Of the Soviet Union’s World War Two military leaders, Marshal Zhukov was the most celebrated, both at home and in the West. Broad-faced, stocky, plain-spoken with a touch of swagger, Georgy Konstantinovich epitomised Russian solidity and resolve. The commander with the golden touch, Stalin’s favourite, he seemed to be everywhere during the war: stopping the Germans entering Leningrad in the autumn of 1941; commanding the defence of Moscow; co-ordinating Soviet forces in the battle of Stalingrad; heading the westward drive on the Belorussian Front in 1944; taking Berlin and accepting the German surrender in May 1945. Zhukov was the man on the white horse who led the victory parade in Red Square.
Such a popular and charismatic figure was not going to get by without having problems. Both in Stalin’s time and in Khrushchev’s, there were periods of demotion and disgrace, but Zhukov sat them out, and always bobbed up again. His career under Khrushchev in the 1950s was almost equally spectacular: he took part in the arrest of Beria in June 1953; actively supported both de-Stalinisation and the Hungarian invasion as defence minister in 1956; and in 1957 rescued Khrushchev from the challenge of the Anti-Party Group. At the Geneva summit in 1955, he made the cover of Time, pictured with an air of stern determination in front of a heavily fortified Kremlin, as if he were the Soviet leader. Even in his periods of disgrace, the Russian people loved him and saw him as one of them, or so we are told. His reputation rose even further posthumously with the collapse of the Soviet Union. A statue was erected next to the Kremlin in Yeltsin’s time. State prizes and medals were created in his name, the citations noting that he had ‘accepted the surrender of Nazi Germany’ in May 1945, a literally accurate if somewhat misleading statement presumably intended to downplay Stalin’s significance to the war effort. The Yeltsin-era celebration indeed was so extensive that Putin must have had difficulty topping it. He did his best, however, laying flowers on a monument to Zhukov in Ulan Bator in May 2009. Comparisons with the great commanders of the Napoleonic Wars, Mikhail Kutuzov and Aleksandr Suvorov, were commonplace. And it wasn’t only Putin and Medvedev who sought to cover themselves with Zhukov’s mantle: last spring, anti-Putin demonstrators organised an overnight vigil at his statue by the Kremlin.
Zhukov’s was a typical Soviet success story, of upward mobility via Bolshevik Party membership and Red Army service in the Civil War. Born in 1896 in the village of Strelkovka, eighty miles from Moscow in the central industrial region, the son of a cobbler and a poor peasant, he was sent to Moscow to work for his uncle as an apprentice furrier after three years in a parish primary school. His lifelong drive to educate himself started in Moscow, where it included learning German from his cousin, the boss’s son, who had been sent to Germany to learn the language for the family business – this branch of the family clearly wasn’t so lowly. By the start of World War One the young Georgy had finished his apprenticeship and was earning good money as a furrier. ‘A photograph of him and his fellow furriers dating from this time shows affluent, smartly dressed young urbanites seemingly confident of their future,’ Geoffrey Roberts tells us, speculating that, but for the war and then the Revolution, Zhukov would have ended up as a solid member of the bourgeoisie, a furrier with his own business. The war set him on a different path. Conscripted in the summer of 1915 and assigned to a cavalry regiment, he was soon the recipient of two St George Crosses for valour and was sent off for training as an NCO. But then came the Revolution, and after his unit was disbanded Zhukov went back to his village (official biographies report a long bout of typhoid, though Roberts suggests that he was waiting to see which way the political wind blew). In September 1918, he was plucked from the village again and conscripted into the Red Army, fighting with distinction on various fronts in the Civil War. Like many other Red Army soldiers, he joined the Bolshevik Party in 1919. He was now commissioned as a junior officer, and collected an Order of the Red Banner in 1921 for his service putting down the Tambov rebellion. He also collected a wife, Aleksandra Dievna Zuikova, a schoolteacher he met in Voronezh. According to his daughter Era, Georgy and Aleksandra worked hard together to make up for the deficiencies of his formal education – Aleksandra gave him regular dictations to improve his written Russian.
He was a division commander by 1933 and a corps commander by 1938. There were some bad moments during the Great Purges of 1937-38, in which so many high-ranking military officers perished, but Zhukov was still a step below them, and emerged an (involuntary) beneficiary. In 1939, he was posted to the Mongolian-Manchurian border and came to national prominence for the first time with the defeat of the Japanese at Khalkhin-Gol. This brought him the title of Hero of the Soviet Union and Stalin’s personal attention. The two met in the summer of 1940, around the time of Zhukov’s promotion to general, and each was impressed by the other. Zhukov found Stalin down to earth, sensible and well-informed on military matters, and wondered why rumour made him out to be such a fearsome character.
The disastrous early years of World War Two destroyed many military reputations, but Zhukov’s rose, as the man whose arrival on the scene invariably turned things around. Stalin was the supreme commander of Soviet military forces, but from August 1942 Zhukov was his deputy – in effect, the country’s top military man. Commander on a variety of fronts, promoted to marshal in 1943, victor of Stalingrad and Berlin, he was the hero of the hour in May 1945, as Stalin acknowledged by giving him the key role in the victory parade. Some were surprised by this modesty on Stalin’s part, but Stalin’s son Vasily later claimed that Stalin had fallen off his horse during a rehearsal and decided not to risk it.
After the war, Zhukov headed the Soviet occupation forces in Germany until he was called back to Moscow in March 1946. Typically, Stalin called him back to become commander in chief of Soviet ground forces, then within a few months abruptly demoted him, first with an appointment as commander of the Odessa military district and then to the even more insignificant job of commander in the Urals. From Stalin’s point of view, no doubt, he was too bright a star to be allowed to shine undimmed. It was said that Zhukov was given to exaggerating his own role in the war and spoke disrespectfully of Stalin’s. He was dropped from the party Central Committee. Then he was accused of bringing war booty back from Germany, and his apartment and dacha were subjected to a humiliating house search by the security police, resulting in the confiscation of furniture, works of art and jewellery. (Bringing back ‘trophy goods’ was a common practice among Soviet occupation officers and the authorities generally turned a blind eye, but Zhukov, whose haul included Gobelin tapestries, may have exceeded the norm.) Worst of all, his name was disappearing from histories, books, paintings and films about the war, turning him – like Trotsky, the Red Army’s leader in the Civil War – into a non-person. The taboo was starting to lift, however, by the early 1950s, when the new edition of The Great Soviet Encyclopedia gave him an entry and he was restored to membership of the Central Committee. According to Roberts, Zhukov felt he was on his way back into Stalin’s favour and even hoped to be appointed minister of defence.
Stalin’s death intervened, catapulting Zhukov once again up into the heights of Soviet celebrity. As Stalin lay dying, he was urgently summoned to Moscow by Stalin’s presumptive heirs, and attended the top-level meeting of 5 March 1953, when dispositions for the post-Stalin era were decided on, including Zhukov’s appointment as deputy minister of defence. He was in the military guard of honour at Stalin’s funeral on 9 March and, as he later recalled, sincerely mourned him, despite their rocky relations in later years. He did yeoman service for the new ‘collective leadership’ a few months later, when its most dangerous and ambitious member, the security chief Lavrenty Beria, was ousted and subsequently executed; Zhukov was the man who, at Khrushchev’s behest, physically took Beria into custody while the political leaders looked on nervously. In February 1955, he succeeded Bulganin as minister of defence. Accompanying Khrushchev to the Geneva summit in July of the same year, he almost overshadowed his boss, who can scarcely have enjoyed reading Time’s characterisation of Zhukov as the ‘nearest thing the Soviet Union has to a popular hero; the victorious Red Army [being] its only esteemed public institution’. By 1957, Zhukov was a full member of the country’s top political decision-making body, the Presidium, as the Politburo was then known, an unusual achievement for a professional military man.
Zhukov supported Khrushchev in his ongoing struggle with Molotov, Malenkov and other Stalinist luminaries of the collective leadership. When the challengers seemed on the brink of success in the Presidium in June 1957, Khrushchev and Zhukov had the brilliant notion of taking the matter to an extraordinary plenary meeting of the Central Committee, whose members were flown into Moscow from the provinces on military planes provided by Zhukov. But politics is an ungrateful business. Within a few months of the Anti-Party Group’s ousting in the summer of 1957, Khrushchev was starting to find Zhukov and his celebrity intolerable, just as Stalin had done. After a PR triumph with his much publicised tour of Burma and India (where the old cavalryman was photographed on an elephant), Zhukov expected similarly generous coverage of a trip he made to Yugoslavia in the autumn. When it was not forthcoming, he complained to Khrushchev, adding some admonitory words about not offending Yugoslavia (recently readmitted by Khrushchev to Soviet favour, after Stalin’s break with Tito) and not kowtowing to China. Though not a public intervention in policy matters, this certainly looked like a departure from the Soviet tradition of strict exclusion of the military from politics, so it’s not surprising that Khrushchev concluded (as he recorded in his memoirs) that Zhukov, though a great soldier and wartime commander, ‘didn’t correctly understand his role as minister of defence’. The upshot was that Zhukov lost his ministerial position and his place in the party leadership and was retired at 61 from the armed forces. Accused by some of his fellow wartime generals of ‘Bonapartist tendencies’ (another echo of Trotsky’s fate), he found himself on the way to non-personhood for the second time, eliminated from official accounts of Stalingrad and other great moments of World War Two.
Khrushchev himself was ousted in 1964, with no Zhukov around this time to rescue him. Under Brezhnev, Zhukov returned to prominence, and was among the marshals reviewing the victory parade from the rostrum above Lenin’s mausoleum in May 1965. But by now he was genuinely a retiree, in declining health and preoccupied by personal upheavals. Like Khrushchev in similar circumstances, he was writing his memoirs, but Zhukov’s – unlike Khrushchev’s, which were dictated in secret – were officially sanctioned, though subject to an onerous process of censorship and editing, first by a military group, to make sure he had got World War Two right, and then by a committee of historians, responsible inter alia for the implausible statement that, on a trip to the north Caucasus front in 1943, the deputy supreme commander was sorry to have missed meeting Colonel Brezhnev. The memoirs, published in 1969 (beating Khrushchev’s unauthorised foreign publication by a year), were a huge popular success and translated into many languages. When Zhukov died in 1974, his state funeral was the ‘biggest state occasion in the Soviet Union since the death of Stalin’.
Zhukov was not only a huge celebrity at the time of his death but also a rich man, thanks primarily to the royalties from his memoirs, with an estate eyed hopefully by his heirs, four daughters from three different relationships. His colourful private life is absent from his memoirs, and his biographers tend to be similarly reticent, though Roberts is a bit more forthcoming than most. His book is worth particular attention, however, for its fascinating interweaving of public and private events and for the light it sheds on the changing patterns and possibilities of life among the Soviet elite. In the 1930s, membership of the elite, and Stalin’s favour, brought lavish apartments, owned and furnished by the state, dachas also owned by the state and cars that came complete with chauffeurs from state garages. All of this could vanish back where it had come from with the death or disgrace of the head of household. The only real source of personal wealth came from royalties from books or other forms of creative endeavour: the status of writers, artists and composers was extraordinarily high. Until a 1944 law confirmed the right of private inheritance, even such assets as were actually personal property were liable to be taken by the state on their owner’s death, but in the postwar period personal and family assets increased markedly in top circles, initially in the form of war booty (German grand pianos sprouting everywhere in elite apartment blocks like the one on Granovsky Street in which the Zhukovs lived, and the ‘house on the embankment’ immortalised in Yuri Trifonov’s novella). Under Khrushchev, it became possible to buy ‘co-operative’ apartments and dachas, bypassing the established practice of state allocation. For those who could afford them, private cars became an accessible as well as desirable possession.
Zhukov had both old and new kinds of property. Chief among the old was his magnificent dacha at Sosnovka, a two-storey classical mansion – the tsars of Muscovy would have called it a votchina – granted to him for his lifetime by Stalin during the war. The Granovsky Street apartment, also state-owned, was assigned to him in the 1940s, as appropriate to his new status. This was the apartment of his official family: his wife, Aleksandra, and daughters Era and Ella. But over the years Zhukov had acquired a whole set of quasi-familial obligations beyond them. First, there was his illegitimate daughter, Margarita, adopted as a child by one of his military colleagues, who married her mother. Then there was his wartime mistress or ‘mobile field wife’, Lidia Zakharova, assigned to him as a personal medical assistant during the battle of Moscow and who stayed with him throughout the war: accompanying him to the front in his railway carriage, she would ‘give him medicinal powders, cup him [still a standard Soviet practice], massage his back, or simply lift his mood with a tender word’, according to the sympathetic recollections of Zhukov’s wartime chauffeur. After the war Lidia followed him first to Odessa (making herself scarce when Aleksandra and the daughters visited) and then to Sverdlovsk. In Sverdlovsk, however, Zhukov met and fell in love with a doctor, Galina Semenova, who bore him another daughter, Maria, in 1957, and, after protracted wrangling with Aleksandra over a divorce, became his second wife.
With all these dependants, Zhukov had even more than the usual Soviet need to acquire apartments, rations and other goodies by blat, the ubiquitous system of non-monetary exchange. During the war his official family, evacuated along with the Soviet government to Kuibyshev on the Volga, was well provided for. But the teenage Margarita, losing both her adoptive father and brother as war casualties, fell ill and wrote to her natural father for help – which, with a certain flourish, he did, sending a DC-3 to fly her to a military children’s sanatorium for six months to regain her strength. Since he wanted her to go to Moscow State University, he must surely have used blat to get her in. The two legitimate daughters also went to Moscow State University, as the family’s status demanded; a meeting with Era engineered by Margarita caused ructions in the Zhukov marriage. When Zhukov returned to Moscow in 1953 he brought Galina with him, and ‘organised’ an elite apartment for her on Gorky Street, later exchanged for a still more desirable one on Frunze Embankment. Lidia, too, needed to be provided for when their ten-year affair broke up on Galina’s appearance a few years earlier: the state apartment Zhukov secured for her was on Pokrovsky Boulevard in Moscow, a respectable address if not in the same league as Granovsky Street.
For most of the 1950s and well into the 1960s, Zhukov was maintaining two households, Aleksandra’s and Galina’s, shuttling between Granovsky Street and Gorky Street (easy walking distance) and the Sosnovka dacha. After a while he bought a new dacha for Galina and her daughter in Lesnoi Gorodok. Fortunately, Zhukov had an adjutant to help him manage his complex personal affairs; his main duty (as he told an interviewer in the 1990s) was to look after ‘supply’ – that is, supplying the two families with food and perks. After the divorce Zhukov gave Aleksandra his Kremlin food ration as well as 200 roubles a month in alimony, and it was the adjutant’s duty to collect the goods and deliver them. He was also responsible for looking after the Galina household, which involved some elaborate transactions with furriers (Zhukov’s old family connections still held good) and a close collaboration with Galina’s mother, who, as babushkas should, ran the household and handled the finances while Galina continued to work as a doctor.
The multiple lives led to endless complications. Margarita, the outsider, made efforts to ingratiate herself with both families, as well as with Zhukov himself, but came to be seen by all of them as something of an extortionist because of her persistent demands for money. They were all put out when she changed her name legally to Zhukov and took Georgievna as her patronymic. The two families were even more annoyed when, after Zhukov’s death, Margarita set herself up as a lecturer for the popular science society Znanie, travelling round the country giving talks on ‘My Father, Marshal Zhukov’.
In true Soviet style, there were also denunciations. When Aleksandra found out that Lidia had followed Zhukov to Odessa, she called the NKVD’s attention to this improper conduct and asked them to expel Lidia from the city. (That didn’t work, but Lidia did lose her job as a result.) Over the Galina affair, Aleksandra wrote to the party leadership demanding that Galina and her illegitimate daughter be removed from Moscow and her husband instructed to return to his lawful family. This was not an unusual thing for aggrieved wives to do in the postwar period, at least among the elite: the archives of the Commission of Party Control are full of such denunciations, along with the investigations, adjudications of property claims (mainly dachas and apartments) and attempts at party-sponsored reconciliation they generated. As befitted Zhukov’s status, Aleksandra went straight to Khrushchev, who in fact asked Zhukov to give up Galina and return to his family. ‘We demote military personnel for extramarital affairs,’ Khrushchev claimed (implausibly) in a Presidium discussion of Zhukov’s personal situation – but then there were other issues between them at the time. The question became moot not long afterwards, when Zhukov was fired.
When Zhukov finally divorced Aleksandra and married Galina in 1965, rights to housing were, as usual in Soviet divorces, the sorest point. Aleksandra and her daughter kept the big apartment on Granovsky Street but then exchanged it for two smaller ones. The grand dacha in Sosnovka was inalienable, and in a rather shadowy turn of events Zhukov seems to have ended up selling the recently bought dacha at Lesnoi Gorodok (for a bad price) and to have forced his two families to move to Sosnovka. If he was temporarily short of cash then, the situation soon changed with the publication of his memoirs and their enormous success, though this brought its own problems. Margarita upped her demands; illness and death encroached. Aleksandra, bitter and unreconciled to the divorce, died in 1967; Galina, still in her mid-forties, developed breast cancer and died in 1973. Zhukov made sure that both women got plots in the elite Novodeviche cemetery, which required more blat. Worried about the future of his youngest daughter, Maria, not yet of age, he wrote to the state premier, Aleksei Kosygin, not long before his death asking that an apartment on Aleksei Tolstoy Street be secured for her and her grandmother, and that they also be given a dacha and a car. One of Zhukov’s problems was that as he didn’t own the Sosnovka dacha, his heirs couldn’t inherit it or even (subject to the state’s discretion) continue to occupy it. The adjutant was also worried: after Galina’s death, he and Galina’s mother even briefly considered arranging a marriage between her and Zhukov, which would leave her with widow’s rights when he died.
All four daughters showed up at Zhukov’s funeral in June 1974, Margarita arriving early and securing a position ‘virtually in the first row’, so that the offended half-sisters had to ask the organisers to move her. In Zhukov’s will, a thousand roubles were to go to Margarita, five thousand each to Era and Ella, and the rest, including royalties, his main asset, along with savings and state bonds, to his youngest daughter, Maria. There were also continuing perks for the first and second lawful families: for the first, registration at an elite medical clinic; for the second, the Kremlin food ration, access to the Kremlin hospital, and life pensions of 150 roubles a month to Maria and 100 roubles to her grandmother. No concession was allowed on the Sosnovka dacha, however, which was repossessed by the state and assigned to another occupant promptly on the expiry of the forty days’ mourning – a nice indication, if the family dating is accurate, of the sneaky way Orthodox practices had crept into Soviet mores.
The unusual wealth of information on Zhukov’s private life doesn’t come from his memoirs, which follow Soviet conventions of near total reticence on personal matters: it is a by-product of his celebrity. I remember hearing some of it on the Moscow rumour mill in the 1960s and 1970s, but we now have it in print via interviews and recollections of the four daughters (all eager to claim their father’s primary allegiance for their own family and correct each other’s misinformation), a grandson, a former chauffeur, a former adjutant and many others. (I have drawn extensively here on Irina Mastykina’s series of interviews with family and associates published in Komsomolskaia Pravda in 1996.) For all their differences, family members are united in seeing Zhukov as a great military man, a person of culture who never abandoned the project of self-education and valued education in others; who was, above all, Russian. He was ‘completely Russian by nature’, his daughter Era says, ‘loved everything Russian: land and people, music and arts, customs and food’. Maria, who embraced religion in the post-Soviet period, even claims, on rather dubious evidence, that he was an Orthodox believer throughout his life, like his parents.
Russian he certainly was, but he was also Soviet and a communist, a quintessential product and beneficiary of the Soviet system who never seems to have doubted its basic rectitude. ‘As a committed communist’, Roberts writes, he ‘supported this system; it was a system he served, a system to which he was loyal, whatever its faults.’ This may understate Zhukov’s commitment, for he surely saw virtues as well as faults, notably with regard to the conduct of the war, Stalin’s leadership, and the opportunities the Revolution had opened up for people like himself. It is likely that, like many of his contemporaries, he genuinely attributed the ‘faults’ to personalities, Stalin and then Khrushchev, rather than to ‘the system’, a concept which is in any case anachronistic.
Roberts’s biography, research-based but written to reach a broad audience, does a workmanlike job and gives no sense of having an axe to grind: he says he came to the job (a publisher’s commission) with a prejudice against Zhukov, as a mythologised and over-eulogised figure, and ended up feeling quite sympathetic towards him. There are some disconcerting mistakes in his handling of Russian material, including treating the first wife Aleksandra’s unusual patronymic (Dievna) as if it were her surname and misspelling Margarita’s mother’s last name (Volokhova, not Volkhova). As he rather endearingly tells us, his friend and colleague Evan Mawdsley, on whose military history of World War Two he draws extensively, saved him from an even greater solecism, namely mistranslating gimnazistka. As anyone with an even passing familiarity with 19th-century Russian history and literature should know, a gimnazistka is not a gymnast but a female student, probably from an intelligentsia or noble family, at the tsarist academic high school or gimnazium; and the fact that the upwardly mobile young Zhukov selected two gimnazistki (Aleksandra and Margarita’s mother) as his partners in the 1920s is a biographical datum of some interest.