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.”

‘Stalin's General: The Life of Georgy Zhukov’ by Geoffrey Roberts (Random House)

Zhukov, who was born in 1896 and died in 1974, came from peasant origins and seems never to have forgotten them: “Zhukov’s humble origins and stratospheric rise are keys to understanding his lifelong loyalty to communism and to the Soviet system. The regime that Zhukov served all his adult life was brutal, repressive, authoritarian, and at times terroristic. . . . But compared with the old tsarist regime it offered people like Zhukov unprecedented and previously unimaginable opportunities for social mobility.”

Throughout his adult life Zhukov venerated Stalin, even in the years after his first disgrace. He “was in awe of Stalin,” who was “the dominant figure in their relationship,” yet “the imbalance in their personal relationship did not preclude the two men from forming a creative and productive partnership — a partnership that was to lead the Red Army to the brink of complete catastrophe before leading it to the greatest victory in military history.”

As Max Hastings writes in his definitive “Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945,” “It was the Western Allies’ extreme good fortune that the Russians, and not themselves, paid almost the entire ‘butcher’s bill’ for [defeating Nazi Germany], accepting 95 per cent of the military casualties of the three major powers of the Grand Alliance.” Here in the West we tend to forget this, just as we tend to forget Zhukov and the other great Soviet generals of his generation, but the war in Europe almost certainly would have been lost to Hitler — or, at best, would have ended in a negotiated peace that kept him in power — had it not been for the astonishing sacrifices that the Red Army and the Russian people made all along the Eastern Front. Among other things, the bloody battles in the East permitted the other Allies to delay the invasion of France until 1944; had it been attempted earlier, before the invading force was fully trained and equipped, the odds are overwhelming that it would have failed.

Zhukov was “neither the unblemished hero of legend nor the unmitigated villain depicted by his detractors,” but “a flawed and contradictory character” about whom it is not possible “to render a simple verdict.” Early in his military career he was evaluated by Konstantin Rokossovsky, whose rise through the Red Army roughly paralleled his own: “Willful. Decisive. Has initiative and knows how to apply it to his work. Disciplined. Persistently demanding. Personally a little cold and insufficiently tactful. Has a significant streak of obstinacy. Painfully proud. In military matters well prepared.” What little we know about his private life suggests that though he was a loving husband and father, he “required order at home as well as at work and did not appreciate laziness or broken promises. Neither would he tolerate hypocrisy or dishonesty in the family.” His traits of character — “willpower, discipline, decisiveness, and self-assurance under fire — were complemented by important intellectual qualities: clarity of vision and purpose combined with a willingness to learn from experience.”

He was not without a softer side — “told that in Hitler’s bunker were the bodies of Goebbels’s six children, poisoned by their parents,” he said: “I had not the heart to go down and look at the children” — but he fought a brutal enemy, and he responded in kind. He did not countenance the rapes that Red Army soldiers inflicted on German women during the march to Berlin, but he said that “if it is necessary to take extreme measures, if we have to shoot people, we will do it.” Throughout his career he was assigned to bring laggard units up to snuff, a task he performed with a vigor that often turned into cruelty. For real or imagined infractions of military discipline, tens of thousands of Russian soldiers were sent to their deaths by their own officers, a practice Zhukov apparently condoned.

Without him, though, the war might well have been lost. Probably there is no such thing as the indispensable man, but like Churchill and Roosevelt, he came close. Carefully weighing him against his contemporaries — Eisenhower, Patton, Montgomery, Rommel — Roberts writes: “The conclusion to be drawn from this survey of comparable generals is that while Zhukov did not excel as ‘the best ever’ in any one field of military endeavor, he was the best all-around general of the Second World War. He combined prowess and courage in battle with ambitious strategic vision, determination, and organizational ability. He inspired the affection and confidence of his troops — as well as their fear — if not the ungrudging respect of all his peers. He was stoic in defeat and exuberant in victory. He had seemingly inexhaustible reserves of energy and the will to succeed however challenging the circumstances. . . . [He was] a man who rose from peasant poverty to become a great general and a hero not only to the Russian people but to all those who value his incomparable contribution to the victory over Nazi Germany.”


The Life of Georgy Zhukov

By Geoffrey Roberts

Random House. 375 pp. $30