The Voice of Russia:
Memories of Marshal Georgy Zhukov – legendary and invincible forty years after his death
by Olivia Kroth
Two dates are approaching to make us think again of Georgy Konstantinovich Zhukov (1896-1974), Marshal of the Soviet Union and victor of World War II, called the Great Patriotic War in Russia. On Victory Day, some fans of nostalgia might remember the image of the victorious Marshal gallopping on his white horse across Red Square during the first Victory Parade ever held, on the 9th of May 1945 in Moscow.
The other date to remember is the 18th of June 1974, the Marshal’s death day, forty years ago. He was the mastermind behind Soviet military operations between 1941 and 1945. Under his command the Red Army broke the Nazi military machine on Soviet territory, chasing the invaders back to Berlin. The seizure of the German capital in late April 1945 crowned the Marshal’s wartime record as a legendary, invincible military leader.
He not only saved his homeland from foreign occupation but also helped to liberate Europe from Nazi fascism. His combination of intelligence and strong will, talent for analysis and far-reaching vision were the reasons for this spectacular military career. Marshal Zhukov’s combat achievements became a worthy legacy in global military knowledge, exerting great influence on military theory in Russia and worldwide.
Georgy Konstantinovich Zhukov was born into a poor peasant family in Strelkova, a village of the Kaluga Governate, on the 1st of December 1896. After working on the fields, he was apprenticed to a furrier in Moscow at the age of 12. He completed his apprenticeship four years later and worked in the fur business until 1915, when he was conscripted into the Russian Army to serve in World War I. He performed with distinction in the cavalry, winning the Cross of Saint George twice. In 1917, Georgy Zhukov followed the Bolsheviks and joined the newly-raised Red Army. The Council of People’s Commissars had developed the conception that this army should “be formed from the class-conscious and best elements of the working classes”. Being a poor peasant’s son, the idea suited Georgy Zhukov well. He quickly grasped his chance of rising through military ranks.
The Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army grew into the national army of the Soviet Union. By 1930, it had become one of the largest armies in history. In the decade of the 1930s, the Red Army was mechanized under Joseph Stalin’s direction, receiving tank regiments and motorized infantry regiments. In 1932, the Soviet Union created its first armoured formations: the 11th and 45th Mechanized Corps. These tank-heavy formations with combat support forces could operate in the enemy’s rear without support from the front.
In 1938, Georgy Zhukov was promoted to command the First Soviet Mongolian Army Group against Japan’s Kwantung Army. He won the decisive Battle of Khalkin Gol with Soviet BT-5 and BT-7 tanks, supported by over 500 bombers and fighter planes. On the 31st of August 1939, the Japanese retreated and Commander Zhukov’s legendary rise began. In Mongolia he had tested the techniques he would later skillfully use against the Nazi Wehrmacht. The BT-tanks were improved and led to the development of the famous Soviet T-34 medium tanks, widely recognized as the best all-round general purpose tanks in World War II.
The Defense of Leningrad
On the 10th of September 1941, the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin gave Georgy Zhukov the command of the Leningrad Front, following the Nazi encirclement of the city. Commander Zhukov flew over Lake Ladoga and landed at the Rzhevka Airport. His task was to save the strategically important city with its Navy base. He ordered the deployment of artillery batteries, preparation of minefields and transfer of more Navy men from the Baltic Fleet to Leningrad. The commander’s three main objectives consisted of protecting fleeing civilians, stopping the Nazis from entering the city and organizing the inhabitants’ resistance.
In October 1941, Georgy Zhukov started attacks and counterattacks with support from land- and seabased artillery batteries. He was able to keep the Nazis out but the battle turned into a lengthy, deadly siege which lasted until the 27th of January 1944. Thousands of citizens died from hunger. The Wehrmacht’s plans of a quick “Blitzkrieg” were thwarted right from the beginning, due to Commander Zhukov’s unrelenting efforts. He flew to Leningrad many times between 1941 and 1944, overseeing all defensive operations, as well as the evacuation of 1.5 million civilians and important industries with their entire equipment.
In January 1943, he coordinated joint operations between the Leningrad Front, Volkhov Front and Baltic Fleet. Operation Iskra opened a passage between the besieged city and Lake Ladoga. Food and munition were transported into Leningrad on this narrow path. Finally the Red Army drove the Nazis back with the Leningrad-Novgorod Offensive. Georgy Zhukov was promoted to Marshal of the Soviet Union, the first Red Army commander to be granted this rank during the Great Patriotic War.
The Battle of Moscow
Georgy Zhukov went from Leningrad straight to Moscow, in the autumn of 1941, to win the Battle of Moscow, in which nearly 600.000 Nazis died. It was the first time they were defeated in a huge battle with millions of soldiers. “The Nazis did not expect Soviet resistance to be so strong. The deeper they moved into our country’s territory, the fiercer we became. When Hitler’s armies approached Moscow, every man and every woman here thought it imperative to resist the enemy. Their resistance grew by the day. The enemy was sustaining heavy losses, one after the other. In fact, Hitler’s best troops perished here. The Nazis believed the Red Army was not capable of defending Moscow but their schemes failed”, Marshal Zhukov said later, when looking back at this crucial point of the Great Patriotic War.
He won the battle by reinforcing his army’s two flanks, repositioning the central battle forces. It was a smart tactical change that ensured victory with relatively small losses on the Soviet side. Moscow remained under Soviet control. When the Nazis were worn out, having lost a large part of their equipment and supplies, Marshal Zhukov launched his counteroffensive, on the 6th of December 1941. The Red Army pushed the Nazis 400 kilometres away from Moscow. This triumph boosted the Marshal’s standing with Joseph Stalin immensely. The Soviet Commander-in-Chief praised him as the “Saviour of Moscow”.
In his typical style, Joseph Stalin said, “The Motherland and the Party will never forget the action of the Soviet commanders in the Great Patriotic War. The names of the victorious generals who saved the Motherland will forever be engraved in the honorary steles placed at the battlefields. Amongst these battlefields, there is one battlefield with exceptional meaning, and that is the great one at Moscow. The name of Comrade Zhukov, as a symbol of victory, will never be apart from this battlefield.”
In a biography with the title Stalin’s General: The Life of Georgy Zhukov, the British historian Geoffrey Roberts explains the relationship between both men, Stalin and Zhukov. This work was published by Icon Books in London and Random House in New York (2012). As a professor at the University College in Cork, he examined Russian military archives and Marshal Zhukov’s memoirs. The book is fairly objective, omitting any undue hostility towards the Soviet Union and Soviet leaders.
Geoffrey Roberts states that the Red Army’s original doctrine was offensive-orientated: “In the 1930’s, the Red Army developed the ideas of deep battle and deep operations, breaking through enemy defenses and taking territory by combined air, artillery, tank and infantry strikes, followed by envelopment or encirclement of enemy forces from the rear.” Later this doctrine evolved: “The Red Army learned how to defend and retreat, as well as attack. But being on the offensive remained primary.”
According to the professor, one reason for Joseph Stalin’s appreciation of Georgy Zhukov was that the Marshal “performed very well in both, attacking and counterattacking roles, as well as encirclement operations like the one at Stalingrad, in November 1942.” Marshal Zhukov “believed in Stalin and his leadership. He thought it necessary to defend the Soviet system, as well as accepting the need for hierarchy and a strong chain of command.” One of the Marshal’s sentences have become well-known: “Generalissimo Stalin directed every move, made every decision. He is the greatest and wisest military genius who ever lived.”
Memorial of General Zhukov in Kharkov, Ukraine
In Geoffrey Roberts’ opinion, Stalin and Zhukov shared the belief that “organization determines all”. The Soviet leaders thought their military theory and practice, based on Marxism, needed a scientific basis. This “led to precision and sophistication in military questions”. The author describes Marshal Zhukov as “meticulous in his preparations for battle. As a Marxist materialist, Zhukov believed that the side with superior forces would always prevail in the end, provided its leadership and organization were good”.
Overall, the historian judges Marshal Zhukov as “being committed to the Soviet system rather than having a deep understanding of Marxist theory”, which he did not need on the battlefield, as long as his tactics and strategy proved to be effective. He compensated with an immense capability for real-time comprehension and forecasting events. His intuitive perception, combined with detailed analysis, made him extremely successful. The Soviet soldiers in the trenches worshipped Marshal Zhukov. To them, his arrival always meant victory.
From Stalingrad and Kursk to Berlin
The Battle of Stalingrad, in 1941 and 1942, where the Nazis were encircled and crushed in a “Kessel”, was the turning point for the Soviet Army but the war continued for another three years. In March 1943, Marshal Zhukov organized the Voronesh Front, south of Kursk, in the area of the Ukrainian towns of Belgorod and Kharkov. He prepared defenses at Kursk, after having sent a telegram to Joseph Stalin: “I consider it inadvisable for our forces to go over to the offensive in the very first days of the campaign in order to forestall the enemy. It would be better to make the enemy exhaust himself against our defenses and knock out his tanks, then bring up fresh reserves to go over to the general offensive which would finally finish off his main force.”
Once more, his anticipation proved to be true. In a splendid counteroffensive he liberated Orel, Belgorod and Kharkov from Nazi occupation, in August 1943. With heavy artillery bombardment, Katyusha rocket launchers and air force, the Red Army maimed the Wehrmacht on Ukrainian territory. In September 1943, Marshal Zhukov re-organized the Voronesh and Steppe Fronts to become the 1st and 2nd Ukrainian Fronts. In October, he assaulted the Nazis in Kiev with the Soviet 3rd Guards and 7th Guards Tank Armies, driving the Wehrmacht out of the city. By April 1944, the Ukrainian Fronts had pushed the Nazis back to the Carpathian Mountains.
Monument for Marshal Zhukov in Moscow
In the Soviet summer offensive of 1944, Marshal Zhukov coordinated the 1st and 2nd Bielorussian Fronts. This proved to be the decisive Soviet victory which totally crippled the Nazis, chasing them completely out of Soviet territory. In July of that year, the Soviets won great victories with their 5th Tank Army in the Memel Offensive and the East Prussian Offensive at the 1st Prebaltic Front. In August, the Soviets captured Bulgaria and Romania, two Nazi allies. The Red Army entered Hungary and Yugoslavia, too. In September 1944, the Red Army needed a rest after relentless attacks and progress to the West. It had moved so fast that the logistic units and airbases needed time to follow up. In 1945, the last year of the Great Patriotic War, the Soviet forces destroyed all that had been left of the Nazis in Poland and reached the Oder-Neisse line at a distance of 68 kilometres from Berlin, on the 2nd of February 1945.
Marshal Zhukov was present in the Soviet headquarters in Kahlhorst, Berlin, when the Nazi officials signed the German Instrument of Surrender. He became the first Commander of the Soviet Zone in Germany. In May 1945, he signed three resolutions regarding the German people living in the Soviet Zone. Resolution 063, signed on the 11th of May, dealt with the provision of food. Resolution 064, from the 12th of May, initiated restoration work of destroyed buildings. Resolution 080, from the 30th of May, ordered milk supplies for German children. The Soviet Government sent 96.000 tons of grain, 60.000 tons of potatoes, 50.000 cattle and large amounts of sugar to Berlin. Marshal Zhukov advised his soldiers “to hate Nazism but respect the German population”.
In 1955, Marshal Zhukov was appointed Defense Minister of the Soviet Union. On his 60th birthday, in 1956, he was decorated as Hero of the Soviet Union for the fourth time, the highest ranking military in the Presidium of the Central Committee of the CommunistParty. In 1958, Marshal Zhukov wrote his memoirs, Reminiscences and Reflections. After their publication in 1969, they immediately became a bestseller. The author received more than 10.000 letters of praise from fans. He was also the recipient of 70 awards and orders during his lifetime, the most decorated Soviet military of the 20th century.
The British historian Geoffrey Roberts said in an interview: “Zhukov was not just a great general but a key figure in 20th century world history. It is hard to imagine now just how desperate the struggle was and what a Nazi victory in World War II would have meant.” The cost of winnning this war was extremely high for the Soviet Union. 80 percent of the entire combat took place on Soviet territory. The Red Army lost eight million people, with another 16 million wounded. Total Soviet losses amounted to 26 million lives. The USSR furthermore lost a third of its national wealth as a result of Nazi occupation.
In the Russian Federation of today people are thankful and understanding of what Marshal Zhukov did to save their homeland. Each Victory Day, his statue on Manezhnaya Square in Moscow is decorated with flowers. A minor planet, 2132 Zhukov, discovered in 1975 by the Soviet astronomer Ludmila Chernykh, is named after him. In 1996, the Russian Federation adopted the Order of Zhukov and the Zhukov Medal to commemorate the Marshal’s 100th anniversary of his birthday.