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From the Publisher
“A thorough examination of a great soldier that belongs in every military library.”—World War II
THE EARLY YEARS
For a soldier I listed, to grow great in fame, and be shot at for sixpence a day.
IN 1896 Nicholas II, in an elaborate coronation ceremony lasting some five hours, took an oath to rule the empire and preserve autocracy as emperor of all the Russias. His reign would be marked by war, peasant uprisings, revolution, and, finally, violent death for him and his family.
In the same year, on December 2, in the poor farming village of Strelkovka, in the Kaluga Province southwest of Moscow, Georgi Konstantinovich Zhukov was born. His father, Konstantin, was a cobbler; his mother, Ustinya Artemeevna, a farm worker. His parents married when his mother was thirty-five and his father fifty (their first spouses had died early in marriage). Ustinya was of hearty stock; she could lift a 180-pound sack of grain and carry it some distance. Her grandchildren, Era and Ella, recall that she was also a stern woman.
The one-room house in which Zhukov was born was very old. It had two windows, and one corner had sunk deeply into the ground. Sometimes the walls and roof were covered with moss and grass. Today it is a museum, and a granite statue of the marshal looks out over his native land. But the village is even more pathetic than when Zhukov was a boy. Communist authorities converted it to a Potemkim Village for tourists, with fake wells and renovated facades. As a boy Zhukov enjoyed fishing in the Ogublyanka River. Villagers drew water to make tea and dough. Now it has been spoiled by industrial waste, and on some days the stench is terrible.
Zhukov's parents were desperately poor, and his mother tried to earn money by carting loads. In the spring, summer, and early fall she struggled in the fields, and in late autumn she traveled to the district city of Maloyaroslavets for grocery items that she delivered to the merchants of Ugodsky Zavod. For each trip she earned from one ruble to one ruble twenty kopecks, about twenty-five to thirty cents. After deducting the expenses for the trip, very little was left. Zhukov wrote: "I believe beggars in that time collected more.... My mother worked without a murmur. Many women in our village did the same in order not to starve to death. In the thick, impassable mud and the cold, hard frost, they carried their goods from Maloyaroslavets, Serpukhov, and other places, leaving their very young children in the care of grandmothers and grandfathers who were barely able to get around."
The fields were worked mostly by women, old people, and children, while many of the men labored in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other cities doing seasonal work. Zhukov's father worked for a while for a shoemaker in Moscow, but he and other workers who participated in revolutionary demonstrations in 1905 were fired and banished from the city.
Despite the terrible hardships, there were occasional pleasures for the peasant children, such as a biscuit or cake from Maloyaroslavets. "If we were able to save a little money before Christmas or Easter for ham turnovers, then our delight had no bounds."
When Georgi was five years old, his mother gave birth to another boy, Aleksei. The infant was very thin, and everyone was concerned that he would not survive. The threat of starvation forced his mother to return to the city for work. The child died in less than a year, and the family buried him in Ugodsky Zavod. They deeply mourned Aleksei and often visited his little grave.
In the same year another misfortune overtook the Zhukovs: the dilapidated roof of their house caved in and they were forced to move into their shed. His father contrived a little stove for cooking. After a short time he was able to buy a small amount of lumber on installment. By November the house was rebuilt, and new straw covered the roof. The porch was thrown together from old boards, and the windows were cracked. But they would have a warm corner when winter came. "And when it comes to togetherness," Zhukov wrote, "as they say, the more the merrier."
The winter of 1902 was a very difficult time for his family. There was only enough grain until mid-December. The parents' earnings went for bread, salt, and debts. Thanks to the neighbors, the family was sometimes provided with porridge or cabbage soup. "Such mutual assistance in the villages was not unusual, but rather the tradition of friendship and solidarity among Russian people living in great need."
In the fall of 1903 young Georgi enrolled in the parish school in the village of Velichkovo, about a mile from his home. He prepared for school by trying to learn the alphabet from his sister's tattered primer. The fifteen boys in the class were seated on the right and the thirteen girls on the left. The schoolmaster was Sergei Nikolaevich Remizov, an experienced teacher, who never raised his voice. Several years ago a military journalist visited Strelkovka and interviewed 86-year-old Tatyana Ivanovna Yemelyanova, a classmate, who said that Remizov "loved Zhukov though he was a little mischievous. The master never criticized the children without good reason." She also remembered Zhukov's mother: "The Zhukovs were poor, but we were poorer. We helped each other. I used to drop in and Aunt Ustinya used to invite me to tea. She felt sorry for me."
Georgi's sister Masha failed her school work and had to repeat the second grade. When Zhukov's parents wanted her to quit school and take care of the house, Masha cried bitterly. Georgi stood up for his sister. Eventually his mother gave in, making his sister very happy.
Zhukov's father was a respected man in Strelkovka, and villagers often sought his advice. He was a loving father, but also very stern:
I adored Father and he spoiled me. Still, now and then he punished me for some fault, taking it out on me with his belt and demanding an apology. I was stubborn, and no matter how hard he thrashed me, I bit my lips and never asked for pardon.
One day he gave me such a flogging that I ran away from home and spent three days hiding in a neighbor's hemp field. Only my sister knew where I was. She kept my hiding place a secret and brought me things to eat. My parents looked high and low for me but did not find me. Then a neighbor stumbled on me and took me home.
Father gave me one more licking, then took pity on me and forgave me.
In 1906 Georgi finished the three-year parish school, having earned top marks in all three grades and receiving honors. To mark the occasion his mother presented him with a new shirt, while his father made him a pair of boots.
In the summer of 1908 the eleven-year-old boy prepared to become an apprentice in Moscow. He recalled that his heart ached at the thought of leaving his parents and friends, conscious that his childhood was over. He wanted to be apprenticed to a printer, but his parents did not know one. His mother asked her brother, Mikhail Artemeevich Pilikhin, to take him on as an apprentice furrier. Mikhail had started to learn the trade at age eleven and after several years had saved enough money to start his own small business. He was a good furrier and had a steady rich clientele "whom he fleeced mercilessly." Eventually Zhukov's uncle employed eight craftsmen and four young apprentices, "all of whom he ruthlessly exploited."
On the day of departure his mother gave him some underclothes, a few washcloths, and a towel, as well as half a dozen eggs and some pancakes to eat on the way. After prayers, the family sat down for a moment of silence, according to the old Russian custom. His mother blessed him and hugged him, with tears welling up in her eyes. His father's eyes grew red and a few tears rolled down his cheeks. "I could hardly restrain myself," Zhukov recalled, "but managed not to cry."
Zhukov boarded the third-class coach for Moscow. "I had never ridden a train before—in fact, had never seen a railway. You can imagine how impressed I was." The trip took four hours, and his first impression of the city was how much hustle and bustle there was at the railway station. "I could not understand why everyone was in such a hurry."
"Stop gaping," his uncle told him. "This is no village. You've got to look alive here."
Zhukov's hard years of apprenticeship began. Work started at 7 A.M. and stopped at 7 P.M., with an hour's break for dinner. The young apprentices turned in at eleven, after everything had been tidied up and prepared for the next day. Zhukov slept on the floor of the workshop, but in very cold weather he was allowed to sleep on a bunk in the hall inside the rear entrance.
After a year he had made good progress in learning the fur trade, but it was not easy. "Our master beat us pitilessly for the slightest mistake. We were beaten by the craftsmen, the craftswomen, and the mistress, too. Whenever the master was out of sorts, it was better to avoid him, as he would hit out at us so severely that we felt a ringing in our ears for the rest of the day." One of the foremen told him soon after his arrival in Moscow that "a beaten man is worth two who aren't."
Zhukov's schoolmaster Remizov had inspired a passion for reading, and in Moscow he was helped by the master's elder son, Aleksandr, who was the same age as himself. He read a novel entitled The Nurse, the Pinkerton and Sherlock Holmes series, and studies of Russian, mathematics, geography, and science. Most of this reading was done on Sundays; after more than a year of home study, Zhukov entered a night school that provided a course of instruction equivalent to that of a city school. A month before his final exams, on a Sunday, he and some friends were surprised by the master during a game of cards. Pilikhin exploded in anger: "So that's what you want an education for, to count the figures on cards! There'll be no more school for you, my lad, and I won't let Aleksandr help you!" Zhukov's teachers allowed him to take the exams, which he successfully passed.
After three years Zhukov was the senior apprentice and had become well acquainted with Moscow, since he often delivered the parcels to various customers. "I wanted to continue my studies, but didn't have the slightest opportunity.... I read the papers after old man Kolesov, who was better up on politics than the others. I got some magazines from cousin Aleksandr and bought my own books with money saved on tram fares.... I would walk the distance and save the money."
In 1912 Zhukov was given ten days' leave to visit his family. He was almost sixteen, about to finish his apprenticeship, when he returned to the village. Many faces were missing: some had died, others had been apprenticed or had left town in search of work. Zhukov's tearful mother met him at the train station, saying that she never thought she would see him again.
When they arrived home after dark, his father and sister were waiting on the porch. "Sister had grown up into a pretty girl, but Father was bent and aged. He was nearing seventy." Zhukov brought gifts for the family, giving his mother three rubles, a few pounds of sugar, a pound of sweets, and half a pound of tea. He also gave his father a ruble to spend at the tavern, although Mrs. Zhukov complained that "twenty kopecks would be quite enough for him."
"I've waited for the boy for four years, so don't spoil it with talk of our poverty," his father replied.
Since Zhukov had arrived home during the hay-making season, he joined the villagers in their work. In the evenings the young folk, fatigue forgotten, gathered round the barn to make merry and sing. "The village girls led in rich ripe voices, the young men picking up the melody in as yet unsteady basses and baritones. Then we danced until ready to drop. We broke up toward dawn, barely managing to catch a few winks of sleep before we were roused and went out mowing again." As soon as evening came, the fun began again. "It was really hard to say when we slept."
The day before Zhukov was to return to Moscow, there was a fire in the nearby village of Kostinka, which quickly spread to houses, sheds, and barns. The young people from Strelkovka rushed over to help, arriving before the local fire brigade. Despite their desperate efforts, half of the village was consumed. As Zhukov was rushing past a house, he heard cries from inside: "Save us, we're burning!" Dashing into the structure, he rescued several frightened children and a sick old woman. As the flames subsided, he discovered several burn holes in the new jacket that Pilikhin had given him. When his mother remarked that her furrier brother would be unhappy, Zhukov answered: "So what! Let him decide what is more important, a couple of holes in my jacket or kids saved." Zhukov's term of apprenticeship ended in late 1912, and he was designated a learned craftsman. His pay was set at ten rubles a month, a good salary for that time.
When World War I broke out, many young men, "spurred by patriotic sentiments, especially from among the well-to-do, volunteered for the front." His cousin Aleksandr wanted to enlist. When a friend persuaded Zhukov not to volunteer, he told Aleksandr. "He cursed me and ran away that night, to be brought back with grave wounds just a couple of months later."
Love came into Zhukov's life when he met a young Moscow girl named Maria. The two planned to marry, but the war dashed their hopes. In July 1915 men born in 1896 were called into service. Georgi bade farewell to Maria and returned to his village to help with the harvest and say good-bye to his parents.
Eighteen-year-old Zhukov was called into service in Maloyaroslavets on August 7, 1915. He was selected for the cavalry, which made him happy, for he had always admired that romantic branch of service. Sent to Kaluga, he found himself in the 189th Reserve Infantry Battalion of the Fifth Reserve Cavalry Regiment. In September 1915 he was sent to the Ukraine with the same regiment, which was to become part of the famed Tenth Cavalry Division. By the spring of 1916 his unit was well trained. Zhukov was among the thirty cavalrymen selected for noncommissioned-officer training. He was almost thrown out of the NCO course for insubordination—he had emphatically and undiplomatically refused a clerk's position—but a kindly commander saved him, and he completed the difficult course. "As I now recollect the NCO course of the old army, I must say that it gave good training, especially in marching drill. The graduate was a good horseman adept in the use of weapons and a good drill master. No wonder after the Great October Revolution many NCOs of the old army rose to prominence as commanders in the Red Army."
In June 1916 Aleksei Brusilov, probably the greatest and most effective of the Russian commanders, launched an offensive between the Pripet and Dniester rivers along a more than 120-mile front. He succeeded in breaking through the Austrian lines and seizing Bukovina and parts of Galicia, even reaching some of the passes in the Carpathian mountains. The result was the withdrawal of twenty-four German divisions from the Western Front and others from Macedonia, a total of thirty divisions. It probably also contributed to Rumania's joining the Entente, although the Russians in turn had to provide the weak Rumanians with forty-two divisions and lengthened the fighting front by some 250 miles.
Early in August 1916 Zhukov returned to the Tenth Cavalry Division, near Kharkov. On the way to the front his train was shunted to a siding to allow another train carrying an infantry division to pass. Hospital trains were also returning from the front. From the wounded Zhukov learned that the Russian troops were poorly armed and equipped, that a number of the generals were held in low regard, that the Supreme Command was filled with traitors who had sold out to the Germans, and that rations were terrible. "Depressed, we lapsed into a moody silence."
Zhukov's unit, now designated the Tenth Dragoon Novgorod Regiment, was sent to Kamenets Podolski, southwest of Vinnitsa, where it began receiving horses. The Russians were attacked by an enemy plane, which dropped light bombs, killing one soldier and injuring five horses. That was Zhukov's baptism of fire.
The Tenth Division moved to the Dniester River, where it became part of the reserve of the Southwestern Front. At the beginning of September Zhukov's division was concentrated in the hilly, forested Bystritsa area, where it fought mainly as infantry, since the terrain did not permit cavalry attacks. The unit suffered large losses, and the offensive fizzled out. The Rumanian allies, who had recently declared war on Germany, were poorly prepared and also suffered heavy losses. (Rumania was soon defeated by the Central Powers.)
In October 1916, while on a reconnaissance mission at the approaches to Saya-Regen, Zhukov was unhorsed in the blast of a land mine, which seriously wounded two of his comrades. He came to in a hospital twenty-four hours later and was evacuated to Kharkov, where he was confined to a hospital. When he was discharged, he still felt weak and experienced hearing problems. Instead of sending him back to the front, the medical commission assigned him to a training command. By now he had twice been decorated with the Cross of Saint George for his wounds and for capturing a German officer.
Excerpted from Zhukov by Otto Preston Chaney. Copyright © 1996 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Posted September 27, 2006
Finally a Zhukov biography without the Commie censors!! It is about time. Yes, Zhukov was hard and at times brutal.And the book also brings out the surprising dichotomy in the man. Somehow I was surprised to see his photo with his small grandchild in his lap. I also could never picture him playing the accordion and having cordial social dinners with his subordinates.This book is really interesting and has much that is new about Zhukov, the dirt poor peasant boy and furriers apprentice who truly became the savior of Russia in World War II and in a sort of a perverted fashion ,(given the regime he served), a savior of Western Civilization (about which he knew next to nothing). The catastrophy he took over from the totally inept paranoid master of Russia ,Stalin, is beyond description-one must read this book. How he retrieved it into a huge victory for Russians and prevented Russians from becoming mere helots of the German Reichskommisars was a magnificent accomplishment. No, he was not alone in doing it. There were others and the book gived them credit.Vassilevski,Rokossovski,Vatutin,Bagramyan,and of course the great non person (Stalin's and Commies' doing) Semyon Timoshenko, the spirit of defense in the early months of utter despair.Budenny and Voroshilov. the commie party hacks responsible through their stupidity and ignorance for millions of Russian peasant soldiers dying from the Wehrmacht killing machine in 1941, are mercilessly highlighted as well.One of the most interesting highlights of the Stalingrad victory, the total secrecy by Stalin and the two authors of that victory Zhukov and Vassilevski, for three months to preserve the stealth of assembling and organizing the huge forces it took to encircle the German 6th Army, was fascinating to read about. This is a truly great book on the subject. Hats off to the author. Right in there with Massey's 'Castles of Steel'.If you liked that one you will love this.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.