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Russia's Architect of Victory: Interview with Geoffrey Roberts on Georgy Zhukov

Geoffrey Roberts is the author of Stalin’s Wars and Victory at Stalingrad. He is professor and head of the School of History at University College Cork, Ireland. Roberts is a frequent contributor to British, Irish, and American newspapers and to popular-history journals and has been a consultant for TV and radio documentaries.

His latest book is Stalin's General: The Life of Georgy Zhukov, based on new research in the Russian archives. The book not only examines Zhukov’s record during World War II, but also his political and personal life. I recently conducted an email interview with Roberts about the book.

Why do you think Georgy Zhukov merits a biography in 2012?

It's because he played such a central role in the defining event of our epoch -- the Second World War. Zhukov’s partnership with Stalin was critical to Soviet success in defeating Hitler and the Nazis. It’s not for nothing that Zhukov remains Russia’s national hero. Zhukov’s generalship was pivotal in all the great battles of the Soviet-German war -- Leningrad, Moscow, Stalingrad, Kursk, and Berlin. The Soviet victory over the Nazis led to the further spread of communism, to the Cold War, and then to the post-Cold War world in which we live. Zhukov was not just a great general, but a key figure in twentieth-century world history.

There have been other biographies of Zhukov, but they were heavily reliant on his own memoirs, which were censored as well as being quite self-serving. His biographers have tended to concentrate on the war, neglecting other periods of his life. My biography is based on my research into thousands of original documents from Soviet military archives and on his personal file series in the Russian State Military Archives, which contains private correspondence as well as different versions of his memoirs. Stalin’s General is the first complete critical biography of Zhukov based on such independent evidence and giving due weight to his prewar life and postwar career.

Zhukov’s life is also an eternally interesting human story -- a rags-to-riches story of a peasant lad who rose to become the greatest general of the Second World War. His postwar political career was equally spectacular. Demoted by a jealous Stalin and exiled to the provinces, he made a political comeback after the dictator’s death in 1953 but his popularity was too much for Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin’s successor as party leader, who dismissed Zhukov as Defense Minister in 1957. Undeterred, Zhukov spent the last years of his life struggling for the truth, as he saw it, about what the Soviets called the Great Patriotic War -- another battle that he won, and that restored his place in the Soviet and Russian military pantheon.

Zhukov’s personal life also had its ups and downs and complications. He was married twice and unfaithful to his first wife, having at least three serious affairs and fathering two daughters outside his marriage as well as two daughters within it. But all of the women in his life -- wives, mistresses and daughters -- were fiercely loyal to him. The same was true of many military comrades and colleagues. But his brutal, uncompromising and often coarse leadership style evoked the hostility of many of his peers on the receiving end of his tirades. However, even his worst enemies acknowledged his military talent and dedication to duty. In old age Zhukov mellowed a bit and even acquired a little humility. He became more emotionally expressive and showed a more complex and reflective character behind his public persona as a tough military commander.

When I started work on this book I was a skeptic and I expected to write a strongly critical biography of Zhukov. But during the course of my research I have been won over by Zhukov and the resulting book is a more positive account of his life and career than I’d anticipated. At the same time my skeptical attitude has helped balance the natural empathy that a biographer develops for his subject and the result is, I hope, a biography that pulls no punches and gives due weight to Zhukov’s mistakes and shortcomings as well as his great achievements.

Today there is a school of thought which seeks to recast the period of the 30s and 40s not as one of World War, but the rule of homicidal monsters in the form of Hitler and Stalin. For example, Timothy Snyder, in a rather fantastic inversion writes, “Stalin allowed Hitler to begin a war.” How do you respond to those who want rewrite the history of World War II in this way? Why do you think the historiography taking such a turn?

Hitler was intent on war in any event. In reality, Stalin did a deal with Hitler in the form of the Nazi-Soviet pact, keeping the USSR out of the war for a couple of years, because he didn’t believe British and French promises that if the Soviets were to ally with them they’d fully and wholeheartedly fight the Germans should Hitler attack Poland. When Germany invaded Poland in September 1939 Britain and France declared war but indeed did little to help the Poles. Had the Soviet Union allied itself with Britain and France the brunt of the war with Germany would have fallen on the Red Army from the beginning. Indeed, that’s what happened after the Germans invaded Russia in June 1941. Some people argue that the Soviets should have taken a stand in 1939, irrespective of their suspicions of Britain and France. I’m not sure this would have been a wise course of action.

I do think the critics of Soviet policy are on stronger ground when they say Stalin’s collaboration with Hitler was over-enthusiastic and that for a time the Soviet dictator succumbed to the illusion that a long-term partnership with Nazi Germany was possible. Of course, the period of the Nazi-Soviet pact is loaded with controversial events -- the Red Army’s invasion of Eastern Poland, the takeover of the Baltic States, the Winter War with Finland -- but I have written about these extensively in Stalin’s Wars and in other books and many articles. They don’t figure so much in Stalin’s General because Zhukov was in the Far East at the time. He was in Mongolia, where he fought a famous battle against the Japanese Kwantung Army in August 1939 -- his first battle and victory as a general. It was that defeat which helped to persuade the Japanese to desist from expanding at the expense of the Soviet Union and instead turned them to Southeast Asia, a course which led to the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

I am a great admirer of much of Snyder’s work. In fact, I have a forthcoming article on "Stalin’s Vision of the Postwar Peace" in a book edited by him. His account in Bloodlands of the consequences for civilian populations of the Soviet-German clash tells an important part of the story, but I don’t see it as the whole picture. It’s a pity Snyder’s work has become associated with the recent revival of Cold War ideological polemics in which Hitler and Stalin and the Soviet and Nazi systems are depicted as being equivalent and as bad as each other. During the war, when the battlefields were soaked with the blood of millions of Soviet soldiers, it was a different story. The Red Army was credited in the West with saving European civilization and Stalin was hailed as a hero and a great war leader. As I argued in Stalin’s Wars and again in Stalin’s General, it was (ironically) Stalin and the Soviets who helped saved liberal democracy, as well as the communist system, from the Nazis. After the war, central and eastern Europe found itself part of an authoritarian communist bloc, but the region was not exactly a showcase for democracy before World War II -- and don’t forget that Bulgaria, Croatia, Finland, Hungary, Rumania and Slovakia all fought alongside Germany, while many citizens of the Baltic states were active collaborators in Hitler’s projects.

You have a passage of Zhukov assessing Stalin’s leadership during the war: “More often than not people blame Stalin for these errors and miscalculations... Now that the consequences are known, nothing is easier than to return to the beginning and expound all sorts of opinions. And nothing is more difficult than to probe the substance of the problem in its entirety -- the battle of various forces, the multitude of opinions and facts--at the given moment in history.” How do you view that statement?

By defending Stalin, Zhukov was defending himself. At the 20th Party Congress in 1956 Stalin’s war leadership was attacked by Khrushchev in the so-called Secret Speech. When Zhukov fell out with Khrushchev he, too, came under attack from Khrushchev’s supporters. A particular target was the Soviets’ failure to be fully prepared for the German attack in June 1941. At the time Zhukov was Chief of the General Staff and the Khrushchevites argued that Zhukov shared with Stalin the responsibility for the ensuing military disaster when Soviet defenses crumbled, the Red Army lost millions of men, and the Wehrmacht pushed forward to Leningrad, Moscow and Rostov. Zhukov countered that Soviet defenses were as ready as they could be in the given circumstances and that after the event it is easy for armchair generals to say what could have or what should have been done when, at the time, the situation had not been so clear cut.

In unpublished drafts of his memoirs Zhukov was less defensive and more willing to admit mistakes. For example, he agreed with critics that the Red Army was too offensive-minded and lacked an adequate doctrine of the defensive. He accepted, too, that as Chief of the General Staff -- he was appointed in February 1941, just a few months before the German attack -- he was ill-prepared to deal with the German invasion and did not anticipate the massive weight of the initial attack launched on June 22, 1941.

Could you talk about Zhukov and Stalin’s position on the “offensive”, and how it evolved from Barbarossa to Stalingrad to Berlin?

The Red Army was offensive-oriented in doctrine, disposition and ethos. In the 1930s the Red Army developed the ideas of “deep battle” and “deep operations”. These were a more sophisticated version of what was later called blitzkrieg -- deep strikes breaking through enemy defenses and taking territory by combined air, artillery, tank and infantry operations, followed by envelopment or encirclement of enemy forces from the rear. Neither Stalin nor Zhukov originated this strategic concept, but they imbibed its offensive spirit and it melded well with the Soviet political culture of using shock tactics and special forces to attack economic and social problems. One reason for Zhukov’s appointment as Chief of the General Staff was that he performed very well in both attacking and counter-attacking roles in war games the Soviets held in January 1941. When the Germans attacked in June 1941 plans to counter-attack were implemented but with disastrous results as the Soviet forces’ advances left them vulnerable to encirclement. As Roger Reese has recently pointed out, its offensivist orientation meant the Red Army was doctrinally and practically ill prepared to escape from encirclements, although many individual soldiers and units did manage to do so.

During the war the Red Army’s doctrine evolved and it learnt how to defend and retreat as well as attack. But being on the offensive remained primary. Zhukov tended to favor encirclement operations like the one at Stalingrad in November 1942, while Stalin was wary of such operations because of the number of times the Germans escaped encirclement. He preferred to advance steadily across a broad front and to occupy and hold territory. But Zhukov and Stalin shared a predilection for large-scale strategically ambitious operations that were often beyond the capability of the Red Army. Only by the end of the war -- when the Germans were effectively beaten -- was the Red Army able successfully to match their actions with their ambitions, albeit at high cost in terms of casualties and material losses.

How high were these losses?

The statistics tell the story: 80 percent of all the combat in World War II took place on the Eastern Front, where the Germans suffered 90 percent of their casualties -- 10 million, including 3 million dead. The Red Army lost 8 million with another 16 million wounded. Total Soviet losses were 25-26 million people. The USSR lost a third of its national wealth as a result of German occupation of the most densely populated and developed areas of the country. The Red Army’s losses during the battle for Stalingrad alone were higher than British and American losses during the whole war. The battle for Berlin -- captured by Zhukov in May 1945 -- cost the Soviets 300,000 casualties, including 80,000 dead.

It is often said that Zhukov and Stalin were profligate with the lives of their soldiers and did not care about casualties. The two men were ruthless enough to do what it took to win a brutal life and death struggle with the Nazis but they were concerned to conserve and make effective use of their forces -- which were by no means unlimited. The cost of winning the war was extremely high but it was the price that had to be paid to defeat the Germans. The Germans and their Axis allies must take most of the blame for the casualty rates, not profligate Soviet generals. Zhukov and Stalin certainly made many mistakes costly in terms of human lives for which they can be criticized. But they did learn from those mistakes and went on to win a great victory against the Nazis for which most people were thankful and understanding of the high human cost involved. It’s hard to imagine now just how desperate the struggle was and what a Nazi victory would have meant.

You have this intriguing passage about him struggling to read Capital and Lenin, but to what degree did Zhukov being a communist impact him militarily?

For Zhukov being a communist meant being committed to the Soviet system rather than having a deep understanding of Marxist theory. Soviet political culture certainly impacted on Zhukov. It informed his grandiose strategic ambitions and underpinned his commitment to discipline, commitment and vigor as a means to military success. The Soviets also believed that their military theory and practice, based as it was on Marxism, had a scientific basis. Whether that is true or not it led to a certain rigor, precision and sophistication when it came to Soviet discussions of military questions. Zhukov was no great strategic thinker but he was educated in this tradition and it influenced his meticulous preparations for battle. As a Marxist materialist Zhukov also believed that the side with the superior forces would always prevail in the end, provided its leadership and organization were good. Stalin famously said "organization determines all" -- an attitude that Zhukov shared.

How could Zhukov be determined, farsighted, and ruthless in battle, yet so obsequious politically?

I don’t think he was obsequious. He believed in Stalin and his leadership and thought it necessary to defend the Soviet system, as well as accepting the need for hierarchy and a strong chain of command. But when the dictator attacked him after the war his response was quite dignified. He reaffirmed his loyalty but denied any wrong-doing. The same thing happened when he was sacked by Khrushchev, except that he had far less respect for Stalin’s successor. In retirement Zhukov battled tenaciously for the truth as he saw it to be told about the successes and failures in World War II.

It seems to me that Zhukov did suffer from some hubris at the end the war, and again when he was Minister of Defense under Khrushchev -- not altogether surprising given the acclaim for his military record. But such hubris combined with political naivety to make him vulnerable to intrigue and scapegoating. Zhukov was a military man and a bit of a loner, not a politician, and he didn’t have people around him offering good political advice that might have kept him out of trouble. Having said that, Zhukov’s posthumous reputation has fared much better than Stalin’s or Khrushchev’s!

You have taken on an onerous task, writing about key people in the Soviet Union; Stalin, Molotov, and now Zhukov who, no matter how extraordinary they are, because of the society they were living in --and in no small part because of their efforts -- was at times brutal beyond imagination. How do you keep your historical compass on point in analyzing such people? How do you resist the pull toward resounding judgement and simple-minded explanation?

In my youth I was a severe critic of the Soviet system and I retain the liberal and democratic ethos that informed my critique of Soviet authoritarianism. Over time I have become more appreciative of the idealistic dimensions of the Soviet experiment in socialism, if not their consequences. But that has not blinded me to its massive failings and drawbacks. The Soviet Union was responsible for some of the most epic achievements and most gross misdeeds of our age. At the epicenter of this contradictory history were Stalin and key lieutenants such as Molotov and Zhukov. I keep my historical compass on point by striving to see the situation through their eyes, as it presented itself to them at the time, whilst trying to maintain a balanced, independent view of the broader context in which such events took place. I have no difficulty in joining the condemnation of the Soviet system’s violence, terror and repression. But if you believe force and oppression were the only factors driving the Soviet Union then you will never understand why the USSR lasted so long and achieved so much, not least the victory over Hitler. If we don’t acknowledge the roles of ideology and aspiration in creating political systems we will be ill-prepared to face the challenges of dynamic and powerful authoritarian politics in the future.