Georgi Konstantinovich Zhukov
A the Soviet Union’s most outstanding general of World War II, Georgi Zhukov successfully defended Moscow against a German attack, surrounded and routed the Nazi army at Stalingrad, won the pivotal Battle of Kursk, and personally led his forces into Berlin to end the war. Just as adept politically as militarily, Zhukov survived the purges of Stalin and subsequent Soviet leaders and maintained power during the postwar era.
Born on December 2, 1896, in the village of Stelkovka, about sixty miles east of Moscow, to peasant parents, Zhukov became an apprentice furrier at age fifteen. In 1915 he was drafted into the Russian Imperial Cavalry, advanced to the rack of sergeant, and earned several awards for valor fighting against the Germans in the early stages of World War I. During the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Zhukov served in the Red Army as a cavalry officer and in March 1919 joined the Communist Party.
Zhukov rose steadily in the army of the new Soviet Union during the 1920s and 1930s. As a corps commanded in 1939 he led Soviet and Mongolian troops in their successful defense against Japanese invaders at Khalkin Gol. In battles along the Mongolian-Manchurian border, Zhukov inflicted more than sixty thousand casualties on the Japanese. His reward was promotion to General of the Army and command of the Kiev Military District.
Zhukov first met the premier of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin, in January 1941, after an impressive victory in a war-training game that he was not supposed to win. The relationship would remain a strained one, for Stalin became jealous of Zhukov’s military successes and feared his popularity with eh people and the military. Stalin, never hesitant to kill possible political opponents or those he took a dislike to, nonetheless kept Zhukov in command.
Zhukov eventually became one of the few to raise his voice at Stalin and live to see another day. When Stalin shouted that a plan proposed by Zhukov was “rubbish,” the general angrily replied, “If you think your chief of staff can talk only rubbish, then demote me to private soldier and let me defend my country with a rifle and a bayonet in my hand.”
Stalin did not demote his chief of staff, recognizing that he would be needed to defeat the Germans, who attacked the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. Zhukov initially took charge of the defenses of Kiev, but when the German army threatened Moscow, he moved to its defense. Outside the city, Zhukov, assisted by the onslaught of the Russian winter, delivered the first defeat to Hitler’s thousand-year Reich and gained world attention.
At Moscow, Zhukov exhibited characteristics that would gain him future victories. He proved a master in the advantageous use of terrain and intelligence to anticipate enemy actions. He demanded instant obedience from his subordinate commanders and did not hesitate to transfer or execute those who failed him. While he supervised closely and planned in minute detail, once a battle had begun, he allowed his frontline commanders flexibility to act independently within their assigned sectors. Outspoken, ruthless, and vindictive, Zhukov willingly accepted mass friendly casualties if necessary to achieve his objectives.
Zhukov wanted to go on the offensive after the successful defense of Moscow, but Stalin overruled him, demanding instead a strengthening of current defenses. As a result, the Germans regrouped and threatened Stalingrad. Zhukov again took charge of the defenses, and between November 1942 and February 1943 he stopped the attack. He then conducted a counterattack of his own that surrounded the German Sixth Army, resulting in its capture and the first surrender in history of a German field marshal.
Although he had stopped the invaders at Stalingrad, Zhukov faced more German offensives. In the summer of 1943 he defeated the Germans in a massive tank battle at Kursk and followed his victory with an active pursuit of the retreating army. Never again would the Nazis mount an offensive against the Soviet Union.
Following Kursk, Zhukov took command of the First Belo-Russian Front and began operation against the German homeland. In victory after victory, Zhukov pushed his army toward Berlin, racing the other Allies to the German capital. Zhukov, along with fellow Soviet marshal Ivan Stepanovich Konev, accepted the German surrender on May 9, 1945.
Zhkuov remained in Berlin after the victory as the Soviet leader in occupied Germany before returning home to enjoy the fame he had gained in both his own country and the Western nations. However, as Zhukov’s popularity mounted, Stalin, who in time of peace no longer needed what he considered arrogant generals, recalled him and exiled him to a minor military district. When Stalin died in 1953, Zhukov regained power and assisted Nikita Khrushchev’s rise to leadership in 1957. As a reward, Zhukov became the first professional military man appointed a member of the Communist Party Presidium. Khrushchev, like his predecessor, soon felt threatened by Zhukov’s popularity and the possibility of a military takeover. Khrushchev accused Zhukov of disloyalty, stripped him of his military and political authority, and confined him to a Moscow apartment.
With the exit of Khrushchev in 1964, some of the restrictions of Zhukov eased, but he was never again allowed to partake in party or military activities. He spent his final years writing his version of World War II and the postwar period for publication in Soviet periodicals. He died on June 18, 1974. Although arrogant, ruthless, and often crude, Zhukov earned the title of the Soviet Union’s greatest general. As such, he ranks near the top of all World War II commanders for his tenacious, well-coordinated offense that drove the Germans from interior Russia back to Berlin. That he survived the many purges of Stalin and his successors and died a peaceful death at age seventy-seven is alone sufficient proof of his abilities. While his World War II accomplishments exceed those of his rival Konev, the latter general maintained his position and influence more consistently in the postwar period, resulting in Zhukov’s slightly lower ranking.