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Sunday Book Review: Stalin’s General: The Life of Georgy Zhukov

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Field Marshal Georgy Zhukov- RIA Novosti, Commons: RIA Novosti, P. Bernstein

Stalin’s General: The Life of Georgy Zhukov is a new biography of Field Marshal Georgy Zhukov from Geoffrey Roberts. The book is interesting, but ultimately disappointing to most audiences with a taste for Zhukov. Nevertheless, it’s good to see the re-emergence of a popular(ish) taste for Soviet military history in the West.

Product of a not-too-prosperous-but-not-altogether-impoverished peasant family from Strelkovka, Georgy Zhukov joined the Tsarist army in 1915 (age of 19), seeing his first action in the form of a German air attack on Russian rear positions. Zhukov did well for himself as a non-commissioned officer, displaying a flair for combat leadership.  He became a committed Bolshevik shortly after the Revolution, fighting on several fronts during the Russian Civil War. Because of other commitments (as well as bout of typhus), Zhukov missed the Russo-Polish War.

In Roberts’ account, Zhukov does not play much of a role in the intellectual life of the Red Army, especially during the particularly fertile inter-war period.  Zhukov never posted to the armor school at Kazan, or had much of an input into the development of Deep Battle.  On the one hand this isn’t terribly surprising; the intellectual core of the Red Army was decapitated in the great purge of 1937.  On the other hand, the experience of cavalry warfare in the Russo-Polish War and and the Civil War helped informed Deep Battle; it’s interesting that Zhukov managed, as a significant cavalry officer, not to have any impact on the constitution of Soviet military doctrine.

Roberts’ account of the purge isn’t terribly satisfying.  We learn that Zhukov escaped the Great Purge (just by the nape, by his own account), but we get little sense of how this affected the general.  He lost friends, teachers, students, colleagues, and subordinates; there’s very little to indicate how Zhukov felt about any of this. It doesn’t appear that Zhukov ever harbored any serious doubts about the legitimacy of the Communist Party, the Soviet Union, or Josef Stalin; his willingness to overtly display this loyalty may explain his ability to survive three purges.

Zhukov’s first great success (beyond avoiding the purge) was the victory over the Japanese at Khalkin-Gol.  With the advantage of numbers and technology, Zhukov methodically destroyed the Japanese incursion, remaining on site for several months in order to oversee truce negotiations.  Fortunately, this allowed Zhukov to miss the Soviet-Finnish War, which set back the careers of several senior Red Army commanders.  The availability of Zhukov for Finland presents an interesting counter-factual; had he become associated with the failure, he might not have been in line for command in early 1941. Conversely, the Soviet High Command did enough wrong in Finland, from poorly understanding its own capabilities to gravely misjudging the Finns, that you don’t have to imagine any genius stroke to see how Zhukov might have helped. Rather, you can imagine offensives more competently planned and executed, with a leadership more firmly in grip of the situation, leading to victory in shorter order and with far fewer casualties.  Of course, it’s possible that both of these would have been the case; Zhukov could have led the Red Army to a victory over the Finns that was simultaneously quicker than the historical victory, but that still left the USSR humiliated and Stalin deeply unhappy with his senior commanders.

Another way of putting it is to suggest that Zhukov is the sort of commander you would want to fight a war that you should win. Conversely, Zhukov as commander would have been out of place in the Russo-Polish War, where the pursuit of victory demanded the kind of innovative, high risk performance that was more characteristic of Tukhachevsky.  Roberts paints a portrait of Zhukov that makes him very much  Grant, and not a Lee.

It’s hard to pin down the role he played in the major Soviet operations of WWII. Zhukov had formal responsibility for most of the important Soviet victories on the Eastern Front, including the relief of Leningrad, the Battle of Moscow, the Battle of Stalingrad, Kursk, Operation Bagration, and the Battle of Berlin. He also experienced some notable failures, including Operation Mars (the northern counterpart to Stalingrad), and some defeats in the early months of 1941. The Red Army was such an immense creature, with such a large staff system and bureaucracy, that it’s not possible to assess Zhukov’s input into particular decisions in the same way that we accord responsibility to Hannibal, Napoleon, Lee, or even Patton. Complicating matters further is the collective nature of Soviet strategic decision-making; Stalin consulted closely with Zhukov and his other senior commanders in development of war strategy. When we think of Zhukov’s contribution, it is perhaps most appropriate to say that he was the “lead architect” of Stalingrad, Bagration, and the Battle of Berlin, with all that does and does not entail. The Zhukov that we’re offered here lacks the dash of Patton, or the intellectual flair of Tukhachevsky or Guderian.He won because he took calculated, high-reward risks, and he felt secure in taking those risks because he did not fear Stalin. Indeed, part of the underlying story of Zhukov is the willingness of Stalin to allow him to fail.  The relationship between the two reminded me (again) a bit of that between Lincoln and Grant in the last two years of the American Civil War.

This should not take away from the following fact: Georgy Zhukov was the greatest general in the largest army in the biggest conflict the world has ever seen, and likely will ever see. On such a scale, “lead architect” of such a succession of victories is, indeed, a magnificent achievement.

Zhukov’s post-war career was, given the arc of Soviet politics, predictable.  He returned to Moscow the conquering hero, but soon came under fire from other senior commanders of the Red Army, almost certainly with Stalin’s assent.  He found himself exiled to several trivial positions, before returning to the capitol shortly before Stalin’s death.  In the disordered period before the rise of Khruschev, Zhukov became Minister of Defense, only to fall to another purge in 1957.  This final purge effectively pushed him out of Soviet public life, leaving his remaining years for writing and compiling his memoirs.

Zhukov was, by Roberts’ account, never anything but loyal to the Soviet state, and the communist ideal.  He harbored no ambitions beyond the position that he had reached, and was always willing to bend the knee to constituted Soviet authority. It is surely worth lingering over this point; Zhukov lived through (and participated in) the worst crimes of the Soviet regime. When we evaluate German generals such as Rommel, Beck, and Guderian, we invariably ask about their relationship to Hitler and the Nazi Party; Zhukov’s complicity most certainly bears mention.

Roberts includes a few personal details, including those of Zhukov’s relationships with his wives, daughters, and mistresses. And of course, Zhukov is the sort of person that his opinion of Bridge on the River Kwai is automatically interesting: “too pacifist for me.  I prefer something with shooting like the Guns of Naverone.” Roberts’ account of Zhukov’s last purge is simultaneously fascinating and frustrating.

I was determined not to be a victim, not to break down, not to fall apart, not to lose my will to live… Returning home, I took a sleeping pill.  I slept for several hours. I got up. I ate.  I took a sleeping pill. Against I fell asleep. I got up again, took a sleeping pill, and fell asleep.  This went on for 15 days… In my dreams I relived everything that had been tormenting me… I disputed. I proved my point. I grieved- all in my sleep.  Then, after 15 days, I went fishing.

This is great, both as a anecdote and coping strategy, but Roberts doesn’t leave us with much to evaluate whether it’s true or not. It’s certainly possible that a 60 year old Russian General took sleeping pills for fifteen days in order to deal with his purge, but I’d say it’s also possible that he drank himself into oblivion for a good two weeks. Having read a book about the man, I’d like to think that I’d have some sense of whether he’s telling the truth about this incident, but the picture Roberts paints is so shallow that I really don’t.

This is a good discussion of Roberts’ lack of detail, although I’d suggest that Roberts commits errors both in overestimating and underestimating his audience; appreciation of Zhukov’s achievements requires more knowledge of the Red Army and of the campaigns that Roberts is willing to grant. Then again,  the history of the Red Army as an institution may have seemed difficult to place, because oddly enough, Zhukov doesn’t appear to have played much of a role in the development of its doctrine or culture.  Frunze, Tukhachevsky, and Voroshilov are much more important figures in this regard. Williams wisely refrains from giving deeply detailed account of Stalingrad, Moscow, Bagration, et al, in part I suspect because it’s hard to nail down precisely what contribution Zhukov made; excellent management is excellent, in some ways, because it’s boring.

But this is part of a problem; I came away from this book somewhat more familiar with Zhukov’s career path, but without any very good sense of what the man would be like in a conversation.  We’re told that he was an authoritarian and a womanizer, which distinguishes him from senior military officers through history in no particular way. It may seem trite, but reading a biography I like to have some theory of who might portray the subject on film.  In this case, I’m left with a blank. This is a great book for people who are kind of interested in the career of Georgy Zhukov, but who don’t really have that much of an interest in either the Red Army or World War II.  As such, it’s not likely to satisfy many readers.

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