Zhukov, Georgy (1896–1974)

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ZHUKOV, GEORGY (1896–1974)


Soviet military commander.

Born a peasant, Georgy Konstantinovich Zhukov became the Soviet Union's leading commander during World War II before a stormy career in postwar Soviet politics. Drafted in 1915 into Russia's cavalry, Zhukov was decorated for bravery in World War I, volunteered for the new Soviet Army in 1918, and fought in the Russian civil war. Remaining in the army after the war, he rose quickly thanks to talent and a shortage of skilled officers after Joseph Stalin's devastating 1937–1938 purges. Sent to Mongolia in summer 1939, Zhukov decisively defeated the Japanese at the August 1939 battle of Nomonhan on the Khalkhin-Gol River between Mongolia and Manchuria. His skillful management of modern weaponry led to rapid promotion, making him by January 1941 the powerful chief of the General Staff. Alarmed by clear signals of the impending German attack, he argued in May 1941 for a Soviet spoiling attack to preempt the onslaught. Stalin rejected this immediately.

When Adolf Hitler did attack on 22 June 1941, Stalin's previous refusal to deal with the German threat and the damage his purges had inflicted on his own military led to disastrous defeats. By the end of July, Stalin removed Zhukov from the General Staff and dispatched him to the first of a series of temporary appointments. In September 1941 Zhukov organized the defense of Leningrad. In October, as the Germans neared Moscow, Stalin put Zhukov in command of the defense of the city, culminating in Zhukov's shattering December 1941 counterattack, driving the Germans back from Moscow and dooming Hitler's hopes for quick victory.

Zhukov's shifts from one crisis to another signaled the way Stalin ran the war through Stavka, the Soviet high command. Zhukov and a handful of other commanders became Stavka representatives—troubleshooters relaying directives from the center to front commanders, while also coordinating multiple fronts in major campaigns. As a Stavka representative, Zhukov played some role in most key battles on the eastern front.

Though Zhukov was a skilled and successful commander, albeit profligate with his soldiers' lives, his conduct of Operation Mars in fall 1942 remains controversial. Scholars have generally seen Mars, an assault on the German salient at the city of Rzhev, west of Moscow, as a minor diversion intended to distract the Germans from the more important counteroffensive at Stalingrad to the south. Historian David Glantz has argued instead that Zhukov's Mars was intended to equal the massive Soviet success at Stalingrad, but was retroactively termed a diversion only after Zhukov's attacks ground to a halt against German defenses.

By late 1944, growing Soviet expertise and a shortening front line meant Zhukov was no longer needed as a Stavka representative. He took over the powerful First Byelorussian Front for the final push into Germany. Bludgeoning his way across Poland in the winter of 1944–1945, Zhukov's goal of an immediate drive on Berlin was halted by stubborn German resistance and logistical strains from the rapid Soviet advance. Stalin now wished to limit Zhukov's growing prestige, pitting Zhukov's First Byelorussian Front against the First Ukrainian Front under I. S. Konev, Zhukov's rival, in a race to Berlin. Berlin fell to Zhukov in some of the bloodiest fighting of the war, and Zhukov accepted the German surrender on 8 May 1945.

Zhukov remained in Germany as commander of the occupying Soviet Group of Forces. Stalin, increasingly paranoid over Zhukov's popularity, demoted him in 1946, sending him to command the Odessa Military District and revoking his candidate membership in the Communist Party's Central Committee. Upon Stalin's death on 5 March 1953, Zhukov returned to favor, becoming deputy defense minister. He participated in the struggle for power among Stalin's successors, personally arresting Stalin's henchman Lavrenty Beria at a meeting of the party's Presidium on 26 June 1953. He became Soviet defense minister in 1955 and implemented substantial reductions in the Soviet military mandated by Nikita Khrushchev, head of the party.

In June 1957 Zhukov threw support behind Khrushchev in his struggle against the so-called Anti-Party Group of Georgy Malenkov, Lazar Kaganovich, and Vyacheslav Molotov, formerly Stalin's close associates. The military still held Stalin's inner circle responsible for the purges of the 1930s, and Khrushchev used this resentment to dispatch his enemies, rewarding Zhukov with promotion to full membership in the party's ruling Presidium.

Khrushchev's gratitude was short-lived, as Zhukov's fame convinced him Zhukov needed to be removed. While Zhukov was abroad in October 1957, Khrushchev attacked his neglect of the importance of the Communist Party inside the Soviet military. He was removed as minister of defense and hauled before the Central Committee for a humiliating catalog of his failings, ending his military career. Zhukov went into unhappy retirement, writing memoirs and refighting old battles over conduct of the war. He died in 1974.

See alsoSoviet Union; Stalingrad, Battle of; World War II.


Chaney, Otto. Zhukov. Rev. ed. Norman, Okla., 1996.

Glantz, David M. Zhukov's Greatest Defeat: The Red Army's Epic Disaster in Operation Mars, 1942. Lawrence, Kans., 1999.

Spahr, William. Zhukov: Rise and Fall of a Great Captain. Novato, Calif., 1993.

Zhukov, Georgi K. Marshal Zhukov's Greatest Battles. Translated by Theodore Shabad. New York, 1969.

David R. Stone