Georgy Zhukov completed work on the second edition of his memoirs shortly before he died in June 1974. Writing a new conclusion was his last authorial task. The first edition had finished with a conventional paean to the Communist Party, the glorious socialist system, the wonderful Soviet people, and the great victory over Nazism. Although these pieties were repeated in this second edition Zhukov, ailing and nearing the end of his life, was in a more reflective mood: “My life like that of any other person was marked by joys, sorrows, and losses. For me the most important thing in my life was my service to my country, to my own people. And I can say with a clear conscience that I did everything I possibly could to do my duty.”
Keen to pass on the torch of patriotic service to the younger generation, Zhukov urged them to appreciate the colossal sacrifices of those who had fought in the war, to be kind to surviving veterans, and, above all, to learn the lessons of history: “It is young people who will have to further our cause. It is very important that they should learn from our mistakes and our successes.”
Zhukov ended by recalling his boyhood, noting the decisive impact the Russian Revolution had in transforming his prospects as a young man, offering him “the opportunity to live a completely different way of life, a vivid interesting life full of exciting experiences and important deeds.”
Zhukov died satisfied with his life’s work, content that he had given good service to his party and to his homeland. The Soviet people were mostly satisfied, too. To them Zhukov was a patriotic hero who had served his motherland well through turbulent periods of deep crisis when only total, unwavering commitment to a cause would ensure the Soviet Union’s survival. This view of Zhukov-as-hero remains alive for present-day Russians, though few now share his unshakable commitment to communism.
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.
During the war Zhukov experienced many setbacks and the troops under his command suffered horrendous numbers of casualties on the way to victory. But winning in war tends to trump all criticism of the conduct of particular battles or operations and obviates all what-might-have-been discussions concerning different courses of action or different command decisions. In Russia Zhukov’s reputation as a great general will endure for generations for the simple reason that whatever his mistakes or defeats he also won the greatest—and most decisive—victories.
This popular view of Zhukov is shared by Russia’s military professionals. In his 2004 study of the top Soviet generals of the Great Patriotic War, General M. A. Gareev, president of the Russian Academy of Military Science and himself a veteran of the battle of Moscow, assessed Zhukov’s qualities as a commander: inexhaustible reserves of creative energy; deep understanding and flexibility in the face of battle; meticulous planning and preparation of each and every operation; and the bravery and determination to pursue his goals. In the military history of Russia, concluded Gareev, only Alexander Suvorov, the eighteenth-century tsarist general and strategist who never lost a battle, could be considered Zhukov’s equal as a great commander.
Yet while Zhukov was a great commander he was not the unrivaled military genius of legend. He made no lasting contribution to strategic theory or to military doctrine. Nor did he bequeath any profound insights into the conduct of modern warfare. He certainly had his brilliantly incisive moments on the battlefield—at Khalkhin-Gol, during the battles of Moscow and Stalingrad, and on the road to Berlin in 1944–1945—but his talent was for deployment, not for creative innovation or imaginative flair in battle. Similarly while Zhukov’s tough and often coarse leadership style had its utility in the crises of all-out war, its transfer value is questionable. Threatening people with dire disciplinary action is not necessarily the most effective way to elicit their best efforts. Many other Soviet generals adopted very different but equally successful leadership styles, the most obvious example being Rokossovsky, who believed in using encouragement and coaxing as well as implementing discipline.
What distinguished Zhukov was his exceptional will to win. Throughout his life he displayed an intense determination to succeed, allied to a powerful energy for getting things done. For those around him Zhukov’s willfulness 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 and Axis forces threatened to sweep away all before them. At no time did Zhukov waver or allow himself to be perturbed by the prospect of defeat and his decision-making remained crisp and unequivocal.
Zhukov’s legendary poise when confronted with seemingly insurmountable odds was less a matter of personal courage—although he was not lacking in bravery—and more a matter of supreme self-discipline. The self-control and obedience Zhukov expected of officers and troops was akin to that which he imposed upon himself. As an operational commander Zhukov fought hard within the Stavka central command for the decisions he favored and for the forces and resources he needed to implement his orders. But once decisions had been made and directives issued—even if he had not achieved all he wanted—Zhukov executed his orders and he expected everyone else to behave in the same way.
These character traits of Zhukov’s—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. All great generals must have the capacity to penetrate the complexities of their strategic situation and see through battlefield confusion to identify what are the critical positions, decisions, and objectives so as to take appropriate, effective action. Equally important is that persistent pursuit of their military goals be balanced by the flexibility to change course when necessary.
In the early war years Zhukov did not always display this necessary adaptability. One example was his failure as chief of the General Staff to abandon offensive operations in summer 1941 and to instead adopt a strategic defense posture that might have better contained the German Blitzkrieg invasion. Another example was his continual pursuit in 1942 of the Rzhev-Viazma series of operations designed to dislodge Army Group Center from its positions in front of Moscow but that culminated in the failure of Operation Mars. But as the war progressed Zhukov learned that it was sometimes necessary to retreat, when it was more effective to disengage, and when long-term success could be achieved by a pause or by ending an operation.
The scale of his strategic vision was another facet of Zhukov’s generalship. Time and again during the war he embarked on operations with hugely ambitious goals. When the Germans invaded in June 1941 his ambition was to mount a strategic counterinvasion of enemy territory in order to turn the tables almost immediately, just as he had done during the map-based war games of January 1941. The aim of the Moscow counteroffensive in December that year was not only to drive the German forces away from the Soviet capital but to initiate a Barbarossa-in-reverse and drive them out of Russia altogether. The Soviet entrapment of the German 6th Army at Stalingrad in November 1942 was envisaged as a prelude to more gigantic encirclements of both Army Group South and Army Group Center. Operation Polar Star in January 1943 aimed to encircle Army Group North as well as end the blockade of Leningrad. These grandiose ambitions were not realized but the successes that were achieved formed the building blocks of Operation Bagration and the Vistula-Oder operation in 1944–1945 that liberated Belorussia and Poland and took Zhukov to within striking distance of Berlin.
Zhukov’s ambitious operations were not simply his own dreamed-up conceits. They were the shared vision of Stalin and Stavka and also reflected the Soviet tradition of grand projects of transformation. Zhukov’s military comprehension had been formed in this tradition and although it could allow for creativity it was also highly authoritarian and hierarchical with an emphasis on discipline and conformity. Zhukov’s reliance more on energy and vigor than on imagination to achieve his goals was consonant with the prevailing ethos of the whole Soviet system. So a particular component of Zhukov’s great success was that he was a Soviet general and it is unlikely he would have been so effective a general in any other army.
As a Soviet general, Zhukov commanded a particular kind of army: an army of peasant conscripts of limited education and of little more than basic military training. Many of these peasants-in-uniform, together with their parents and grandparents, had experienced the traumatic consequences of forced collectivization. While some were sincere and committed supporters of the communist cause, at least as many were hostile, ignorant, or indifferent. It is difficult to envisage how such an army could have been held together in the terrifying conditions of the ferocious fighting that obtained during the Soviet-German war except by a regime of harsh discipline and exemplary punishment. And harsh and merciless it undoubtedly was. The Soviets executed an astonishing 158,000 of their own troops during the war. Tens of thousands of others were punished by being dispatched to serve in so-called penal battalions where they had an opportunity to redeem themselves for their crimes and misdemeanors—if they were lucky enough to survive the 50 percent fatality rate in such cannon fodder units. There is no hint that Zhukov ever regretted—or even had second thoughts about—any of the harsh measures he authorized.