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stalin's general

13 march 2013

Georgy Zhukov, in Geoffrey Roberts's study Stalin's General, reminds me more than a little of Ulysses S. Grant. Both were from working-class backgrounds and became excellent military horsemen. Both commanded armies on hitherto unimagined scales, in wars for national survival that presented unprecedented problems for commanders. Each employed a relentlessly aggressive offensive doctrine, with the result that each was criticized as being a "butcher," heedless of the deaths of his troops. Each worked for, and had the confidence of, a charismatic leader (though any comparison between Lincoln and Stalin ends at the word "charismatic," unless you're a diehard Confederate apologist). Each had a postwar political career that could most charitably be described as "naïve." Each wrote a memoir that became a huge, if posthumous, bestseller, and each is featured in an equestrian statue outside the seat of the government he preserved – though the Russian government has been through a few changes since Zhukov served it.

Of course, the contrasts are many, too. Grant was a devoted monogamist; Zhukov had four children by three different women, and was usually involved with at least two of his several wives and lovers at once. Grant was a loyal superior who found it easy to delegate authority to good lieutenants – and actually one suspects from Roberts's treatment that Zhukov might have been that kind of superior too, had Stalin's Red Army been less of a tendency to pit commanders against one another in paranoid ways. As it was, though, Zhukov was continually at odds with other marshals of the USSR, and was eventually purged from high office twice – once by Stalin, once by Khrushchev – for appropriating too much credit for his victories.

But ultimately, there were too many victories to ignore. Zhukov became famous for winning a battle that I'd never heard of in a war I didn't really remember learning about till I read Stalin's General: the battle of Khalkhin-Gol, in August 1939, in Mongolia, against the Japanese. Evidently the Japanese had ideas about the border between Manchuria (which they controlled) and Mongolia (a client state of the USSR), ideas that Stalin did not share. Zhukov led an attack in the disputed zone against a larger but worse-equipped Japanese force, and won the battle by making a daring armored breakthrough attack with accompanying "pincer movement": a quaintly zoological or metalworking metaphor for what must have been, on the ground, a frighteningly violent to-and-fro of intermingled armies.

From August 1939 forward, Zhukov was wedded to the idea that a pincer attack would solve almost any military problem. He was Chief of Staff of the Soviet army in 1941 when the Germans invaded the USSR, and he ordered the Red Army forward in several bold pincer movements. One flaw with the pincer movement is that you may well surround the enemy, but they correspondingly surround you. This would sound almost like a Yakov Smirnov punchline if it didn't have such horrific consequences for the conscript armies that Zhukov lost to Hitler. Countless Soviet troops were killed or captured as they advanced and found themselves cut off by the Panzer columns that had advanced far more powerfully past them. And the Soviet soldiers who found themselves in German POW camps quickly wished they had been killed instead.

Rather than simply having Zhukov shot, as he had done with so many of his other generals, Stalin gave him command of a key sector of the front, Yel'nya, where Zhukov led – you guessed it – a pincer movement against German lines, winning back territory for the first time in 1941 and delaying the German approach to Moscow. Zhukov went next to Leningrad, drawing up siege lines that the Germans never broke; then to Moscow, to command a successful defense of the capital; then to Stalingrad, to Kursk … ultimately Zhukov pincered his way to Berlin. Even U.S. Grant was not at so many crucial battles of his war.

Like Grant, Zhukov was named overall national military commander after winning the war, but unlike Grant, he was sacked three months later, and by 1948 he "was demoted to the command of the Urals Military District in Sverdlovsk" (7), which would be sort of like Grant being sent in 1868 to command a regiment in Utah. Of course, Grant was busy running for President in 1868, and it's clear that Stalin sent Zhukov packing precisely because he had no intention of being succeeded by Zhukov, or any other popular figure, until he was good and ready (by which I mean good and dead).

When Khrushchev came to power, he set about doing everything Stalin wouldn't have, which meant rehabilitating Zhukov, and eventually naming the hero defense minister. Zhukov seems to have been an interestingly flexible military thinker, genuinely appalled by the arms race, eager to find negotiated ways to scale back the forces of both superpowers. Roberts's look at postwar Soviet politics is interesting, in fact, for the wide degree of discussion and dissent that prevailed under Khrushchev. It's quite a contrast to the Stalin years, though of course one has to remember that the discussion and dissent took place among a couple of dozen people in Khrushchev's immediate orbit, while nearly 200 million Soviet citizens had no political role outside of reading Pravda and attending parades.

And soon enough, Khrushchev began to disappear his popular rivals à la Stalin, though typically by retirement to dachas instead of bullets to the back of the head. Zhukov was purged after a few years as defense minister, to be rehabilitated again under Brezhnev in the late 1960s. Throughout, he remained a favorite – insofar as it's possible to judge public opinion in the Soviet Union – of the many men he had led to war: like Grant, again, despite the fact that he was responsible in a way for the deaths of so many of their comrades. He had kept them moving forward and he had won the war, and soldiers tend to admire such qualities; it's far worse, somehow, to get killed while you're in abject retreat.

This popularity made Zhukov's memoirs guaranteed bestsellers when they appeared under the Brezhnev regime. Roberts recounts one telling anecdote about their publication (300). Zhukov included a story about making a trip to the Caucasus in April 1943 to seek the advice of Colonel Leonid Brezhnev (which, to pursue our analogy, would be a little like Grant saying in 1884 that he'd made a trip to upstate New York in 1863 to get military opinions from Grover Cleveland). Nothing like the Brezhnev visit could possibly have happened, but Zhukov was by this point a very old Soviet hand, and he knew how to rewrite history.

Zhukov was in fact a very old Communist, and there's nothing that suggests his allegiance to the Revolution was time-serving or insincere. His ancestors, not far back, had been serfs. If he'd been born 100 years earlier, he'd probably have died a serf, shoeing horses on some crumbling estate. One can understand his loyalty to a system, however inhumane, that recognized his talents and ignored his social background.

Roberts, Geoffrey. Stalin's General: The life of Georgy Zhukov. New York: Random House, 2012.