Author’s response by Geoffrey Roberts to H-Diplo review by Hiroaki Kuromiya of Georgy Zhukov, Marshal of Victory: The Autobiography of General

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Author’s response to H-Diplo review by Hiroaki Kuromiya of Georgy Zhukov, Marshal of Victory: The Autobiography of General Georgy Zhukov. Ed. Geoffrey Roberts. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military. 2013

URL: http://h-diplo.org/essays/PDF/E111.pdf

Zhukov and Khalkhin-Gol: A Response to Hiroaki Kuromiya’s review of Marshal of Victory: The Autobiography of General Georgy Zhukov

Response by Geoffrey Roberts, University of Cork

I would like to thank Hiroaki Kuromiya for his very interesting and thoughtful review of Marshal of Victory.[1] As Professor Kuromiya indicates, the book complements my recent biography of Zhukov.[2] I thought it would be useful to make available a new English edition of Zhukov’s famous memoirs. Translation of one of the post-Soviet Russian editions of his memoirs, which contain much material from Zhukov’s original typescript excluded by the Soviet censors, would have been ideal. That was not possible for financial and copyright reasons, so what is on offer is a reprint of the English translation of the second Soviet edition (1974) of the memoirs together with translations of new materials dealing with the postwar period and a detailed analysis of the censored passages that now appear in post-Soviet Russian-language editions of the memoirs.

As I point out in my introduction to Marshal of Victory, the post-Soviet edition of Zhukov’s memoirs is by no means definitive.[3] It does not contain all the material excluded by the censors nor does it detail what was added at their behest. The post-Soviet edition also contains material culled from sources other than Zhukov’s original memoir typescript.  Moreover, as I discovered in my research for the Zhukov biography, there are yet more variants of his memoirs in the Russian military history archive. Importantly, while Zhukov bridled at the many changes forced on him by the censors, the second Soviet edition of his memoirs was the last he worked on or had any say about before he died in 1974. It is not clear to me that he would have approved of the post-Soviet editions of his memoirs, which contain a lot of redundant and dubious material from his original typescript as well as many passages he undoubtedly would have liked to have seen published.

Kuromiya’s review concentrates on the battle of Khalkhin-Gol, or Nomonhan as the Japanese called it. It was at Khalkhin-Gol in August 1939 that Zhukov came to the fore as a Soviet general. Zhukov’s routing of Japan’s Kwantung Army in a classic battle of encirclement on the disputed Mongolian-Manchurian border established his reputation as battlefield tactician, brought him to Joseph Stalin’s attention and provided a stepping-stone to the high command of the Red Army. It was also an important personal and psychological turning point for Zhukov. Before Khalkhin-Gol Zhukov was a competent, disciplined and diligent officer who had slowly made his way through the ranks of the inter-war Red Army, helped along in the 1930s by Soviet rearmament and Stalin’s purges, both of which created a number of vacancies for loyal professionals such as Zhukov. After the battle he was the rising star of the Red Army and had the confidence that went with such status. Not surprisingly, Khalkhin-Gol is a key episode in all Zhukov biographies, including my own.

Kuromiya questions the veracity of the chapter in Zhukov’s memoirs dealing with Khalkhin-Gol, pointing to inaccuracies and omissions. Kuromiya’s points are valid but it is important to understand the conditions under which Zhukov wrote his memoirs.  While Zhukov had, as Kuromiya notes, privileged access to Soviet military archives, that access was selective. Historians today have available to them many more Soviet military documents than Zhukov did in the 1960s, including quite a few in relation to Khalkhin-Gol. Zhukov’s lack of access to all the documentation, explains, I think, some of the factual mistakes he makes in his memoirs, including one highlighted by Kuromiya: the date of his dispatch to Khalkhin-Gol. Zhukov states that he was ordered to go to Mongolia in early June. We now know from the documents that he was ordered east on 24 May and arrived at Khalkhin-Gol by the end of the month. Too much should not be made of mistakes like this; even historians sometimes get their facts wrong. The lack of documentation may also explain the misleading gloss that Zhukov puts on the reasons he was sent to Khalkhin-Gol. He was sent, he wrote in his memoirs, on a mission to inspect Soviet forces and to be ready to take command if necessary. It is fairly clear from the documents that he was not sent to take command but to inspect and to help the local commanders to rectify their problems. Only after his arrival at Khalkhin-Gol was it decided to put him in charge of the 57th Special Corps.

Zhukov wrote the bulk of his memoirs in the late 1950s and early 1960s, at a time when he was isolated and in disgrace following his ouster by Nikita Khrushchev as Minister of Defence in 1957. Zhukov’s military reputation was under attack by Khrushchev’s supporters. These attacks were either directly critical, questioning his military judgement and leadership style, or, more insidiously, took the form of side-lining his role in events to which he was central. Zhukov wrote his memoirs as a reply to his critics.  He had no expectation that his memoirs would be published. It was Khrushchev’s removal from power in 1964 that enabled Zhukov’s rehabilitation and the publication of his memoirs.

One example of side-lining is the treatment of Khalkhin-Gol in the first volume of the Khrushchevite history of the Great Patriotic War published in 1960. The pages devoted to Khalkhin-Gol mention that Zhukov was the local commander but provide no further details of his role in the preparation and conduct of the attack on the Japanese.[4] Zhukov was keen to correct such impressions and as a result produced a version of events that exaggerats his personal role in planning, preparing and conducting the battle with the Japanese.  But Zhukov praises many other people for their role in the battle, too, in particular Y.V. Smushkevich, the Soviet air force chief at Khalkhin-Gol and M.S. Nikishev, the political commissar of the 57th Special Corps. Zhukov does not mention it in his memoirs (he may not have known) but it was Smushkevich who recommended to Moscow that he be appointed commander of the Soviet forces at Khalkhin-Gol. Smushkevich was later to become a victim of a purge of the air force (on which more below). Zhukov’s highlighting of his name, together with that of Nikishev, exemplifies a recurring theme of his memoirs: praising commissars to demonstrate his loyalty to the Party whilst also mentioning the names of officers he served with who were purge victims. The Soviet censors cut Zhukov’s explicit references to the fact that these officers had been purged but left in many of the names, including Smushkevich.[5]

As Kuromiya points out, Zhukov does not mention the names of two other important players at Khalkhin-Gol, M.A. Bogdanov, the Chief of Staff of the First Army Group (the renamed 57th Special Corps)[6] and G.M. Shtern, the commander of region’s Front Group and Zhukov’s nominal superior.

Bogdanov is the most inexplicable of these omissions. On the orders issued by the First Army Group there invariably appeared three names: Zhukov, Nikishev, and Bogdanov.[7] It was Bogdanov who drafted the plan for the Soviet offensive at Khalkhin-Gol. After the battle Bogdanov was promoted to Deputy Commander of the First Army Group and given responsibility for negotiations with the Japanese about the Mongolian-Manchurian border. In February 1940 Bogdanov was abruptly withdrawn from the negotiations with the Japanese and then court-martialled for damaging the prestige of the USSR. The negotiations were resumed after a while but it took several more months to resolve the Soviet-Japanese territorial dispute. What seems to have happened is that Bogdanov exceeded his brief in the negotiations and made private concessions to the Japanese on territorial issues, which the Soviets then had to repudiate.[8] Bogdanov was sentenced to four years of correctional labour on 1 March 1940 but he was amnestied in August 1941. As a divisional commander during the war Bogdanov served with distinction but his career was not without incident. In January 1943 his division suffered losses of personnel and positions as a result of a surprise attack by the Germans. The division was withdrawn from the front-line and Bogdanov relieved of his command. But Bogdanov bounced back and ended the war in charge of an elite parachute division.[9]

Kuromiya speculates that there may have been more to the Bogdanov affair than meets the eye and write that “unless one assumes that Zhukov knew some undisclosable secret on the Bogdanov case, it is difficult to comprehend his utter silence [in relation to Bognor’s role at Khalkhin-Gol – GR]”. It seems to me, however, that Bogdanov’s fumbling of the border negotiations would have been reason enough for Zhukov to write him out the story. Zhukov did not take kindly to his officers exceeding their orders and the incident would have been a severe embarrassment to Zhukov, who was Bogdanov’s immediate superior.

Another part of the explanation might be that Bogdanov was personally close to Shtern, with whom he had served during the Spanish Civil War as a military advisor to the Republican government. Zhukov’s relationship with Shtern was competitive and stemmed from the General Staff’s decision on 19 July 1939 to reorganise the 57th Special Corps as the 1st Army Group. Zhukov’s renamed command was given operational independence from Shtern’s Siberia and Far East Front Group. Shtern remained involved in the planning and preparation of the Soviet attack on the Kwantung Army but Zhukov was responsible for its conduct. This situation led to a series of personal tensions between Shtern and Zhukov before, during, and after the battle.

According to Kuromiya, Shtern ordered a study of Khalkhin-Gol that was critical of the Soviet performance against the Japanese but the report was “suppressed largely by Zhukov, who instead wrote a self-serving report”. I don’t know the source cited by Kuromiya[10] so I can’t comment on the claim that Zhukov suppressed the Shtern study, but I have read the archive report on Khalkhin-Gol written by Zhukov and Nikishev. Dated November 1939, the report is 165 pages long with 303 pages of appendices. It contains many points of criticism and lessons that needed to be learned for future action involving large-scale operations by combined forces. It is undoubtedly a highly positive appraisal of the Red Army’s performance at Khalkhin-Gol and it be could be said to be self-serving as far as Zhukov is concerned. But praise for the Red Army’s performance at Khalkhin-Gol is not uncommon even among disinterested observers.[11]

Zhukov’s victory at Khalkhin-Gol notwithstanding, it was Shtern who was recalled to Europe to fight in the Soviet-Finnish war. This was in February 1940 and it may be that the Bogdanov affair influenced the decision not to recall Zhukov. But more likely is that Zhukov was left in Mongolia in case hostilities resumed.  In any event, Zhukov would not have relished languishing in Ulan Bator for months while there was a war going on elsewhere. He always wanted to be where the action was.

Zhukov was recalled from the Far East in May 1940 and given command of the Kiev Special Military District – one of the highest posts in the Red Army. This appointment led to Zhukov’s promotion to full General. Shtern, who took part in the second and successful wave of Soviet attacks on Finland, had a good war and was promoted to General-Colonel, one rank below Zhukov.

In December 1940, at a big conference of the higher command in Moscow, Zhukov clashed with Shtern over Khalkhin-Gol. In a report on “The Character of Contemporary Offensive Operations” Zhukov used the battle as his main example. Contemporary armies, argued Zhukov, had at their disposal the combined forces that could deliver speedy and powerful offensive blows that would lead to strategic breakthroughs and advances. The most detailed commentary in the discussion on the report came from Shtern who argued that the introduction of tanks into battle should be delayed and used for breakout rather than breakthrough, whereas Zhukov favoured earlier deployment. In his reply to the discussion, however, Zhukov made no comment on Shtern’s arguments and noted there were no fundamental disagreements with his report.[12]

Had events taken a different course it is possible that Shtern would have emerged as a wartime commander to rival Zhukov, much like Konev and Rokossovsky did. Shtern, however, had the misfortune to become embroiled in a purge of the Soviet air force that led to his execution in October 1941.

Shtern returned to the Far East after the Winter War but was recalled in January 1941 and placed in charge of Soviet anti-aircraft defences. Six months later he was arrested, the victim of a purge of the higher command of the Red air force.  The purge appears to have developed in two phases.  First, in spring 1941 there were dismissals and demotions arising from an excessive number of air force plane crashes because of poor aircraft design and pilot error. Second, in May-June 1941 the NKVD uncovered a ‘conspiracy’ by senior air force and other officers to weaken the Soviet Union militarily. Shtern was arrested on 7 June. The next day Smushkevich was arrested. Three other high-ranking air force generals were arrested just after the German attack on the USSR on 22 June 1941. Apart from the air force connection, Smushkevich, Stern and several others had in common service in the Spanish Civil War. The Spanish connection made them an easy target for NKVD accusations that they were in cahoots with foreign intelligence services. The so-called conspirators were executed without trial in October 1941.[13] Needless to say, the NKVD accusations were pure invention. In 1954 Shtern and his colleagues were cleared of all charges and posthumously rehabilitated. Zhukov was Deputy and then Minister of Defence from 1953-1957 and was active in clearing the name of associates who had suffered in a postwar purge that followed his own demotion and banishment by Stalin.  While I know of no evidence that he was active in clearing the names of Shtern and Smushkevich, he presided over the mid-1950s rehabilitations of the victims of Stalin’s military purges.

The most intriguing point in Kuromiya’s review is his suggestion that the Soviets may have had some help at Khalkhin-Gol in the form of Michitaro Komatsubara, a Soviet spy and agent who was in command of the main Japanese division that fought against them. Kuromiya pursues this argument in his article “The Mystery of Nomonhan, 1939.”[14] On the evidence presented by Kuromiya in that article, the jury is out on how much help Komatsubara may have given to the Soviets.  But I do agree with Kuromiya that there is a mystery about the extent of Zhukov’s stunning success at Khalkhin-Gol and that the key to the enigma may be the intelligence he had at his disposal. In his memoirs Zhukov stressed the importance of intelligence at Khalkhin-Gol – but from reconnaissance, not from spies or code-breaking. However, Zhukov may have known more than he let on. In the Russian military archive there is a report from the First Army Group to the General Staff in Moscow date-stamped November 1939 which contains decodes of Japanese orders and transmissions at Khalkhin-Gol together with translations of the diaries of Kwantung soldiers and officers and records of interrogations of captured soldiers.[15] The presumption is that the Japanese material was captured as result of the battle but I wonder now whether Zhukov had contemporaneous access to the Japanese orders and transmissions.

As Kuromiya’s review of Marshal of Victory shows, there is a still a lot to be learnt about the biography of Georgy Zhukov, not least from the close and critical reading of his memoirs.


[1] Marshal of Victory: The Autobiography of General Georgy Zhukov, Pen & Sword Books: Barnsley 2013.

[2] G. Roberts, Stalin’s General: The Life of Georgy Zhukov, Random House: New York 2012.

[3] The most complete post-Soviet edition of Zhukov’s memoirs is G.K. Zhukov, Vospominaniya i Razmyshleniya, three vols, 11th edition, APN: Moscow 1992. There have been editions published since 1992 but none that contain any additional material.

[4] Istoriya Velikoi Otechestvennoi Voiny Sovetskogo Souza, 1941-1945, vol.1, Voenizdat: Moscow 1960 pp.240-245.

[5] There are some differences between the Zhukov’s Khalkhin-Gol chapter as published and that contained in his original typescript but none that could be considered political. In the case of Smushkevich, Zhukov does not appear to have noted that he was purged in his original typescript.

[6] In Stalin’s General (p.55) Bogdanov is mistakenly referred to as “Shtern’s Chief of Staff”.

[7] A number of these orders, including some facsimiles, are reproduced in V. Krasnov, Neizvestnyi Zhukov, Olma-Press: Moscow 2000 pp.112-141. The originals may be found in Rossiiskii Gosudarstvennyi Voennyi Arkhiv (RGVA), F.32113, Op.1, D.3, 5.

[8] This is my gloss on the treatment of the episode by A.D. Coox, Nomonhan: Japan Against Russia, 1939, Stanford University Press: Stanford 1985 pp.984-985.

[9] It is hard to find information on Bogdanov but this Russian-language source seems reliable: http://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C1%EE%E3%E4%E0%ED%EE%E2,_%CC%E8%F5%E0%E8%EB_%C0%ED%E4%F0%E5%E5%E2%E8%F7.

[10] V. Novobranets, "Ya Preduprezhdal o Voine Stalina": Zapiski Voennogo Razvedchika, Yauza-Eksmo: Moscow 2008

[11] ‘O Kampanii 1939g v Raione r.Khalkhin-Gol’, RGVA, F.32113, Op.1, D.2.

[12] Zhukov’s report and the comments of Shtern and others may be found in Russkii Arkhiv: Velikaya Otechestvennaya Voina, 1941-1945, vol.12 (1), Terra: Moscow 1993 pp.129-172.

[13] A.A. Pechenkin, Voennaya Elita SSSR v 1935-1939gg: Repressii i Obnovlenie, VZFEI: Moscow 2003 pp.140-150. In Stalin’s General (p.108) I stated that Shtern was arrested as part of a group of officers who were scapegoated by Stalin for the devastation inflicted on the Red air force by the Germans. In fact, Shtern was arrested before 22 June 1941. Others were arrested after the German invasion, and the damage suffered by the air force may have contributed to their arrest and their subsequent fate, but the origins and dynamics of the purge were different from those I had assumed.

[14] The Journal of Slavic Military Studies, vol.24, 659-677, 2011. I am grateful to Professor Kuromiya for a copy of this article.

[15] RGVA, F.32113, Op.1, D4.

 

Original review and Author’s response: http://h-diplo.org/essays/PDF/E111.pdf  H-Diplo review by Hiroaki Kuromiya of Georgy Zhukov, Marshal of Victory: The Autobiography of General Georgy Zhukov. Ed. Geoffrey Roberts. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military. 2013

Reviewer’s response by Hiroaki Kuromiya, Indiana University.

I appreciate Professor Geoffrey Roberts’s response to my review of Georgy Zhukov, Marshal of Victory: The Autobiography of General Georgy Zhukov.

He states that “there is still a lot to be learnt about the biography of Georgy Zhukovv, not least from the close and critical reading of his memoirs.” Although I agree with the first part of his sentence, I am not so sure about the second part.

Professor Roberts states that Zhukov was not always silent about his comrades who were repressed under Stalin, citing the example of Iakov V. Smushkevich and others. This immediately begs the question of why, then, Zhukov remained silent about Grigorii M. Shtern and Mikhail A. Bogdanov (both of whom played a more important role in Khalkhin Gol than Smushkevich). The fact that Zhukov’s report on Khalkhin Gol included “many points of criticism and lessons that needed to be learned for future action involving large-scale operations by combined forces” does not mean that he did not hide the most critical issues of the Red Army (presumably discussed by Shtern and others). We do know that Stalin became furious when the Red Army fought, unexpectedly, very poorly in the Winter War against Finland, a war he himself started in the wake of the battle of Khalkhin Gol.

Stalin was a past master of misinformation, disinformation, obfuscation, and camouflage. I suggested that Moscow still withholds the most important documents of the Stalinist period and that Zhukov’s life presents an important case of Moscow’s self-serving manipulation of history.