Georgy Zhukov achieved fame as perhaps the most successful Soviet military commander of the Second World War. In the post-war Victory Parade in Moscow’s Red Square, Zhukov stole the show, inspecting the troops mounted on a white stallion. Adored by the public and respected by international opinion, Zhukov’s position was always going to be vulnerable given Stalin’s innate jealousy. Sure enough, in 1946, Zhukov, heavily criticised for being ‘politically unreliable’, was dismissed and dispatched to a position of diminished responsibility in Odessa. On arrival, he suffered a heart attack, probably brought on by the stress of his ordeal.
Known for his uncompromising discipline, Georgy Zhukov placed strategic objective far above the safety of the men he put into battle. Yet, despite his toughness, he could be rendered a wreck by a single harsh word from Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin. During the early days of the war, he was once reduced to tears by an angry Stalin and had to take the handkerchief offered by Vyacheslav Molotov.
Zhukov first saw action during the First World War, where, renowned for his bravery, he was twice decorated. He then fought with the Red Army against the Whites during the Russian Civil War of 1917-23 and quickly rose through the ranks. He survived Stalin’s great 1930s purge of the military to command an army during the Soviet-Japanese Border Wars of 1938-39.
World War Two
He played a major role during the Great Patriotic War, as Russians call the Second World War, commanding forces in the defence of Leningrad, holding the Germans at bay at Moscow, and instrumental in defeating the Germans at the Battle of Stalingrad. He went on to command victory at the Battle of Kursk and led the Red Army’s capture of Berlin in May 1945. ‘Where you find Zhukov, you find victory,’ became a popular saying within the Red Army. He was present when, following Hitler’s suicide, Germany surrendered to the Soviet Union.
Following Stalin’s death in 1953, Zhukov helped Nikita Khrushchev to power, arresting Khrushchev’s main rival for power, Lavrenti Beria. Beria was executed in December 1953 and with Khrushchev now in power, Zhukov was called back to the Kremlin as Deputy Defence Minister, elevated two years later to Defence Minister. However, Zhukov was never comfortable as a politician, much preferring the life of a soldier. He argued with Khrushchev’s vision of how the military should be developed and tried to diminish the Politburo’s influence on how the military was run. Zhukov was again sidelined.
Georgy Zhukov died on 18 June 1974 and was buried within the Kremlin Wall with full military honours.
See also Stalin: History In An Hour.
Rupert Colley’s novel, The Black Maria, a chilling tale set in Stalinist Moscow, is now available.