Stalin’s General –
The Life of Georgy Zhukov
By Geoffrey Roberts
Icon Books – £25.00
As a teenager, I remember regularly watching The World At War narrated by none other than Richard Burton, and one of the most vivid memories among a collection of many was watching the lone, legendary Russian General Georgy Zhukov, fronting Russia’s Victory Parade on a beautiful white horse along the Kremlin. I have subsequently discovered that in so doing, he dangerously and inadvertently provoked the mire as well as the envy of Joseph Stalin – although no surprises there.
Moreover, it’s an image that has always remained with me and I don’t really know why. I’m not particularly into horses and have never visited Moscow, let alone the Kremlin. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that the trajectory and the aftermath of the Second World War loomed large throughout my childhood and youth. Reason being, my mother was from Holland and my father from Poland – both countries of which were harrowingly occupied by the Nazis (the latter in particular). As such, the memory of the aforementioned footage made such an indelible impression, simply because it was Zhukov who so strategically, and, so it seems, fundamentally won the war. Thereby alleviating the suffering of millions – my own parents and their countless loved ones among them.
Suffice to say, no single nation or individual really won the Second World War. It was a phenomenal joint effort on behalf of the entire Free World. But, as Geoffrey Roberts so assertively writes at the outset of chapter fourteen (‘Marshall of Victory’) in this marvel of a book, Stalin’s General – The Life of Georgy Zhukov: ‘’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 – 45 no one’s light continues to shine more brightly 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 ‘Marshall of Victory’ in a war that cost the Soviet Union 25 million dead, destroyed a third of its national wealth, and destroyed 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.’’
To be sure, Zhukov was exceedingly instrumental in the Battles of Moscow, Stalingrad and Kursk, the Siege of Leningrad, as well as the eventual liberation of most of the Ukraine and Poland. Not to mention of course, the infamous, the most tempestuous and more than controversial race for the ultimate prize itself, the capture of Berlin. All of which is herein, regaled with finesse and considerable detail, thus making Stalin’s General a very readable, authoritative, intimate, and refreshingly balanced read throughout.
Having utilised the use of hundreds of documents from Russian military archives – as well as unpublished versions of Zhukov’s memoirs – the author has fashioned a remarkably candid portrait of a man whose personality was as beguiling as it was tough: ‘’What distinguished Zhukov was his exceptional will to win […]. For those around him Zhukov’s wilfulness generated confidence in the possibility of success even in the most adverse of circumstances. This was never more evident than during the critical summer months of 1941 and again in 1942 at Stalingrad when the German Axis forces threatened to sweep away all before them. At no point did Zhukov waver or allow himself to be perturbed by the prospect of defeat and his decision-making remained crisp and unequivocal.’’
Proud, decisive and more than just a tad strong willed, it has to be said in his private life, that Zhukov was surprisingly colourful, charming and gentle; which is profoundly evident amid some of his personal letters – many of which are published throughout. This goes somewhat against the grain of Zhukov’s reticent relations with some of Stalin’s generals that were quite often fraught with rivalry and warranted dislike. A prime example of which can be gleaned in chapter eleven (‘Exiled to the Provinces: Disgrace and Rehabilitation, 1946-1954’), where Roberts writes: ‘’[…] when he was asked what was the most important thing he had done in his life, Zhukov replied: ‘the arrest of Beria.’’’
Geoffrey Roberts clearly has a thorough understanding of his subject and twentieth-century Russian history in general; although this ought not be in the least surprising considering he has already written six books on the subject. That I read Stalin’s General – The Life of Georgy Zhukov in one weekend sitting, may, to a certain degree, substantiate what a truly comprehensive and altogether fascinating book it is.