Stalin’s General: Saving Leningrad

Georgy Zhukov, 1941

Stalin’s relationship with Zhukov had the same foundation as the Soviet dictator’s relations with all his senior military: their loyalty and competence and his trust in them. Throughout his military career Zhukov had been loyal and respectful of his superiors even if not to all his subordinates and peers. His respect for Stalin’s authority was reinforced by the panegyrics of the dictator’s personality cult—to which Zhukov, like everyone else, subscribed, albeit moderately in his case. But more important was the force of Stalin’s personality. Stalin dominated everyone who came into close contact with him, and Zhukov was no exception.

Besides their professional relationship Stalin and Zhukov had a lot else in common. Both were from a peasant background. Both their fathers had been cobblers and prone to inflict corporal punishment on their sons. The two men’s mothers had striven to ensure their sons received a good education. Both men were sentimental about their own children (in Stalin’s case, more so in relation to his daughter than his two sons). The Russian Civil War had been a brutal, formative experience for Zhukov and Stalin, albeit with the former as a lowly soldier and the latter as a high-ranking political commissar. Although Stalin had some intellectual pretensions he, like Zhukov, saw himself primarily as a praktik—a practical man of action. Both were single-minded in pursuit of their goals and as ruthless as necessary to achieve them. Politically, Stalin and Zhukov shared not only their communist ideology but also a profound patriotic commitment to the defense of the Soviet Union as the protector of all the nationalities and ethnic groups—more than 100 of them—that constituted the multinational state that was the USSR. It was this “Soviet” patriotism that united the Georgian Stalin and the Russian Zhukov. In the case of Hitler and the Nazis they faced not merely a foreign invader but one who sought to exterminate millions of Soviet citizens (especially the Jews) and to enslave the rest.

Zhukov’s relationship with Stalin began to evolve when he became chief of the General Staff in January 1941 but was forged fully only in the crucible of war. The war showed Stalin that Zhukov could be relied upon in even the direst circumstances; that he would not panic under pressure; and that he had the talent and determination to rise to the challenge of dealing with a supreme emergency.

What Zhukov thought about Stalin is evident from a chapter in his memoirs devoted to the functioning of the Stavka (HQ) of the Supreme Command. Zhukov’s primary aim in writing the chapter—added to his memoirs when he revised them in the early 1970s—was to defend the reputation of the wartime leadership of the Soviet Supreme Command, not least his own role as deputy supreme commander. But he also wanted to refute the critique of Stalin’s war leadership inaugurated by Khrushchev in what became known as his Secret Speech to the 20th Party Congress in 1956. Zhukov succeeded brilliantly—his remarkable pen portrait of Stalin as supreme commander became one of the key texts in the rehabilitation of the dictator’s reputation as a successful warlord.

In the course of the war Zhukov met Stalin in his Kremlin office more than 120 times, a very large number of meetings considering that he spent most of his time at the Front. Many additional meetings took place at one or other of Stalin’s country dachas near Moscow. When he didn’t see Stalin in person Zhukov talked to him on the phone or via telegraph, sometimes daily. Not surprisingly, Zhukov came to know Stalin quite well during the war. “I had never associated with him as closely before, and initially felt a little awkward in his presence.… In the early period of our association Stalin did not have much to say to me. I felt that he was sizing me up most attentively and had no fixed opinion of me.… But as experience accumulated I became more confident, more bold in expressing my ideas. I noticed, too, that Stalin began to give them more heed.”

Many of Zhukov’s encounters with Stalin took place at night. The dictator was a late riser and he generally worked through to the early hours of the morning. His punishing work routine of fifteen-to-sixteen-hour days was as tough on his subordinates as it was on himself. The Soviet leader required briefing by the General Staff two or three times a day and he never took important operational decisions without consulting the relevant members of his Supreme Command, especially the chief of the General Staff, and from August 1942 his new deputy supreme commander, Zhukov. During briefings Stalin would pace up and down the room smoking a pipe or Russian cigarettes, stopping now and again to scrutinize the situation maps. Zhukov recalled: “as a rule he was businesslike and calm; everybody was permitted to state his opinion.… He had the knack of listening to people attentively, but only if they spoke to the point.… Taciturn himself, he did not like talkative people.… I realized during the war that Stalin was not the kind of man who objected to sharp questions or to anyone arguing with him. If someone says the reverse, he is a liar.” Zhukov rated Stalin’s military talent and judgment highly:

I can say that Stalin was conversant with the basic principles of organising operations of Fronts and groups of Fronts and that he supervised them knowledgeably. Certainly, he was familiar with major strategic principles. Stalin’s ability as Supreme Commander was especially marked after the Battle of Stalingrad.… Stalin owed this to his natural intelligence, his experience as political leader, his intuition and broad knowledge. He could find the main link in a strategic situation which he seized upon in organising actions against the enemy, and thus assured the success of offensive operations. It is beyond question that he was a splendid Supreme Commander-in-Chief.

Zhukov most liked Stalin’s general informality and lack of pretension. The dictator rarely laughed out loud but he had a sense of humor and liked a good joke. On the other hand Stalin could be willful, impetuous, secretive, and highly irritable at times: “And when he was angry he stopped being objective, changed abruptly before one’s eyes, grew paler still, and his gaze became heavy and hard. Not many were the brave men who stood up to Stalin’s anger and parried his attacks.” Nonetheless, Zhukov was besotted rather than fearful and, like so many others, under Stalin’s spell:

Free of affectations and mannerisms, he won people’s hearts by his simple ways. His uninhibited way of speaking, the ability to express himself clearly, his inborn analytical mind, his extensive knowledge and phenomenal memory, made even old hands and eminent people brace themselves and gather their wits when talking to him.

In post-Soviet versions of his memoirs and in other material that has come to light, Zhukov was a little more critical of Stalin than in his officially published memoirs but Zhukov’s positive view of Stalin as a great warlord remained.

What Stalin thought about Zhukov is more difficult to know since the dictator gave little away about his private thoughts. Certainly he had a fondness for many of his generals. He admired their professionalism and was willing to learn from them, even though he had pretensions to great generalship himself. The best guess is that Stalin respected Zhukov more than most of his inner circle, many of whom were prone to fawning. Equally, Stalin was suspicious of anyone like Zhukov who displayed too much independence of mind, even when their loyalty was beyond question. Stalin’s attitude to Zhukov is perhaps best summed up by his treatment of him when the two men fell out after the war: banishment for lack of deference followed by rapid rehabilitation once Zhukov had proved his loyalty again.


Zhukov’s first assignment from Stalin after his victory at Yel’nya was to go to the defense of Leningrad. When the Germans first invaded the USSR their main goal was not to reach Moscow but to capture Leningrad. Only after Army Group North had seized Leningrad were German forces to be concentrated against Moscow. Initially, all went according to plan. Soviet defenses on the Lithuanian border were easily penetrated and within three weeks the Germans had advanced 300 miles along a wide front and occupied much of the Baltic region. But the pace of the German advance slowed as the Red Army’s resistance stiffened. Not until early September 1941 did the Germans reach the outskirts of Leningrad. At this point Hitler made Moscow his main target instead and decided that rather than take Leningrad by storm, the city should be besieged, its defenses worn down, and its population starved into submission. The Germans were confident the city would fall sooner rather than later. On September 22, 1941, Hitler issued the following directive on Leningrad: “the Führer has decided to erase the city of Petersburg from the face of the earth. I have no interest in the further existence of this large population point after the defeat of Soviet Russia.… We propose to closely blockade the city and erase it from the earth by means of artillery fire of all caliber and continuous bombardment from the air.”

For the Soviets the threat posed to Leningrad was even more dangerous than their contemporaneous collapse in Ukraine. If Leningrad fell the way would be open for the Germans to make a flanking attack on Moscow from the north. Losing the Soviet Union’s second city would also deprive the country of a pivotal center of defense production and the negative psychological impact of the cradle of the Bolshevik Revolution falling to the Nazis would have been immense.

Stavka was not pleased with the performance of its Northwestern Front. On July 10 Zhukov—at that time still chief of the General Staff—admonished the Front command for failing “to punish commanders who have not fulfilled your orders and who have without authorization withdrawn from defensive positions. Such a liberal attitude by you towards cowards cannot be defended … go immediately to forward units and deal with the cowards and criminals on the spot.” That same day Stavka created a multi-Front Northwestern Direction to replace the Northwestern Front. Included in the new Direction was the Northern Front, which faced the Finns north of Leningrad, Finland having joined in the German attack in June 1941 in order to restore territorial losses sustained during the Winter War of 1939–1940.5 Placed in command of the new Direction was Kliment Voroshilov, the former defense commissar. His orders from Stavka were to counterattack in the Sol’tsy, Staraya Russa, and Dno areas near Lake Il’men southeast of Novgorod. Voroshilov’s attacks in mid-July and again in early August held up the German advance but did not halt it and Stavka became increasingly dissatisfied with his command, too. On August 29 the Northwestern Direction was merged with the Leningrad Front, commanded by General M. M. Popov. Voroshilov was named commander of a new Leningrad Front, with Popov as his chief of staff. But Stalin was still not happy, and the strain of constant defeats and retreats since June 22 was beginning to tell on him. That same day he sent a telegram to his foreign commissar, Vyacheslav Molotov, who was in Leningrad at the head of a high-powered political commission sent to examine the city’s defenses:

I fear that Leningrad will be lost by foolish madness and that Leningrad’s divisions risk being taken prisoner. What are Popov and Voroshilov doing? They don’t even report to us what measures they are thinking of taking against this danger. It is evident that they are busy looking for lines of retreat. Where do they get their enormous passivity and pure peasant fatalism from? What people—I can’t understand anything.… Do you think that someone is deliberately opening the road to the Germans in this decisive sector? Who is this person Popov? … I write about this because I’m very anxious about what for me is the incomprehensible inactivity of the Leningrad Command.

On September 9, Shlisselburg, on the banks of Lake Ladoga northeast of Leningrad, fell to the Germans, thus cutting the last land link to the city. Spurred to action, Stalin placed the trusted Zhukov in command of the Leningrad Front. According to Zhukov, on September 9 he was recalled urgently to Moscow and when he arrived that evening at the Kremlin he was ushered not to Stalin’s office but into the dictator’s private apartment. After a discussion about the situation in Leningrad Zhukov was ordered to fly to the city and take command. “You must be aware,” Stalin told him “that in Leningrad you will have to fly over the front line or over Lake Ladoga which is controlled by the German air force.” Stalin then gave Zhukov a note for Voroshilov—on which was written: “turn over command of the Front to Zhukov, and immediately fly to Moscow”—and told him that the order on his appointment would be issued when he arrived in Leningrad. “I realized,” wrote Zhukov, “that these words reflected concern that our flight might end badly.” Zhukov also discussed the impending fall of Kiev with Stalin and suggested that Timoshenko be appointed the new commander of the Southwestern Front and that General Konev should take over his Western Front command. Stalin “telephoned Shaposhnikov (Zhukov’s successor as chief of the General Staff) right away and instructed him to summon Marshal Timoshenko and transmit the order to Konev.” Zhukov’s flight to Leningrad the next day proved almost as dangerous as Stalin feared: when his plane reached Lake Ladoga it had to dive and fly low over the water pursued by two Messerschmitts.

While his flight to Leningrad may well have been as dramatic as Zhukov remembered, the rest of the story seems to be yet another colorful but inaccurate anecdote. According to the official record Zhukov met Stalin on September 11 in the dictator’s office, not in his apartment. The meeting began at 5:10 P.M. and lasted four hours. Shaposhnikov was present, as was Timoshenko. In the middle of the meeting—at 7:10—a directive was sent to the Leningrad Front on the change of command, as was the norm when announcing such decisions. A few minutes later the directives on the Konev and Timoshenko appointments were also issued.

Accompanying Zhukov to Leningrad were Generals I. I. Feduninskii, M. S. Khozin, and P. I. Kokorev. According to Feduninskii the plane took off for Leningrad on the morning of September 13 protected by fighters. He doesn’t mention being chased by Messerschmitts but then Feduninskii’s memoir was published during the Khrushchev era when Zhukov was in disgrace and his portrait of the new commander of the Leningrad Front was not very flattering. Indeed, Zhukov came across as rather vague and ill-informed, having no idea, for example, of what job he would give Feduninskii when they got to Leningrad. Even more negative was another Khrushchev era memoir, by General B. V. Bychevskii, chief of the Red Army’s engineering section in Leningrad. Bychevskii depicted Zhukov as a martinet, barking out orders and throwing his weight around to little effect.

It is not difficult to imagine Zhukov behaving boorishly. This was his favored way of asserting his authority when he took over a new command. Whether he was as ineffective as the Feduninskii and Bychevskii accounts suggest is another question. When Zhukov arrived in Leningrad the situation had taken a new turn for the worse. Having closed their encirclement of the city on September 9 the Germans were now probing for weaknesses in its defenses. Zhukov responded by ordering counterattacks. His general operational order on September 15 was:

1. Smother the enemy with artillery and mortar fire and air attacks, permitting no penetration of defenses.

2. Form five rifle brigades and two rifle divisions by 18 September and concentrate them in four defense lines for the immediate defense of Leningrad.

3. Strike the enemy in the flank and rear with the 8th Army.

4. Coordinate the 8th Army’s operation with the 54th Army, whose objective is to liberate the Mga and Shlissel’burg regions.

Two days later, on September 17, Zhukov and his Military Council issued an order on the defense of Leningrad’s vital southern sector: “all commanders, political workers and soldiers who abandon the indicated line without a written order from the front or army military council will be shot immediately.” Stalin wholeheartedly endorsed both the spirit and letter of Zhukov’s threat. On September 21 he wrote to Zhukov and the Military Council ordering them to pass on this message to local commanders:

It is said that, while advancing to Leningrad, the German scoundrels have sent forward among our forces … old men, old women, wives and children … with requests to the Bolsheviks to give up Leningrad and restore peace.

It is said that people can be found among Leningrad’s Bolsheviks who do not consider it possible to use weapons and such against these individuals. I believe that if we have such people among the Bolsheviks, we must destroy them … because they are afraid of the German fascists.

My answer is, do not be sentimental, but instead smash the enemy and his accomplices, the sick or the healthy, in the teeth. The war is inexorable, and it will lead to the defeat … of those who demonstrate weakness and permit wavering.…

Beat the Germans and their creatures, whoever they are, in every way and abuse the enemy; it makes no difference whether they are willing or unwilling enemies.

When Zhukov took command in Leningrad he had about 450,000 troops at his disposal, deployed in the 8th, 23rd, 42nd, and 55th Armies. Facing him were an equivalent number of German troops, although the Germans had two tank divisions, whereas Zhukov had none, and the Luftwaffe had complete air supremacy. In addition, fourteen Finnish divisions were attacking Leningrad and Soviet Karelia in the north. The main battle, however, centered on the southern approaches to Leningrad, where the Germans attained positions just a few miles from the city limits. The fighting ebbed and flowed throughout September but by the end of the month the Soviets had stabilized their defenses and the German attacks had petered out.

As the battle raged Zhukov found time to write to daughters Era and Ella:

Greetings to you from the front. As you would wish I am fighting the Germans at Leningrad. The Germans are suffering big casualties and are trying to take Leningrad but I think we will hold it and chase the Germans all the way to Berlin.

How are you getting on there? I want to see you very much but I think that only when I have beaten the Germans will I be able to come to you, or you to me. Write more often. I don’t have time—there is battle all the time.

I kiss you both affectionately.

Historians have differing opinions about Zhukov’s performance at Leningrad. According to David Glantz, “Zhukov’s iron will … produced a ‘Miracle on the Neva.’ ” In a similar vein John Erickson wrote, “in less than a month, Zhukov had mastered the gravest crisis, organised an effective defence and repaired morale, as well as restoring discipline which had crumpled disastrously before his arrival.” Evan Mawdsley was not so sure Zhukov achieved such striking success at Leningrad. Even before Zhukov’s arrival in Leningrad Hitler had begun to redeploy forces from Army Group North to support the coming attack on Moscow. The Germans may well have been able to take Leningrad had they persisted with a full-force attack deploying all Army Group North’s armor, argues Mawdsley, while the Russian historian Vladimir Beshanov points out that Zhukov was sent to Leningrad to lift the blockade—a task he came nowhere near to achieving.

One thing was certain: Zhukov’s reputation was growing. Khalkhin-Gol, Yel’nya, and now Leningrad—maybe not as great a success as the Zhukov legend came to suggest but relatively successful nevertheless. Zhukov was proving to be Stalin’s lucky general; wherever he went there was success, or at least the absence of defeat, and Zhukov’s achievements compared well with the disasters suffered elsewhere by the Red Army. Kiev fell in mid-September and the Germans marched on toward the Crimea and Rostov-on-Don—gateway to the Caucasus and the Soviet oilfields at Baku. In early October the Germans resumed their march on Moscow and achieved immediate results with massive encirclements of Soviet forces at Viazma and Briansk that resulted in the Red Army losses of another half million troops. Faced with yet another emergency, Stalin decided to recall Zhukov to Moscow. On October 5 Stalin phoned Zhukov in Leningrad and the following conversation took place:

STALIN: I have only one question for you: can you board a plane and come to Moscow. In view of complications on the left flank of the Reserve Front in the Ukhnov region Stavka would like your advice on the necessary measures. Maybe Khozin could take your place?

ZHUKOV: I ask for permission to fly out tomorrow morning at dawn.

STALIN: Very well. We await your arrival in Moscow tomorrow.

As Zhukov left Leningrad the city’s ordeal was just beginning. Leningrad was to remain encircled and besieged by German and Finnish forces for three more years. During the siege 640,000 civilians died of starvation while another 400,000 perished or disappeared during the course of forced evacuations, many into the icy waters of Lake Ladoga during the winter of 1941–1942. More than a million Soviet soldiers lost their lives fighting in the Leningrad region. The Germans tried on many occasions to breach the city’s defenses and to break the defenders’ resistance but never again came as close to success as in September 1941. In November–December 1941 the Red Army conducted a successful counteroffensive at Tikhvin east of Leningrad, which secured Moscow against a German encirclement maneuver from the northwest. Thereafter, Leningrad lost its strategic importance, except for the large numbers of enemy forces it pinned down (a third of the Wehrmacht in 1941).

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