Who gets the dacha?

Sheila Fitzpatrick

  • Stalin’s General: The Life of Georgy Zhukov by Geoffrey Roberts
    Icon, 375 pp, £25.00, August 2012, ISBN 978 1 84831 442 9

Of the Soviet Union’s World War Two military leaders, Marshal Zhukov was the most celebrated, both at home and in the West. Broad-faced, stocky, plain-spoken with a touch of swagger, Georgy Konstantinovich epitomised Russian solidity and resolve. The commander with the golden touch, Stalin’s favourite, he seemed to be everywhere during the war: stopping the Germans entering Leningrad in the autumn of 1941; commanding the defence of Moscow; co-ordinating Soviet forces in the battle of Stalingrad; heading the westward drive on the Belorussian Front in 1944; taking Berlin and accepting the German surrender in May 1945. Zhukov was the man on the white horse who led the victory parade in Red Square.

Such a popular and charismatic figure was not going to get by without having problems. Both in Stalin’s time and in Khrushchev’s, there were periods of demotion and disgrace, but Zhukov sat them out, and always bobbed up again. His career under Khrushchev in the 1950s was almost equally spectacular: he took part in the arrest of Beria in June 1953; actively supported both de-Stalinisation and the Hungarian invasion as defence minister in 1956; and in 1957 rescued Khrushchev from the challenge of the Anti-Party Group. At the Geneva summit in 1955, he made the cover of Time, pictured with an air of stern determination in front of a heavily fortified Kremlin, as if he were the Soviet leader. Even in his periods of disgrace, the Russian people loved him and saw him as one of them, or so we are told. His reputation rose even further posthumously with the collapse of the Soviet Union. A statue was erected next to the Kremlin in Yeltsin’s time. State prizes and medals were created in his name, the citations noting that he had ‘accepted the surrender of Nazi Germany’ in May 1945, a literally accurate if somewhat misleading statement presumably intended to downplay Stalin’s significance to the war effort. The Yeltsin-era celebration indeed was so extensive that Putin must have had difficulty topping it. He did his best, however, laying flowers on a monument to Zhukov in Ulan Bator in May 2009. Comparisons with the great commanders of the Napoleonic Wars, Mikhail Kutuzov and Aleksandr Suvorov, were commonplace. And it wasn’t only Putin and Medvedev who sought to cover themselves with Zhukov’s mantle: last spring, anti-Putin demonstrators organised an overnight vigil at his statue by the Kremlin.

Georgy Zhukov

Zhukov’s was a typical Soviet success story, of upward mobility via Bolshevik Party membership and Red Army service in the Civil War. Born in 1896 in the village of Strelkovka, eighty miles from Moscow in the central industrial region, the son of a cobbler and a poor peasant, he was sent to Moscow to work for his uncle as an apprentice furrier after three years in a parish primary school. His lifelong drive to educate himself started in Moscow, where it included learning German from his cousin, the boss’s son, who had been sent to Germany to learn the language for the family business – this branch of the family clearly wasn’t so lowly. By the start of World War One the young Georgy had finished his apprenticeship and was earning good money as a furrier. ‘A photograph of him and his fellow furriers dating from this time shows affluent, smartly dressed young urbanites seemingly confident of their future,’ Geoffrey Roberts tells us, speculating that, but for the war and then the Revolution, Zhukov would have ended up as a solid member of the bourgeoisie, a furrier with his own business. The war set him on a different path. Conscripted in the summer of 1915 and assigned to a cavalry regiment, he was soon the recipient of two St George Crosses for valour and was sent off for training as an NCO. But then came the Revolution, and after his unit was disbanded Zhukov went back to his village (official biographies report a long bout of typhoid, though Roberts suggests that he was waiting to see which way the political wind blew). In September 1918, he was plucked from the village again and conscripted into the Red Army, fighting with distinction on various fronts in the Civil War. Like many other Red Army soldiers, he joined the Bolshevik Party in 1919. He was now commissioned as a junior officer, and collected an Order of the Red Banner in 1921 for his service putting down the Tambov rebellion. He also collected a wife, Aleksandra Dievna Zuikova, a schoolteacher he met in Voronezh. According to his daughter Era, Georgy and Aleksandra worked hard together to make up for the deficiencies of his formal education – Aleksandra gave him regular dictations to improve his written Russian.

He was a division commander by 1933 and a corps commander by 1938. There were some bad moments during the Great Purges of 1937-38, in which so many high-ranking military officers perished, but Zhukov was still a step below them, and emerged an (involuntary) beneficiary. In 1939, he was posted to the Mongolian-Manchurian border and came to national prominence for the first time with the defeat of the Japanese at Khalkhin-Gol. This brought him the title of Hero of the Soviet Union and Stalin’s personal attention. The two met in the summer of 1940, around the time of Zhukov’s promotion to general, and each was impressed by the other. Zhukov found Stalin down to earth, sensible and well-informed on military matters, and wondered why rumour made him out to be such a fearsome character.

The disastrous early years of World War Two destroyed many military reputations, but Zhukov’s rose, as the man whose arrival on the scene invariably turned things around. Stalin was the supreme commander of Soviet military forces, but from August 1942 Zhukov was his deputy – in effect, the country’s top military man. Commander on a variety of fronts, promoted to marshal in 1943, victor of Stalingrad and Berlin, he was the hero of the hour in May 1945, as Stalin acknowledged by giving him the key role in the victory parade. Some were surprised by this modesty on Stalin’s part, but Stalin’s son Vasily later claimed that Stalin had fallen off his horse during a rehearsal and decided not to risk it.

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