Stalin’s General: The Life of Georgy Zhukov, by Geoffrey Roberts

Review published on July 30, 2012.Reviewed by Simon Appleby

Ask the average person in the street to name a WW2 British or American general, and you have a good chance of hearing the names Montgomery, Patton, Eisenhower, MacArthur; ask them for a German and you would probably get Rommel; ask for a WW2 Soviet General, and it’s a good bet you will get blank looks. I am willing to bet that in an era when knowledge of the most destructive conflict in human history is already fading (something which it should not be allowed to do), the name of Stalin is the only one associated with the monumental Soviet war effort in many minds. This does a great injustice to the subject of this book: Georgy Zhukov rose to become Stalin’s Deputy Supreme Commander and planned or commanded some of the largest and most pivotal clashes with the invading German armies during their invasion of the Soviet Union – as such, he is definitely deserving of a contemporary re-appraisal.

Born not far from Moscow to a peasant family, Zhukov was conscripted in to the Russian Imperial Army in 1915 and stayed on in the Red Army as a professional soldier after the Russian Revolutions, rising rapidly through the ranks. By 1938 he was commanding an Army Group against the Japanese at the Battle of Khalkhin Gol, a major engagement in which Zhukov achieved victory and showed the clarity of his strategic vision, his talent for commanding mobile forces and his iron will – all attributes that would be needed after the Germans invaded in 1941.Spared by Stalin’s purges of the Red Army officer corps, Zhukov also managed to avoid less impressive Soviet campaigns – the Winter War against Finland, for example – but once the Third Reich invaded he seemed to frequently find himself where the fighting was most vital to the future survival of the Soviet Union. He was instrumental in stabilising the situation in the besieged city of Leningrad, handled the defence of Moscow (German tanks were at one point only a couple of miles from the Kremlin), masterminded the encirclement of the German Sixth Army in the hell that was Stalingrad, and commanded the winning side in two of the largest tank battles in history, at the Kursk Salient and Operation Bagration. It’s one hell of a CV, and there is no doubt that Stalin relied on Zhukov to manage situations with the highest conceivable stakes. They were a powerful combination.

We also learn about his complicated personal life (with several mistresses, and four daughters by three women) and his chequered post-war political career as Minister of Defence, which saw him sidelined by Stalin only months after Soviet victory, rehabilitated by Kruschev after Stalin’s death and then sidelined again. Politics never agreed with him in the same way as high command, and he had plenty of time to work on his memoirs, a crucial source for this book.

Roberts is a discerning judge of his material, never reluctant to point out where his subject, so admirable in so many ways, might have been embroidering his memoirs to protect himself or settle old scores – such was the nature of life in the upper echelons of Soviet society. There’s no doubt that the man who comes through, bluff disciplinarian though he may have been, was undoubtedly the right man in the right place at the right time to make a substantial difference to the Soviet war effort, and thus to the whole fate of World War II. Recommended reading.

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