Georgy Zhukov certainly was, as Geoffrey Roberts puts it, “the great general who had saved the Soviet Union from catastrophic defeat by Hitler and then led the country to a great victory,” but the men in whose service he labored had a strange way of expressing their appreciation. First Joseph Stalin in the immediate postwar years and then Nikita Khrushchev in the 1950s subjected him to ridicule and disgrace on wholly specious grounds, removing him from power and humiliating him. In both instances he was rehabilitated and restored to something approximating the stature that was his due, but while the treatment he received may have been explicable by the insane standards of the Kremlin, it was wholly inexplicable by any others.
Among the Russian people, though, veneration for Zhukov seems never to have wavered and indeed has grown ever more intense over the years. In the United States we tend, understandably, to regard the leading American generals — Eisenhower, Patton, Bradley — as the great heroes of the European theater, but it was Zhukov who faced the most daunting challenges and won the most crucial victories. Forces under his command turned back the German invaders at Leningrad, Moscow and Stalingrad, then won the decisive victory at Kursk, after which “there was no possibility of the Germans surviving the grinding war of attrition the Soviets had the power and the will to inflict on them.” Roberts writes:
“It is not hard to understand why Zhukov continues to be held in such high esteem. In the galaxy of talented Soviet generals who fought and won the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945 no one’s light continues to shine brighter than Zhukov’s. Only Zhukov was involved in each and every one of the critical turning points and battles that saved Russia and the Soviet Union from Hitler. Zhukov is and forever will be the ‘Marshal of Victory’ in a war that cost the Soviet Union 25 million dead, destroyed a third of its national wealth, and devastated tens of thousands of its villages, towns, and cities. In some ways it was a Pyrrhic victory but the alternative of enslavement as part of Hitler’s racist empire was even worse.”
Roberts, a professor of history at University College Cork in Ireland, has written in “Stalin’s General” what is likely to stand for some time as the most comprehensive biography of Zhukov. Unlike previous biographers, he has not had to rely excessively on Zhukov’s memoirs and other writings by his friends and foes within the Soviet government; since the collapse of the Soviet Union two decades ago, archival material has opened up that was previously unavailable. Like previous biographers, he has had to contend with the paucity of material about the general’s personal life — though he did have “a meeting and interview with Zhukov’s eldest daughter, Era” — which means that the story becomes primarily a military one. There were at various times four women in Zhukov’s life, and by three of them he had four daughters, all of whom were devoted to him, but as Roberts says, “In his own way, Zhukov was devoted to them, too, but his military career and service to the Soviet state always came first.”