l i f e o f t h e s w o r d r i c h a r d o v e r y
Saviour of Moscow Stalin’s General: The Life of Georgy Zhukov
By Geoffrey Roberts (Icon Books 375pp £25)
On a visit to the Lenin Museum out- side Moscow last year, I bought some trinkets from the small booth selling souvenirs. I saw two miniature diecast metal figurines, not very clearly, and asked to buy them. I assumed they would be models of Lenin. It turned out that one was Stalin and the other was a familiar military figure, Stalin’s deputy supreme commander, Marshal Georgy Zhukov. Lenin was nowhere to be found.
This says much about Russia today. As Geoffrey Roberts points out in this fine new biography of Zhukov, while the leaders who brought Russia to victory in 1945 are more popular than ever, the revolution is a more ambiguous and distant legacy. Zhukov is probably better known in the West than any other Soviet wartime commander. The upsurge of interest in present-day Russia, and the opening of most (though not all) former Soviet archives, now makes it possible to reassess Zhukov’s own history and perhaps also to understand better why he is the only soldier on sale at the Lenin Museum.
The tale Roberts tells is, on one level, well known. Zhukov was born into a humble cobbler’s household, became an apprentice furrier, fought in the First World War, joined the Red Army and the Bolshevik Party in 1918, survived the purges in the 1930s, became army chief of staff at the very young age of fortyfour in early 1941, was redeployed as a field commander and distinguished himself during the Yelnya Offensive. He was then sent off to Leningrad, saved Moscow, encircled Paulus at Stalingrad and finally stormed Berlin. Most earlier accounts of this meteoric career have relied heavily on Zhukov’s own memoirs, now available in several editions. Roberts does not indulge in cheap revisionism, but he does show where Zhukov was economical with the truth, or had forgotten what the truth was.
The result is a more accurate account of Zhukov’s military career and his contribution to the Soviet victory. Many Soviet generals, envious of his success and popularity, spent much of the postwar period trying to undermine Zhukov’s image and denigrate his abrasive military personality. There is no doubt that Zhukov was a tough commander, who bawled people out when he needed to, was keen on punishing incompetence and bad faith in those serving beneath him, and had a strong sense of his own operational infallibility. Yet as Roberts makes clear here, the Zhukov
Zhukov: award-winning myth is by no means all myth. He was a remarkably successful battlefield manager, a proletarian hero taking on the cream of Germany’s military aristocracy. There is a strong sense with Zhukov that operational skill is inherent at birth rather than learned.
Yet the one feature of Zhukov’s wartime career that stands out is his special relationship with Stalin. He became deputy supreme commander in late 1942, but he had to spend much of the war in Stalin’s close company, trying to fulfil the dictator’s wishes and mitigate the failures of his amateur grasp of military operations. Stalin was not, of course, a military simpleton and could understand a good deal of what was going on. But he was not a soldier and it was Zhukov’s great skill to be able to play Stalin sufficiently to get what he wanted. The reason for his success lies perhaps in Zhukov’s straightforwardness. Roberts has found a ‘celebrity questionnaire’ filled out by Zhukov late in his life in which he claimed that the characteristic he valued above all was integrity, and the one thing he could never forgive was betrayal. Zhukov spoke his mind to Stalin when others might have been more prudent; but prudence was not something Stalin valued.
In the end Zhukov was to find betrayal and a lack of integrity all around him. He basked briefly in his wartime glory in 1945, but the knives were out for him. When his name came up during the torture and interrogation of the wartime Soviet Air Force chief, Alexander Novikov, in 1946, Stalin manoeuvred to get Zhukov condemned for a lack of communist modesty. He was perhaps too famous to be given the Novikov treatment, but he was sent to run a military district in the Caucasus, and finally given an even smaller job at Sverdlovsk. Roberts speculates here on Stalin’s motives, though this kind of charade was surely typical of the way Stalin had played with people’s destinies in the 1930s. Once the war was over, the whole dangerous, messy and vindictive political structure was back in place. Stalin liked people to suffer a bit, even if he later tolerated their reinstatement.
The later Zhukov years are in some ways the most interesting, because they are the least known. Zhukov was rehabilitated just before Stalin’s death in 1953, having done his time. What followed was, according to Zhukov, one of the most important actions of his life. On the Politburo’s instructions he personally arrested the NKVD chief, Lavrentiy Beria, in the middle of a meeting and bundled him off to prison, where he was later executed. It is hard to imagine a more bizarre political system and it is no surprise that generations of Western Sovietologists puzzled over what made it tick. Zhukov did not really understand it either, and soon ran foul of his former wartime political commissar, Nikita Khrushchev. After a short spell as defence minister he was once again sacked, accused of Bonapartism.
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He retired to write his memoirs, which were sifted through by the censors to make them as politically correct as the ruling dispensation required. Now, almost forty years after his death in 1974, Russian soldiers can earn an Order of Zhukov.
The greatest disappointment in this well-written and meticulously researched biography is Roberts’s deconstruction of one of my favourite stories about Zhukov. In Moscow on 12 September 1942, with Stalingrad under attack, Zhukov is supposed to have whispered to the army chief of staff, in Stalin’s presence, about another possible strategy. The dictator’s ears pricked up and Operation Uranus, the famous encirclement of Paulus’s army, was born. Roberts cannot find any record that Zhukov was in Moscow with Stalin on that celebrated day. Did Zhukov make it up? I like to think just this once that Zhukov was right and the historical record at fault. To order this book for £20, see the Literary Review bookshop on page 13
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Keeping the Flame Alive In the Shadow of the General: Modern France and the Myth of De Gaulle By Sudhir Hazareesingh (Oxford University Press 238pp £18.99)
French historians have long been inter- ested in the Nachleben, or ‘after life’, of significant markers of national identity, arguably the greatest development in French historiography since the Annales School. Pierre Nora’s seven-volume Les Lieux de Mémoire is epic testament to that, all attractively abridged into the trilogy Realms of Memory for more casual AngloSaxon readers. The essays range from Joan of Arc to the Tour de France, via Jacobin festivals and the tricolor.
The Oxford historian Sudhir Hazareesingh has had the bright idea of giving similar monographic treatment to the Big Daddy of modern France: Charles de Gaulle, or ‘Pops’ as his security people called him. Unthinking Anglo-Saxons regard him as a Gallic marplot, rather than the great twentieth-century statesman he was – certainly the greatest Frenchman since Napoleon.
The initial steps in de Gaulle’s remarkable odyssey were not auspicious. A published tank expert and junior minister in the French government, de Gaulle realised that, though France was overrun by the Germans, it was a mighty empire and the Franco-German conflict was part of an unfinished global struggle. Hence he defied the capitulation of the Pétain government and, with Churchill’s blessing, raised the flag of resistance from his new base in London. On 18 June 1940 he broadcast his justly famous Appeal: ‘The flame of the French resistance must not be extinguished and will not be extinguished.’
Hidden away in Carlton Gardens is a statue commemorating the battles of the London years.
There this aloof, taciturn and touchy man fought off rival claimants to represent France, unifying the fractious Resistance and, despite the ill will of Roosevelt, returning in triumph to his country as national liberator, as symbolised by his famous march along the Champs-Elysées in August 1944. Having presided over the restoration of democracy, de Gaulle abruptly resigned in January 1946, believing that the Fourth Republic’s weak parliamentary set-up lacked enough governing power to achieve grandeur and national recovery. For more than a decade he sulked at his retreat at Colombey-lesDeux-Eglises in the Haute-Marne, until he returned in May 1958, at the height of the Algerian crisis, as first President of a Fifth Republic fashioned according to his authoritarian wishes. His decade of epic silence contrasted favourably with the constant chatter of the political classes.
It was during this second decade in power that the final element of Gaullism was put in place – the General was a doughty defender of French national interests, ready to abandon the Algerian settlers, and to defy the overweening Americans and their little insular client. He withdrew France from NATO’s joint command, he witheringly criticised the Vietnam War, and he repeatedly vetoed British membership of the EEC on the grounds that the island was a Trojan Horse for US interests. After failing to get his way in a referendum in early 1969, he resigned the presidency and retired to Colombey, where he died in November 1970.
Hazareesingh’s book is a painstaking reconstruction of the key elements of the legend, which began with the General’s own efforts in his War Memoirs to depict himself as the lone redeemer, and ended with the conversion of La Boisserie, his home at Colombey, into a national shrine (a Cross of Lorraine, forty-five metres high, accompanies a gravestone of monumental simplicity). As such, In the Shadow of the General is a useful example of the b o ok s hop
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