In Praise of the Practitioner
by Geoffrey Roberts
Random House, 2012
For World War Two buffs, amateur Sovietologists and military history fans, Georgy Zhukov is well known as the general who beat Hitler. The saviour of Stalingrad, the liberator of Leningrad and the man who brought the Red Army right up to the Reichstag in Berlin, Zhukov is often hailed as the greatest general of WWII. And if WWII is regarded as the greatest conflict in history, the argument goes, then it follows that General Zhukov is probably the greatest general in history.
His career is well known, and has been intensively studied, by Russian, German, British and American historians. The documentation of Zhukov’s life and times is extensive and includes Zhukov’s own memoirs and those of his colleagues and rivals. In the last 15 years alone, at least 11 full length biographies and biographical sketches have appeared in English and Russian, in addition to the two earlier trailblazing studies by O. P. Chaney, and W.J. Spahr. There is a lively academic industry on the military and political vicissitudes of his career. Zhukov also figures prominently in Anthony Beevor’s magisterial bestsellers on the Eastern Front, Stalingrad, and The Fall of Berlin 1945. So it’s difficult to see why we need another English language biography. In his new biography, historian Geoffrey Roberts claims special significance for his book on the grounds that it gives due weight to Zhukov’s early life and post-WW2 career, and that it incorporates new evidence from recently-opened Russian State Military Archives.
Roberts is Professor of History at University College Cork, Ireland, and the author of many scholarly books and articles on the Soviet era. He is highly regarded, rightly so, and has done much to open up the field for interested readers in English. His publishers tell us that this is his first popular biography for a lay audience. It is informative, well written, and attractively presented, as one would expect.
However, it is marred by several errors, not of facts, but of judgment in the selection (or omission) and presentation of facts.
This can be most clearly seen in the use Roberts makes of Stalin’s infamous Order No 227, also known as “Not A Step Back “– Ni Shagu Nazad.
This Order was issued by Stalin on July 28th 1942, but was actually a rewording and reissuing of an Order he had given the previous August, during the disastrous German invasion, when the Soviet army had been pushed back in the face of the furious German blitzkrieg. The Order was designed to do two things. First, it was an attempt to instill discipline in the Soviet army by effectively making it illegal for troops of any rank to lose a position, retreat, display cowardice or disobey orders to advance. And second, it was an attempt to put an end to the idea that the Soviet army had unlimited space behind them and that the best way to deal with the German threat was to retreat into the vast Russian landmass, drawing the German army in to its eventual ruin. That had been more or less the policy in 1941. But at this stage in the war, Stalin and Stavka – the Soviet high command- were now on the offensive, and it was imperative to stop the German southward advance towards the oil fields of the Caucasus.
The Order was handed down on paper to very senior commanders only, to be read out to all troops of lower ranks. It included the following wording:
Panic mongers and cowards must be destroyed on the spot. The retreat mentality must be decisively eliminated. Army commanders who have allowed the voluntary abandonment of positions must be removed and sent for immediate trial by military tribunal.
Stalin ordered the establishment of penal battalions made up of troops who had been found guilty of cowardice or disobeying orders. These battalions were given the most dangerous jobs, such as minefield clearing or defense of the most hopeless positions. In this way they “could redeem by blood their crimes against the Motherland.”
In addition to this, the Order specified that special ‘defensive squads’ were to be set up whose job was to follow frontline troops and “shoot in place” any soldier who displayed fear, bewilderment, or unwillingness to advance.
It has been estimated that 158,000 men were removed from their battalions and ‘legally’ executed under Order No. 227—not counting those who were simply shot by the side of the road without ‘trial’—and that around 422,700 men served in the penal battalions.
Now, let’s look at how Roberts deals with this. He focuses on the long preamble to the Order, in which Stalin sets out the situation facing the Red Army in the summer of 1942. He quotes three sections from this preamble, but he quotes those sections where the language is at its most metaphorical:
Stalin’s solution was to stop the retreat and he used the same slogan Zhukov deployed during the defence of Moscow—Ni Shagu Nazad!
Not a step back! This must now be our chief slogan. It is necessary to defend to the last drop of blood every position, every meter of Soviet territory, to cling on to every shred of Soviet earth and to defend it to the utmost.
There was nothing new in Order No. 227. Iron discipline, harsh punishment, and no retreat without authorization had been Stalin’s (and Zhukov’s) main theme since the beginning of the war. But its urgent tone revealed Stalin’s anxiety about mounting defeats and losses that summer. As during the battle of Moscow, the threat of punishment was combined with an appeal to patriotism…
He then goes on to emphasize the propaganda drive that accompanied the Order, and then changes the subject, discussing the creation of new decorations for officers.
Roberts does not mention the shoot-on-the-spot policy; there is no mention of the penal battalions, no mention of the numbers of Soviet soldiers who perished under the Order. No mention that Zhukov implemented the Order with ruthless efficiency along his section of the front within 10 days of the Order being issued. And no mention that the Order was only published in 1988, a fact which attests to an awareness of its questionable legality, or at least to the fact that the Soviet authorities wanted it kept secret in the post-war period. It was important to maintain the myth that in the Great Patriotic War—the Russian name for WWII—soldiers were fighting out of a patriotic duty towards the Motherland, not because they were forced to by means of terror.
Instead, Roberts’s omission of detail, his selection of quoted material, and his commentary on it, emphasizes the thematic, tonal aspects of the Order, that it was a slogan, an expression of Stalin’s anxiety about the progress of the war so far, and that its language was metaphorical, combining the threat of punishment (rather than specific details of the punishment itself) with an appeal to patriotism.
Readers of Roberts who are ignorant of the full circumstances of Order No. 227 are likely to be left with the impression that the Order was just another propaganda drive. A historian of Roberts’s caliber, experience, and reputation is not ignorant of the full facts surrounding Order No. 227; he has clearly decided to skirt around the murderous aspects of the Order, and this is a weakness of the book. Order No 227 arguably did more than any other directive to determine the especial cruelty of the war on the Eastern Front after 1942, not least at the grueling battle of Stalingrad. Downplaying the context, content, and ramifications of the Order in this way, emphasizing instead its rhetorical qualities, falsifies the reality of history.
This is not just an isolated incident, but an overall strategy of Stalin’s General. Look, for example, at the way Roberts handles the Khalkhin Gol incident, the first of Zhukov’s great victories, in 1939:
During the course of fierce fighting, the Red Army suffered heavy casualties. From May 16 to July 25 the 57th Corps suffered more than 5,000 casualties, mostly during the July battles. Not surprisingly, Zhukov’s emphasis on discipline became even more pronounced and orders were issued that commanders and commissars would be held personally responsible for their units’ conduct during battle. If they failed to carry out orders, they would be brought before military tribunals and severely punished. On July 13 Zhukov issued a decree announcing that two soldiers had been shot for cowardice. The decree […] concluded with the peroration: […]”I call upon you to show courage, manliness, audacity, braveness and heroism… Death to despicable cowards and traitors!”
A decree usually announces what measures are to be taken from then on, not what measures have already been taken. So two soldiers had been shot for cowardice up to that point, but how many were shot after it? Were they tried? What exactly were the “severe punishments”? We simply need more information, but instead of giving us these details, Roberts, once again, focuses on the rhetorical elements of the decree, highlighting the slogan and its value as propaganda, and leaving uncomfortable factual details vague.
Zhukov enjoyed the dubious distinction of being one of the few high ranking Soviet citizens to have been purged twice by two different leaders, first, by Stalin in 1948; and second, by Krushchev in 1957. Let’s look at how Roberts deals with the first purge.
He begins with the removal of Marshal Novikov from his post of Head of the Soviet Air Force in March 1946. During his interrogation, Novikov denounced Zhukov. Roberts speculates that this may have been because Zhukov was a member of the commission charged with investigating Novikov’s failings at the Air Force. Roberts goes on:
In any event, Stalin accepted Novikov’s claims at face value, and June 9 he issued a decree to the higher ranks of the military repeating the accusations and announcing Zhukov’s posting to the Odessa Military District in the Crimea [effectively a demotion].
After a paragraph detailing the specific accusations against Zhukov in the decree, Roberts writes:
Why did Stalin decide to use Novikov’s accusations to remove Zhukov from a post to which he had so recently appointed him? One possibility is that Stalin had his own sources of information on Zhukov that confirmed some of Novikov’s claims. At this time it was common for Soviet military and political leaders to be kept under close security surveillance, including bugging of their apartments and dachas.
After speculating that Zhukov may indeed have been guilty of boasting and mouthing off against Stalin in the privacy of his own rooms, Roberts supplies an answer to his own question, focusing on Stalin:
Stalin was in a brittle mood after the war. An old man of nearly seventy by then, the war had taken its physical and emotional toll on the dictator. He was tetchy and disposed to upbraid or censure the members of his inner circle for even minor perceived transgression.
He then notes that Stalin at this point was turning on several other high level members of the government, including his old buddy and henchman Molotov. After that, we have a footnote, referring us to an earlier book Roberts has written on the subject.
There are several things very wrong with this discussion. The facts are correct; but again, a closer look at what has been omitted, what has been downplayed and what has been emphasized, reveals fundamental errors in the presentation and interpretation of those facts.
In order to really understand Zhukov’s first purge, it must be set in the context of the Great Terror of the 1930s, which means we need to backtrack a bit, to look at how Roberts handles that.
Roberts devotes only three pages of writing to the Great Terror. He first mentions the purges in the army, then the purges among senior party members. He then describes Zhukov’s reaction to the purges, quoting from the Soviet and post-Soviet editions of Zhukov’s memoirs, dwelling on the differences between them. According to Zhukov, the Great Terror was “the most difficult emotional experience of his life” and he—like many others—had a bag prepared in readiness for the Black Marias that called at midnight. Roberts then notes that there is no documentary evidence to show that Zhukov was a near victim of the purges, and suggests, on the contrary, that Zhukov’s career benefitted from them, when he was promoted to fill positions left by senior officers who had been purged. He then deals with Zhukov’s own assertion that he escaped the purges because he was sent to Mongolia to command an operation in the fight against the Japanese. Roberts ends his account of the Great Terror by suggesting that Zhukov’s mission to the East was to conduct purges against the local military leadership, but, again, he doesn’t give any details: purges against whom? What were the specific charges? Who was he reporting to?
Readers who don’t know about the details of the depth and extent of the purges would be forgiven for coming to the conclusion, based on Roberts’s account, that the Great Terror was an aberration in normal Soviet life, a terrible episode with a beginning and an end. In fact, terror was the chief characteristic of life in the whole Soviet era, pervading everything. The use of terror was implicit in the Jacobinism of the Bolsheviks; it had from the beginning been the ideological mainstay and method of the Revolution. All the Bolshevik ideologues—Lenin, Bukharin, Trotsky—had stipulated the necessity for terror. Stalin had even scribbled “nota bene” in the margin next to this quote from Marx: “There is only one way to shorten and ease the convulsions of the old society and the bloody birth pangs of the new—revolutionary terror.” Although it peaked in intensity in 1938-39, state terror lasted for the whole life of the USSR. True, it was relaxed somewhat in the civilian areas to the rear during the war, but then it was helpfully provided by the enemy, while Order No 227 secretly continued the terror at the front. The fear (and the memories of the fear)—of being arrested in the middle of the night for something you didn’t even know you had done—never really went away. A Russian peasant told the Englishman Bernard Pares in 1907: “Five years ago there was a belief in the Tsar as well as fear. Now the belief has all gone and only the fear remains.” The artist Ilya Kabakov wrote in the late 1990s about the late 1970s: “Fear as a state of mind persisted in every second of our life, in every action, and like coffee and milk, that is, in any possible combination, there was not a word or deed that was not diluted by a certain dose of fear.”
In his summary of the purges, Roberts says: “No one really knows exactly why the purge happened but it seems Stalin truly believed he was threatened by elements of the Red Army, even though there is not a single shred of evidence of disloyalty or malign intention.” What Roberts means, I think, is that there is no document left by Stalin in which he sets out in easy bullet points for the convenience of future historians the exact reasons why he started the purges. (Roberts’s wording is very curious here: the purges didn’t simply ‘happen’, they were deliberately started by a man, and that man was Stalin.) In fact, historians are in general agreement that the intention behind the purges of army and party apparatus was the removal of the previous generation of old Bolsheviks, those who had known Lenin and Trotsky, who remembered what the Revolutionary vision had been, and who might start to question the way Stalin’s policies differed from the blueprint laid down in the early days of the Revolution. The purges can also be seen as following the ineluctable logic of the doctrine of ‘Perpetual Revolution,’ (ironically, as this was a doctrine of Trotsky’s, Stalin’s arch enemy) in that as the revolutionaries consolidated their position, they in turn became the State that needed to be swept away. The effect of the purges was that Stalin replaced this old guard with younger apparatchiks who would be personally loyal to him alone rather than loyal to an abstract notion of ‘Revolution’; and there is no reason to suppose that this was not Stalin’s intention from the start. He did this by eliminating entirely those who had crossed him in the past, or who might prove a problem in the future. And then he eliminated all those connected to them. And then he eliminated those who had done the eliminating.
Important for Stalin’s purposes was the creation of a spurious legality to support and cover up the reasons for the purges, hence the infamous show trials of the era, and the importance given to confessions. In fact, it is commonly believed that the confessions were manufactured first—by Stalin himself or by his henchmen on his orders—and then victims were found who would ‘confirm’ them. The ‘confessions’ always provided ‘evidence’ of conspiracies and in this way provided a legal pretext for the arrest and liquidation of more and more victims. By mentioning the lack of independent documentary evidence of disloyalty or malign intention, Roberts misses the point, several points in fact. In the climate of terror no one wrote anything down, and they destroyed anything they had previously written that might be used to incriminate them, so of course there were no documents that could be used as evidence. The disloyalty and malign intention had been manufactured first by Stalin himself, and that the accusations of such were only a show. Stalin’s purpose was not to discover and hunt down disloyalty or malign intent, but rather to remove as much of the Old Guard as he could. Roberts’s choice of what to downplay and what to stress in his account of the Great Terror is downright misleading.
In light of this, let’s return to Robert’s account of Zhukov’s first purge. Given what we know about how the pre-war purges operated, it is nonsense to say “Stalin accepted Novikov’s claims at face value.” According to Stalin’s pre-war modus operandi, it is more likely that Novikov’s confession had actually been manufactured first by Stalin, and that his real target was Zhukov. Novikov’s denunciation was merely a pretext, created to provide the appearance of judicial procedure for Zhukov’s purge, thereby concealing Stalin’s involvement as its instigator. It is therefore absurd to say that “One possibility is that Stalin had his own sources of information on Zhukov that confirmed some of Novikov’s claims.” Stalin was not looking for independent verification; he didn’t need it. It is wrong to say “At this time it was common for Soviet military and political leaders to be kept under close security surveillance.” ‘At this time’? There is no doubt that Stalin and his successors kept all the Soviet elite under perpetual observation for the whole life of the regime, and to say ‘at this time’ implies that there were some unusual circumstances that necessitated this surveillance, and that at other times, there was no surveillance.
Roberts then tries to elicit a sympathy vote for poor old Stalin, tetchy and crotchety in his old age, worn out by the war, and longing for his slippers. In fact Stalin was just as murderous and bloodthirsty at this point as he ever had been, as his persecution of Molotov’s wife shows. It has been suggested by Russian historians that the persecution of Molotov’s wife was the first step in a purge that would have extended ultimately to Molotov himself, in accordance with Stalin’s tried and tested method, and that only Stalin’s death prevented it.
Roberts concludes his account of Zhukov’s first purge thus:
Stalin was also determined to bring the Soviet military to heel and to prevent the overlauding of its war record. Stalin’s demotion of Zhukov showed the Red Army he was still the boss and warned other generals that he would not tolerate any sign of disloyalty.
Again, this is not wrong, but it is not the point. Stalin’s intention was to start the terror again now that the fear provided by the war had receded. He chose Zhukov precisely because Zhukov was the most famous, the most admired war hero in the land, Stalin’s right hand man, his friend. Purging him sent the clearest signal to the country that the terror had returned.
Popular history—especially military history—is quite different from academic history, which is Roberts’s usual sphere of operations, and as a genre entails several difficulties. On the one hand, there is the temptation to dehumanize everything, to present war in terms of logistics, numbers, the discussion of position papers and plans, the execution of tactics and strategy, intricate details of promotions and the nomenclatura of decorations. On the other, is the tendency to dwell on gruesome details of death, maiming and atrocities, to fetishize weapons, uniforms and other military paraphernalia, to glorify or denigrate prominent players. The foremost practitioners of the genre—Anthony Beevor, the late John Keegan, for example—manage to avoid both extremes, steering a course between the Scylla of a bloodless objectivity, and the Charybdis of a bloody obsession. They achieve this by at least two means. First, they supplement a rigorous handling of facts with a wealth of detail focusing on the experience of the common soldier, citing from his own words where possible, and showing exactly what strategy and tactics actually meant for the person on the ground. In this way they foreground what Wilfred Owen famously called “the pity of war,” inviting the reader to empathize with the ordinary, terrible human experience of battle. They never lose sight of what war actually means in practice, and I can’t help feeling that sometimes Roberts does. A second strategy is to suggest a stance on the absurdity, stupidity and horror of war, either indirectly through the ironic juxtaposition of facts, or the placement of an ironic adverb or adjective, or more directly, through mordant asides on the historical pretentions of military leaders and their political masters. Think of Hitler ranting on about “the judgement of history”; think of Stalin erasing images of his murdered rivals from photographic negatives. Beevor, Keegan and writers of their caliber never lose sight of the possibility that, while technically war is “the continuation of diplomacy by other means,” as Clausewitz famously defined it, war would also better be regarded as state-sanctioned mass murder, and that those who make a career out of it might also be culpable.
Roberts shows little understanding of these difficulties in this popular biography of one of the foremost practitioners of warfare in the 20th century, as Georgy Zhukov undoubtedly was. The four episodes we have looked at are symptomatic of more general underlying problems with Roberts’s account of Zhukov’s life. Foremost among these is his tendency to accept at face value the estimation the Soviet regime gave of itself, especially the spurious legality so carefully constructed by Stalin. Victor Serge characterized life during the pre-war Soviet period as being permeated with a sense of: “an immense wrong, a boundless guilt, a hidden villainy, a sort of madness that filled everyone’s brain.” In Robert’s account, Zhukov’s life takes place against a background curiously devoid of any sense of this. Roberts’s use of documentation lacks appreciation of the very special nature of the language used in the documents produced in the Soviet period. Centuries of autocracy, repression and censorship in Russia had created a range of techniques available for writers to enable them to discuss ideas and describe events in print without falling foul of the authorities. In literature and literary criticism, for example, there was the use of Aesopian language, in which topic A is ostensibly under discussion, but readers know that really it is topic B that is being discussed. Edvard Radzinsky in his biography of Stalin includes an important discussion of the use of another strategy that he calls ‘in-depth language’ used among party officials in meetings and meeting minutes. Here the language states that A has been resolved, but everyone knows that really this means its opposite has been resolved. ‘We will not purge X’ means precisely ‘we will purge X’. This use of language permeates Russian literary and political culture: Bakhtin calls it “the word with a sideward glance at someone else’s hostile word.” Roberts shows no willingness to address its importance in the study of Russian documents. For example, he approvingly quotes Krushchev’s assessment of Zhukov: “He was exceptionally perceptive and flexible for a military man” without any awareness of the fabulous sarcasm of the remark. Zhukov himself apparently told Eisenhower when they met again after the war had ended: “There are things in Russia that are not what they seem.” Roberts makes no attempt at all to unpack what this might mean for historical research into the Soviet era, or for Zhukov’s life. There is some interesting and valuable discussion of the differences between the Soviet and post-Soviet editions of Zhukov’s memoirs, but no real in-depth examination of this kind of supra linguistic context and its ramifications.
Roberts also accepts the estimation military men have of themselves and their work. “Winning in war,” he says, “trumps all criticism of the conduct of particular battles or operations and obviates all what-might-have-been discussions concerning different courses of action or different command decisions.” Does it really, though? Isn’t it only military men—and some of their historians—who think that winning is everything? What about the cost in lives? Viktor Suvorov, a well-known Russian biographer of the general, notes that Zhukov is the only commander in history to be honored for losing more than 5 million men. Roberts states that “If Z was the greatest general of the second world war—in the sense that he made a decisive contribution to all the war’s significant turning points—it was not through his efforts alone…” but he does not clarify what his criteria for greatness are, except to say vaguely that it was a ‘decisive contribution’. (Military men adore the word ‘decisive’—they are always in search of ‘the decisive victory’, ‘the decisive defeat’, but it always eludes them. Victories and defeats are usually a lot more messy and less clearly defined. Perhaps the only ‘decisive victory’ is the one in which the enemy is killed to a man). Is it worth asking the losers whether they think the general who beat them was great? Isn’t it valid, also, to suggest that a great general might be one who achieves his aims by conserving his forces? Perhaps greatness should be allocated to generals who kill the fewest people, not the most. Roberts displays no interest in examining these questions, and he mentions only cursorily Suvorov’s highly critical biography, which tackles them head-on. Roberts employs again his usual strategy of downplaying contentious views, in this case the controversy that surrounds Zhukov.
But, after all, it might be argued that these problems with Roberts’s book are only those of emphasis, and that the essentials are correct; that they are only problems with the discourse, and not with the facts; that they only show Roberts is not yet full master of the genre differences between professional, academic historiography and historiography for a more general reader. Roberts notes in his introduction his debt to Nigel Hamilton’s How To Do Biography. Chapter three of this manual urges would-be biographers to define their audience. Perhaps Roberts’s only fault lies in that he overestimates the knowledge a lay audience possesses, and thereby gives himself license to downplay the things he does, taking them as read. This would be fine, if it wasn’t so potentially insidious, because it nourishes a creeping normalisation – what Radzinsky calls “The Great Amnesia”—of the horrors of the regime Zhukov served and the profession he followed in his life. Even if lay readers have full knowledge of all the things Roberts omits or downplays, surely it’s worth reiterating and stressing them anyway.
Quentin Brand is a freelance writer. He lives in Taiwan, where he teaches English.