Not these post-Revolution Russians, baby. This wasn’t the Tsars’ clanky old family-mismanaged business, but the Red Army (didn’t switch to “Soviet Army” till 1946). Sure, Stalin had purged the officer corps in the Terror of ‘37, but he was smart enough to keep one very important man alive, even though this guy had once been a Tsarist officer: Georgi Zhukov. I understand there’s a statue of him on horseback in Moscow, and I’d appreciate it if some of you Russian readers would lay a wreath or something by it this weekend on my behalf. I’ll pay you the next time I’m in Moscow, promise. Spa-see-bo, if that’s how you say it.
Zhukov is one of the 20th century’s great commanders. The Russians gave him the same title the Mongols gave Subotai and the Greeks gave Alexander: “the one who never lost a battle.” Weird, but I never heard much about him growing up. I knew who he was, of course, but those Cold-War books were a little stingy handing out praise to Soviet generals. Me, I’m not political. I celebrate Zhukov for what he was, a genius at combined-arms attacks. He reminds me of Alexander more than anybody else, and you can’t get higher praise than that. Too bad he was serving Stalin, sure, just like it’s too bad that magnificent Wehrmacht was serving Hitler. But I still salute the Wehrmacht and I still salute Zhukov. Hey, getting yourself a war to command is even tougher than getting a movie to direct, takes even more capital and cooperation from all kinds of prima donnas. A general’s got to go where the work is, and one thing you can say for those 1930s wacko dictators, they gave the generals plenty of chances to showcase their skill sets.
Zhukov, like a lot of the great 20th century commanders, started out as a cavalry officer. Not a great career choice in most parts of the world in the early 20th-century, but in the Russian Civil War, where Zhukov played his rookie season, cavalry was still important—lot of ground to cover, mostly flatland, no roads worth mentioning. The machine gun and barbed wire looked like they were finishing off cavalry forever on the Western Front during WWI, but a few smart horse officers realized that you could use these tank thingies not just as screens for infantry advance but as bulletproof cavalry, doing the same old dashing advances J.E.B. Stuart would have recommended. The only difference was in logistics: the new cavalry advance had to be a way more carefully prepared business than the old saber charge, with logistics assuming a huge role.
When Zhukov assumed command of the Soviet forces in Mongolia (June 1939), there’d already been two months of straggling border skirmishing, escalating from a proxy fight between the Russians’ Mongolian allies and the Japanese’s Manchurians, to full-scale armored engagements between the Japanese and the Red Army.
What Zhukov did way back in 1939 set the pattern not just for the Red Army’s successes against the Germans but for that final, perfect campaign against Japan in Manchuria in 1945. First, Zhukov dealt with his logistical problems, something the Japanese were too mystical and transcendental to take seriously. Next, he made sure all arms were in total coordination: air force, armor, infantry, artillery. That was another thing the Imperial Japanese were too snotty and quarrelsome to do: from 1919 to 1945, one of the constants in Japanese conduct in Manchuria is that the services hated each other, fought among each other all the time. In 1945 that meant that the Navy refused to lift a hand to help stranded Japanese troops evacuate the Asian mainland; back in 1939, it meant that when the Japanese air force launched a successful attack on Soviet airfields in Mongolia, jealous local commanders ordered their pilots to halt all attacks.