared no number of Russia soldiers in his path to victory. Roberts spends a good deal of space on Zhukov's mysterious postwar dismissal to the provinces, due no doubt to his overweening confidence and "Bonapartist" self-aggrandizement, which grated on Stalin. He resurfaced supremely under Khrushchev and died a fitting hero in 1974. A solid, engaging life.

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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.

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Meet the Author

Geoffrey Roberts is the author of Stalin’s Wars and Victory at Stalingrad. He is professor and head of the School of History at University College Cork, Ireland. Roberts is a frequent contributor to British, Irish, and American newspapers and to popular-history journals and has been a consultant for TV and radio documentaries.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Stalin's General: The Life of Georgy Zhukov 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Dawson59 More than 1 year ago
Excellent perspective 3.5 Stars This is the first account I've read on Marshall Georgy. All other works detailed his tactical abilities around Leningrad, Moscow, Stalingrad and Kursk. They weren't all encompassing and provided more of a larger brush stoke on his career. The first three quarters of the book pretty much rehashed many of the facts I was aware of. In fact, at times I wondered if the author was talking about Zhukov or trying to give a full history of Stavka during the perilous first years of WWII. Now the last quarter of the book is what I was looking for. Insightful information not previously known to novice or even esteemed historians . This was well worth the wait. I was not aware of the personal attacks he endured after leading the USSR to its greatest victory ever. His accomplishments were not only his legacy but his demise. We in the West could only read papers or listen on the news as to how the communist government treated those they felt a threat. It was fascinating how many times he escaped the executioners wrath under Stalin, Krushchev and Brezhnev. How many men could have endured such attacks in any army? The most interesting part was no matter how many times he was attacked or accused of being an instigator against the state, he never wavered or blamed lessor men. He remained a staunch supporter of Stalin and the Communist Regime. How many Germans who went on trial at Nuremberg attempted to blame their dead superiors for the atrocities they carried out in the name of National Socialism? The one area that wasn't covered was the release of German POW'S. This topic was completely over looked. Why? The west was demanding they be released but there is no mention of this. Again, why was this not addressed? As far as Zhukov being a harsh commander, of course he was, along with the rest of the Russian generals and Political Commissioners such as Krushchev. In Guderian's memoirs he was appalled at how the Russians kept coming at his troops with no hope of winning. He described the dead as "cord wood piling up." He was disgusted with the waste of lives the Russians kept throwing into the guns of the Wehrmacht. These tactics might seem barbaric to those of us in the west, but the tactics kept slowing down the German advance. Do I find fault with the Marshall for using such strategies? No. If he refused to discipline his men, he himself would have been disciplined and perhaps imprisoned and shot for disregarding his superior:Stalin. Overall, this a very good work and should be read by all historians, novice and professional who are looking for the truth.
willyvan More than 1 year ago
This is a very useful biography of Georgy Zhukov, the greatest general of the Second World War, by Geoffrey Roberts, author of Stalin’s wars and Victory at Stalingrad. Roberts is professor and head of the School of History at University College Cork. In August 1939, Zhukov defeated Japanese forces at the battle of Khalkhin-Gol in Mongolia, a victory which stopped the Soviet Union facing a two-front war. Roberts explains Stalin’s actions before the invasion of the Soviet Union: “Stalin also feared that premature mobilisation could accelerate the outbreak of hostilities with Hitler. ‘Mobilization means war’, he told Zhukov, mindful of the precedent of the July Crisis of 1914 that led to the First World War” when Germany declared war on Russia in reply to Russia’s mobilisation. Roberts also explains Hitler’s early successes: “German military successes … were to be expected from a combat-hardened army that had conquered Poland, France, and most of the rest of Europe.” Zhukov led the Yel’nya offensive in August-September 1941, the Red Army’s first major victory over the Wehrmacht, which delayed the Nazis’ advance on Moscow for several vital weeks. Later, he saved Leningrad from capture, and stopped the Nazi advance on Moscow. He played a key role in the Soviet counter-attack at Stalingrad. “Stalingrad was the beginning of the end for Hitler’s Axis alliance.” Soviet forces there routed Hitler and his allies who lost 50 divisions and suffered 1.5 million casualties. Zhukov conducted the battle of Kursk. He also coordinated Operation Bagration, which shattered Hitler’s Army Group Centre, and he led the final assault on Berlin. Like Oliver Cromwell, Zhukov never lost a battle. Roberts concludes, “If Zhukov was the greatest general of the Second World War – in the sense that he made a decisive contribution to all the war’s significant turning points – it was not through his efforts alone. He was a member of a Soviet High Command that collectively performed brilliantly. Arguably it was Stalin’s management of his generals that mattered as much as their individual talents, skills, and exploits. By using his leadership and authority to create a coherent group of powerful and often clashing personalities, Stalin elicited the best from their individual and collective talents, and inspired and demanded a loyalty that held them together through disaster and triumph.” As Zhukov wrote of Stalin, “He could find the main link in a strategic situation which he seized upon in organising actions against the enemy, and thus assured the success of offensive operations. It is beyond question that he was a splendid Supreme Commander-in-Chief.”