Georgy Zhukov achieved fame as perhaps the most successful Soviet military commander of the Second World War. In the post-war Victory Parade in Moscow’s Red Square, Zhukov stole the show, inspecting the troops mounted on a white stallion.
Adored by the public and respected by international opinion, Zhukov’s position was always going to be vulnerable given Stalin’s innate jealousy. Sure enough, in 1946, Zhukov, heavily criticised for being ‘politically unreliable’, was dismissed and dispatched to a position of diminished responsibility in Odessa.
Known for his uncompromising discipline, Georgy Zhukov placed strategic objective far above the safety of the men he put into battle. Yet, despite his toughness, he could be rendered a wreck by a single harsh word from Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin. During the early days of the war, he was once reduced to tears by an angry Stalin and had to take the handkerchief offered by Vyacheslav Molotov.
Born 1 December 1896, Zhukov first saw action during the First World War, where, renowned for his bravery, he was twice decorated. He then fought with the Red Army against the Whites during the Russian Civil War of 1917-23 and quickly rose through the ranks. Stalin’s great 1930s purge of the military was for Zhukov ‘the most difficult emotional experience of my life’. Like many others, he kept a small packed suitcase near his front door should the NKVD come for him. But, unlike many of his contemporaries, he survived and indeed benefited by being able to step into the shoes of men purged, ‘dead men’s shoes’.
World War Two
Zhukov played a major role during the Great Patriotic War, as Russians call the Second World War, commanding forces in the defence of Leningrad, holding the Germans at bay at Moscow, and instrumental in defeating the Germans at the Battle of Stalingrad. He went on to command victory at the Battle of Kursk and led the Red Army’s capture of Berlin in May 1945. ‘Where you find Zhukov, you find victory,’ became a popular saying within the Red Army.
He was the only one of Stalin’s generals capable of standing up for himself, even to the point of putting his career and possibly his life at risk. Conversely however, his stubbornness impressed Stalin, and he gained his boss’s respect.
Zhukov had his compassionate side. On being told of Goebbels’s six dead children in the bunker of the Reich Chancellery, poisoned by their parents, Zhukov said: ‘I had not the heart to go down and look at the children’. Following Hitler’s suicide, Zhukov was there, representing the Soviet Union, when, on 8 May 1945 in Berlin, Germany signed its unconditional surrender.
Zhukov’s stubbornness, which served him well during the war, served him less so post-war. Stalin’s basis of rule, throughout his time in power, was fear. For four years, 1941 to 1945, war had kept people in a state of constant fear. Now, in 1945, with the war over, it was necessary to re-establish the fear. What better way than to announce it than to have Zhukov, of all people, war hero extraordinaire, purged. Zhukov, at least, was spared arrest and interrogation and all the trappings of a full purge, he was merely demoted. On arriving in Odessa to start his new, much humbler life, he suffered a heart attack, probably brought on by the stress of his ordeal.
Following Stalin’s death in 1953, Zhukov returned to the fore and helped Nikita Khrushchev to power, arresting Khrushchev’s main rival for power, Lavrentry Beria. Bursting into a meeting to make the arrest, as pre-arranged, Zhukov shouted at Beria, ‘Shut up, you are not the commander here. Comrades, arrest this traitor!’ Beria was executed in December 1953 and with Khrushchev now in power, Zhukov was called back to the Kremlin as Deputy Defence Minister, elevated two years later to Defence Minister. However, Zhukov was never comfortable as a politician, much preferring the life of a soldier. He argued with Khrushchev’s vision of how the military should be developed and tried to diminish the Politburo’s influence on how the military was run. Zhukov was again sidelined.
He published his memoirs, Reminiscences and Reflections, in 1969. The book was an immediate bestseller and Zhukov received some 10,000 letters from fans and admirers.
Georgy Zhukov died on 18 June 1974 and was buried within the Kremlin Wall with full military honours.
Rupert Colley’s novel, The Black Maria, a chilling tale set in Stalinist Moscow, is now available.
Also, gathered together in one collection, 60 of Rupert Colley’s history articles, The Savage Years: Tales From the 20th Century. Also available in paperback and ebook formats.