Stalin's General: The Life of Georgy Zhukov.
By Geoffrey Roberts NY: Random House, 2012, 377 pages
The man. The myth. The legend. In the past, much has been written in regards to Soviet General Georgy Zhukov in each of these aspects. However, the past several decades have seen very little published on Zhukov. This is intriguing for two reasons. First, during this period, vast amounts of previously unavailable material tied to the Soviet World War II efforts have been released from the Soviet archives. Second, there has seemingly been a recent resurgence in the publishing of World War Il-related books and specifically, biographies on the war's leading figures.
Author Geoffrey Roberts has seized an opportunity to release a much needed new biography on Zhukov entitled Stalin's General: The Life of Georgy Zhukov. In a relatively short volume, Roberts has written a very focused discussion of Zhukov. Those seeking a detailed analysis of every battle fought on the eastern front will not find it in this book. What they will discover in Roberts' pages is perhaps the best personalization of Zhukov that any biographer has captured.
Within his volume, Roberts states, "The Zhukov legend has continued to grow in post-Soviet times. But new sources of evidence make it possible to disentangle the seductive myth from the often ordinary reality and to truly capture the complexity and contradictions of a man who rose from peasant poverty to become a great general and a hero not only to the Russian people but to all those who value his incomparable contribution to the victory over Nazi Germany."
Roberts meets the challenge of providing readers a concise, superb understanding of Zhukov because of several factors. First, he benefits from his expertise in 20th century Soviet history, which includes publishing six previous books in this genre (volumes on Stalin, the Soviet entry into World War II, and the Battle of Stalingrad). Second, Roberts has done an excellent job of culling the new material tied to Zhukov and determining what readers would find beneficial. Finally, the author stays on task throughout the volume and does not stray into areas that previous books on Zhukov have focused on.
I believe readers will find three relationships which Roberts' emphasizes within the book particularly beneficial in understanding Zhukov. These are: Zhukov's relationship with his family, Zhukov's complicated relationship with Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev, and finally Zhukov's relationship with history. In each of these, Roberts provides details and analysis previously missing in prior studies of Zhukov. Let me elaborate on each of these relationships below.
Of all the above relationships, clearly the one least addressed by historians is Zhukov's relationship with his family. Roberts utilizes numerous newly found resources to aid in painting this picture. Within this image, he discusses many events and facets of his family life including details on his marriage and eventual divorce to his first wife, Alexandra; his affair and the death of his second wife, Galina; and his relationship with his children (sometimes rocky). Roberts provides a rare glimpse into a side of Zhukov most of us have overlooked or erroneously believed somehow did not exist.
Any author writing a biography on Zhukov would be remiss if he did not address his relationships with Stalin and Khrushchev. Clearly, each of these was far more complex than the average reader assumes. Additionally, they did not end up well for Zhukov (dismissed by each). Roberts dissects these relationships (in particular with Stalin) very effectively.
I believe Roberts is at his best when he discusses the battle Zhukov fought in his later years in his attempt to revive his legacy and rebuild his reputation. In particular, two areas stand out in this discussion. First, he provides significant background on the events leading to Zhukov being essentially written out of the Soviet history of World War II for many years. Second, he presents in-depth analysis on the subsequent steps Zhukov took to regain his position in the Soviet record. The key action being the writing of his memoirs, in which Roberts seeks to separate fact from fiction within Zhukov's pages.
I have found that most military biographers find it difficult to remain relatively unbiased in their analysis of their subjects. Many tend to be too lavish in their praise while a smaller percentage utilize their volume to attempt to tarnish the achievements and performance of their subjects. I believe Roberts has strived to be as balanced as possible. Readers will not mistake Roberts's great respect and admiration for Zhukov within his pages. However, they will find that the author is also highly critical of Zhukov's decisions and some of his traits.
In conclusion, those desiring significant detail on the battles of the eastern flank would be far better served with a David Glantz book. Others seeking a biography focused more on Zhukov the general should obtain volumes written by Otto Preston Cheney or William Spahr. However, those who want an excellent foundation on beginning to understand Zhukov must read Stalin's General. Unquestionably, Roberts has chipped away at the myth, verified parts of the legend, and most importantly, captured the man.
Reviewed by LTC (Retired) Rick Baillergeon