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SECOND TO NONE

- The story of a national icon

STALIN’S GENERAL: The Life of Georgy Zhukov By Geoffrey Roberts, Penguin, Rs 1,099

Commenting on the epic victory of Soviet arms at Stalingrad against Hitler’s four million Nazi invaders, and its stupendous aftermath, General Douglas MacArthur from the United States of America said: “I have participated in a number of wars and have witnessed others, as well as studying in great detail the campaigns of outstanding leaders of the past. In none of them have I observed such effective resistance to the heaviest blows of a hitherto undefeated enemy, followed by a smashing counter-attack which is driving the enemy back to his own land. The scale and grandeur of the effort mark it as the greatest military achievement in history.” Singling out the principal architect of this triumph, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who later became president of the US, wrote: “In Europe the war has been won and to no man do the United Nations owe a greater debt of gratitude than to Marshal Zhukov.”

Geoffrey Roberts, an eminent British historian and analyst of contemporary Russia, tells the story of a national icon. Born into a poor peasant family in central Russia, a boy whose father was a foundling left on the steps of a village orphanage by a distraught mother unable to cope with her straitened circumstances, and who was raised by a childless widow called Zhukov, the name gifted to her adopted son and his line — such is the laconic opening to Georgy Konstantinovich Zhukov’s two-volume Reminiscences and Reflections. The work, writes Roberts, is “an indispensable but problematic source,” requiring correction to its self-serving embellishments, which, surely, is true of the genre itself, from Montgomery to Churchill. If Roberts is to be Zhukov’s censor, Zhukov must be permitted the participant’s liberty to put flesh and blood, colour and nuance on the bare bones of the drier narrative compiled decades after the war.

Roberts, who is a Russian linguist, gained access to the archives in Moscow, including Zhukov’s personal files, and interviewed his daughter, Erra. His well-rounded portrayal, warts and all (Zhukov’s uncompromising Stalinist ruthlessness), of a larger-than-life figure deserves the widest possible audience.

Zhukov’s relationship with Stalin is endlessly fascinating. Both were products of a poor peasant environment, of tyrannical fathers and doting mothers; both owed their careers to the opportunities opened up by Russia’s October Revolution. The Great Patriotic War was their existential summit; the defence of the Soviet Union and the defeat of Nazi Germany exercised every fibre of their being, without let or hindrance. Zhukov on Stalin is riveting: “From the military standpoint I have studied Stalin most thoroughly, for I entered the war together with him and together with him I ended it.” Situating their ties in context, Roberts explains: “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.” The point of the book’s title is well taken.

Zhukov’s impressions of the Soviet warlord will repay the reader’s time: “He spoke Russian with a Georgian accent, but flawlessly... often used figures of speech, similes and metaphors... read widely and was extensively knowledgeable in many fields. His tremendous capacity for work, his ability quickly to grasp the meaning of a book, his phenomenal memory — all these enabled him to master during a single day, tremendous amount of factual data, which could be coped with only by a very gifted man.” About the Battle of Moscow — for Zhukov, the turning point of the war — “Stalin must be given credit for the enormous work in organizing the necessary strategic material and technical resources... With strictness and exactingness Stalin achieved the near impossible.” Stalin came into his own as a “splendid Supreme Commander-in-Chief,” having grasped the operational techniques of massed warfare consisting fronts and groups of fronts, “guided them with skill, thoroughly understanding complicated strategic situations... assisted by his natural intelligence and profound intuition.”

That Zhukov, the most decorated Soviet commander, was also chosen by Stalin to take the salute at the Victory Parade at Moscow’s Red Square on June 24, 1945 — to the stirring rhythms of Mikhail Glinka’s Glory (to the Russian motherland) — bespoke, surely, his leader’s high esteem. What, then, explains Zhukov’s descent from grace a year later? Roberts ascribes this to Stalin’s jealousy, for which no evidence is provided. After three years of obscurity at a distant posting, Zhukov’s return to favour commenced in late 1949. The rise to the post of defence minister, he believed, beckoned, when Stalin died in March 1953. Banishment and restoration remain, in Churchill’s words (used in a separate context), a “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”

After a brief spell as defence minister under Nikita Khrushchev, Zhukov faced dismissal. The orchestrated vilification of him included, sadly, a number of his former senior colleagues. Drawing on his reserves of fortitude, Zhukov weathered adversity with unyielding stoicism, despising and loathing Khrushchev, until Khrushchev’s enforced exit from office in October 1964. In 1965, at the mammoth 20th anniversary celebration of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany, Zhukov was greeted with an ovation, and his wartime exploits were extolled. His memoirs became an instant best-seller.

But the dark shadow of troubled family life took its toll. Zhukov divorced Alexandra Zhukova, his wife of many years, and the mother of their two daughters. His second marriage to the much younger Galina Zhukova ended in her early death from cancer. Zhukov’s picture at the funeral was that of a broken man. He died not long afterwards on June 18, 1974, aged 78, his remains committed with full honours to the Russian earth which, during his finest hours, he held inviolate.

Defender of Leningrad and Moscow, victor of Stalingrad and Kursk, spearhead of the all-conquering legions that stormed the ramparts of Berlin and brought down its last Nazi standard, Georgy Konstantinovich Zhukov, Marshal of the Soviet Union, stands alone, for Roberts, as the greatest field commander of the Second World War, his seat secure in the Valhalla of history’s greatest generals.

Zhukov’s statue aloft a horse, near the Kremlin wall, and the Zhukov medals struck in his honour by the armed forces of the new Russian Federation tell of a commanding presence from beyond the grave. Nulli secundus — Second to none.