The vast Russian Empire is thrown into turmoil in March 1917 after Tsar Nicholas II abdicates and the Imperial Government is replaced by a Provisional Government led by moderate socialist Aleksandr Fyodorovich Kerensky.
The Bolsheviks, a network of communists headed by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and inspired by the writings of Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels, are opposed to the Provisional Government's plan to establish a bourgeois democracy in Russia. They seize government in a coup d'état staged on 6 November, the so-called 'Bolshevik Revolution'. (By the old Julian calendar the coup took place on 24 October and is therefore also known as the 'October Revolution'.)
Civil war follows as the anticommunist 'White Army' battles the communist 'Red Army'. By the end of 1920 the White Russians have been defeated. The USSR, a union of the Russian, Belorussian, Ukrainian and Transcaucasian republics, is established in December 1922. More background.
Born on 1 December 1896 at the village of Strelkovka (now Zhukovo), about 100 km southwest of Moscow. Zhukov's family are peasants. His father is a shoemaker and his mother a farm worker. As a youth he is sent to Moscow to work as a furrier's apprentice. Over the coarse of his life Zhukov will be married twice and have three daughters.
1914 - The countdown to the First World War begins on 28 June. Germany declares war on France on 3 August. Britain in turn declares war on Germany on 14 August. The First World War has begun. The Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary) are against pitted against the Triple Entente (Britain, France and Russia).
1915 - Zhukov is conscripted into the Russian Imperial Army, serving as a private in a cavalry squadron. He is allowed to study military tactics before being sent to the Southwestern Front, where he wins two Saint George Cross medals.
He will remain in the army for the rest of his life.
1917 - The Bolsheviks seize power on 6 November. A Bolshevik sympathiser, Zhukov is elected chairman of his squadron's Red Soldiers' Committee. When civil war breaks out he sides with the communists, enlisting as a private in the Red Army. He quickly rises in the ranks and by 1922 is serving as the commander of a cavalry squadron.
During the civil war he will be awarded the Order of the Red Banner. At the time the Order of Red Banner is the Soviet Union's the top war-service award.
Meanwhile, with civil war raging, Russia pulls out of the First World War.
1918 - From March the Bolsheviks refer to themselves as Communists. Their party is the Communist Party.
1919 - Zhukov joins the Communist Party on 1 March.
1921 - The communists finally secure government.
Zhukov is stationed in the Belorussian Military Region, where he will serve until 1939. During the 1920s he studies armoured warfare at the Frunze (now Bishkek) Military Academy. He takes a special interest in German military theories on the use of mechanised weapons systems for blitzkrieg warfare.
1923 - Zhukov takes command of a horse cavalry regiment.
1925 - Following Lenin's death Joseph Stalin begins to manoeuvre to take control of the Communist Party and the entire Soviet Union. By the end of the decade Stalin has emerged as the supreme leader of the Soviet Union.
1930 - Zhukov is given command of the 2nd Cavalry Brigade. At the same time, he continues to develop his interest in military tactics, including the use of tanks and mobile units in offensive manoeuvres. He participates in regular war-game exercises and writes manuals and textbooks on military subjects.
In the early 1930s Zhukov is given commanded of Leningrad's 4th Red-banner Cavalry Division.
1934 - In December Stalin begins a series of purges of party members suspected of disloyalty. At show trials held in Moscow between 1936 and 1938 dozens of former party leaders are forced to confess to crimes against the Soviet state. They are then executed. By the end of 1938 almost every leading member of the original Bolsheviks has been put to death.
The campaign of terror, flamed by the secret police (the NKVD, or People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs - the forerunner of the KGB, or Komitet Gosudarstvenoi Bezopasnosti), extends throughout the party and into the general community, including the military high command.
All told, about one million are executed, in that will come to be known as 'The Great Terror', 'The Great Purge', or the 'Yezhovshina' (after the head of the NKVD, Nikolai Yezhov). At least 9.5 million more are deported, exiled or imprisoned in work camps, with many of the estimated five million sent to the Gulag never returning alive. Other estimates place the number of deported at 28 million, including 18 million sent to the Gulag.
1937 - The purge of the Red Army begins. The purge results in the execution, imprisonment or dismissal of 36,671 officers, including about half of the 706 officers with the rank of brigade commander or higher. Three of the army's five marshals and 15 of its 16 top commanders are executed.
Zhukov survives the purge.
1939 - In the Soviet Far East skirmishes between Soviet and Japanese forces erupt on the border with Manchukuo, a Japanese-controlled puppet-state centred on Manchuria and headed by the last Chinese emperor, Puyi. Full-scale war breaks out between April and July when the Japanese begin to push into Soviet territory.
Zhukov, now a lieutenant-general, is assigned to the First Soviet Mongolian Army Group in July. After being given command of the group he prepares to take on the Japanese.
The conflict climaxes at the Battle of Khalkin-Gol, beginning on 20 August. Through the bold and unconventional use of tanks, mobile units, disinformation, and surprise, Zhukov is able to outflank the Japanese in a pincer movement and defeat them within three days. However, the cost is high, with about 40% of the Soviet forces being lost.
Following the victory, Zhukov is awarded the title of 'Hero of the Soviet Union', the first of four such awards he will receive. He is also given command of the Kiev Military District.
Meanwhile, on 23 August the Soviet Union and Germany sign a nonaggression pact carving up Eastern Europe into German and Soviet spheres of influence, with the USSR claiming Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Finland, part of the Balkans and half of Poland.
German troops invade Poland on 1 September. Britain and France declare war on Germany two days later. The Second World War has begun.
Stalin acts to secure the USSR's western frontier without antagonising Hitler. Soviet forces seize eastern Poland in September and enter Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in October. War is declared on Finland at the end of November. Zhukov helps direct this largely unsuccessful Soviet offensive.
At the same time, Stalin helps supply the German war effort, providing the Nazi regime with oil, wood, copper, manganese ore, rubber, grain, and other resources under a trade agreement between the two nations. Stalin views the war against Germany as a conflict "between two groups of capitalist countries", saying there is "nothing wrong in their having a good fight and weakening each other."
1940 - The war with Finland ends on 8 March. Finland loses some territory but retains its independence. In the south, the Soviets occupy part of Romania in June.
Zhukov is promoted to the rank of full general. He also is given the post of army chief-of-staff.
1941 - Stalin appoints himself as head of the government. Japan and the Soviet Union sign the Japanese-Soviet Neutrality Pact on 13 April, removing the threat to the Soviets of invasion by Japan.
To the west, German troops begin to group on the Soviet border in preparation for 'Operation Barbarossa', as the German plan to invade the Soviet Union is called. However, Stalin refuses to believe reports of the troop build-ups or that invasion is imminent. An order is issued instructing Soviet border troops not to fire on German positions and Stalin refuses to place the country on a war footing.
Germany invades on 22 June. Stalin is caught completely off guard. He takes command of the Soviet forces, appointing himself commissar of defence and supreme commander of the Soviet Armed Forces in what comes to be know in the USSR as the 'Great Patriotic War'.
On 26 June Zhukov is assigned to the army general headquarters in Moscow.
On 3 July Stalin makes a radio address to the nation. "Comrades, citizens, brothers, and sisters, fighters of our army and navy," he says, "We must immediately put our whole production to war footing. In all occupied territories partisan units must be formed."
He also announces that a "scorched earth" policy will be employed to deny the Germans "a single engine, or a single railway truck, and not a pound of bread nor a pint of oil."
However, despite efforts by Zhukov and other commanders, the Germans sweep through the unprepared Soviet forces, heading to Leningrad in the north, Moscow in the centre, and Kiev in the south.
At a meeting of the Soviet High Command in Moscow on 29 July Zhukov argues that the Red Army should withdraw from Kiev. When Stalin rejects the proposal Zhukov resigns as army chief-of-staff. He returns to the Central Front and has some success, holding up the Germans at Smolensk, 350 km west of Moscow, in July and August.
On 8 September Stalin places Zhukov in charge of the defence of Leningrad. Zhukov flies to the city the next day. The Germans reach the city in August. Though their advance is halted, Zhukov is unable to prevent the Germans from surrounding the metropolis. On 8 September the encirclement is complete, beginning a 900-day siege during which almost 1.5 million civilians and soldiers will die.
Zhukov is now placed in command of the Central Front and assigned to the defence of Moscow, under Stalin's direction. On 6 December the Germans are stopped by a Russian counterattack just short of Moscow. The Soviet armies fight under the slogan 'Die, But Do Not Retreat'.
The 'Battle for Moscow' will be the biggest of the Second World War, involving seven million participants and an area of operations the size of France. The Germans' failure to capture the city will be their first military defeat of the war.
"It was an extremely dangerous situation," Zhukov later says of the German invasion. "In essence, all the approaches to Moscow were open. Our troops could not have stopped the enemy if he moved on Moscow. I telephoned Stalin. I said the most urgent thing is to occupy the Mozhaisk defence line as in parts of the Western Front in essence there are no (Soviet) troops. ...
"Did the commanders have confidence we would be able to halt the enemy? I have to say, frankly, that we did not have complete certainty. It would have been possible to contain the initial units of the opponent but if he quickly sent in his main group, he would have been difficult to stop. ...
"Every soldier, every officer, every general who took part in the fighting could never forget such a difficult war. But more than anything I remember the battle for Moscow. We perfectly understood what it meant and I remember the smallest detail even now. Moscow was the hardest trial."
Meanwhile, the United States enters the war when the Japanese air force bombs the US naval base at Pearl Harbour in Hawaii on 7 December. Germany and Italy declare war on the US on 11 December.
1942 - On 28 July Stalin orders the Soviet troops to take "not one step backwards." Front line forces are flanked by second lines under orders to shoot down any soldier who tries to flee.
In August Zhukov, who now holds the rank of marshal, is made Stalin's deputy commander-in-chief of defence (1st Vice-commissar of the People's Commissariat of Defence).
He plays a key role in the planning for a massive counteroffensive against the Germans to be staged sequentially across the length of the front. The first prong of the attack, Operation Mars, is to be aimed at the German Army positions around Rzhev, about 200 km west of Moscow. It is to be commanded by Zhukov and is scheduled to begin on 28 October.
The second prong, Operation Uranus, is to be aimed at Stalingrad (now Volgograd) in the southwest. This offensive is to be commanded by General Alexander Mikhailovich Vasilevsky and is scheduled to start on 19 November.
However, due to bad weather, Operation Mars is delayed and does not begin until 25 November, six days after the launch of Operation Uranus at Stalingrad.
The two counteroffensives will have very different outcomes.
Operation Uranus marks the military turning point of the war in Europe.
During the winter of 1942-43 the German forces laying siege to Stalingrad are encircled and trapped by the Soviet counteroffensive. After Hitler refuses to allow them to attempt an escape, the Germans surrender on 2 February 1943.
Almost 500,000 Red Army troops have died during the Stalingrad campaign. A further 600,000 have been wounded. The German Sixth Army has been effectively destroyed in what is at the time the most catastrophic military defeat in German history. Over 250,000 of the German-led troops are dead.
In Operation Mars, however, the Red Army is defeated, with about 500,000 Soviet troops being killed, wounded, or captured.
1943 - The Western Allies take Africa at the start of the year, land in Sicily and Italy, and prepare for the 'D-Day' landings on the Normandy beaches in France on 6 June 1944 and the invasion of Germany six months later.
Back in the Soviet Union, Zhukov breaks though the German blockade of Leningrad in January 1943. By the end of the year he has succeeded in lifting the entire siege.
In July the Germans attempt one last offensive against the Soviets, selecting the region around the city of Kursk, 530 km southwest of Moscow, for their battleground. The ensuing Battle of Kursk will be the largest tank battle of the Second World War.
Under Zhukov's command the Soviets preempt the German offensive scheduled to begin at 3am on 5 July. The fighting continues until 20 August, when the Germans are forced to withdraw.
From now on the Germans are on the defensive as the Soviet forces drive them back to the Soviet border then across Eastern Europe and into Germany itself.
1944 - The Soviets complete the liberation of Belorussia and the Ukraine. By the middle of the year the Red Army is approaching Warsaw, the capital of Poland. However, the army stops short when noncommunist resistance forces launch a rebellion against the German garrisons in the city.
The ensuing rout of the resistance forces by the Germans clears the path for the ascendancy of the Soviet-sponsored Polish Committee of National Liberation (Lublin Committee). The decision to halt the Soviet forces outside of Warsaw is seen as a deliberate tactic by Stalin to smash the noncommunist Poles. The Lublin Committee is recognised by the Soviets as the government of Poland in January 1945, beginning a 44-year period of communist rule.
As the Red Army troops advance across Eastern Europe they also encounter many of the worst concentration camps set up by the Nazis. The camp at Auschwitz, 60 km west of Krakow in southern Poland, is liberated on 27 January 1945.
Meanwhile, Zhukov is awarded the Order of Victory medal for his contribution to the counteroffensive in the Ukraine. Order of Victory medals are also awarded to Stalin and Alexander Mikhailovich Vasilevsky. The three will again be awarded the Order of Victory at the end of the war, along with 10 other Soviet military leaders. The Order of Victory is the top Soviet wartime award.
Zhukov is also placed in command of the 1st Belorussian Front, the main axis for the coming attack on Berlin.
1945 - The Red Army finally launches its offensive on Warsaw in January, taking the city on the 17th. Zhukov now rushes on west, travelling 480 km in 20 days to reach the Oder River and the border between Poland and Germany on 30 January. Berlin is now less than 70 km away.
However, with Berlin in striking range the advance is halted to allow the Soviet armies to regroup, resupply, and secure Pomerania to the north and Silesia to the south. Zhukov is responsible for northern offensive into the so-called 'Baltic Balcony'.
The conference concludes with the issuing of the 'Yalta Declaration' committing the Allies to the destruction of German militarism and Nazism.
A conquered Germany will be divided into three zones of military occupation. Soviet forces will remain in Eastern Europe until free elections are held and the people are allowed to choose the form of government under which they will live.
The declaration also announces that a "conference of United Nations" will be held in San Francisco in April. However, while the United Nations (UN) will be established, Stalin fails to allow free and fair elections in the Eastern European countries the Soviets occupy after the war. An 'Iron Curtain' falls across Europe and a 'Cold War' develops between the USSR and the West.
By March, as the Western forces reach the Rhine River, Soviet armies have overrun most of Eastern Europe and are converging on Berlin. The Soviets march under the slogan, "There will be no pity. They have sown the wind and now they are harvesting the whirlwind."
Few are spared. As the Soviets move through Germany they rape at least two million German women in an undisciplined advance that is now acknowledged as the largest case of mass rape in history.
On 29 March Zhukov is recalled to Moscow to meet with Stalin and plan the final onslaught on Berlin. He returns to the front on 3 April. Two and a half million Red Army troops, 6,250 tanks and self-propelled guns, 41,600 artillery pieces, and 7,500 aircraft are to be launched against the 300,000 German soldiers defending the capital.
Command of the Soviet forces is split between Zhukov in the centre (the 1st Belorussian Front), Marshal Ivan Stepanovich Konev in the south (the 1st Ukranian Front), and Marshal Konstantin Konstantinovich Rokossovsky in the north (the 2nd Belorussian Front). In Moscow, Stalin coordinates the movements of the three fronts.
The attack across the Oder on to the Seelow heights begins at 5 a.m. on 16 April. Zhukov calls the confrontation the Red Army's "final hour of vengeance". However, the offensive is poorly executed, takes longer than expected, and results in heavy casualties.
Over one million shells are fired against the German positions in one of the largest artillery barrages in history. The barrage is followed by human wave onslaughts of Soviet troops. After three days and the loss of 30,000 Red Army soldiers the German line is broken.
By 25 April the Soviet forces have encircled Berlin. The city now becomes the "Reichssheiterhaufen" - the "Reich's funeral pyre."
A street by street battle to capture Berlin begins. The infantry attack is accompanied by an unrelenting artillery barrage, with 1.8 million shells being fired on the city between 21 April and 2 May. Tanks are also sent in, although at first the losses are extremely high, with over 800 tanks being destroyed.
The three and a half million civilians that remain in the city are caught in crossfire. Nearly 110,000 German soldiers and civilians die during the battle. A further 134,000 are taken prisoner. About 130,000 women are raped.
The Reichstag (parliament) is captured on 1 May. The city falls to the Soviet forces the next day. The assault on Berlin has cost the Red Army 78,291 killed and 274,184 wounded.
"Finally, the goal for which our nation had endured its great suffering the complete crushing of Nazi Germany, the smashing of fascism, the triumph of our cause," Zhukov says.
Germany surrenders unconditionally on 7 May. Zhukov presides over the signing of the formal surrender on 8 May at Karlshorst, west of Berlin. He also becomes the first commander of the Soviet Occupation Zone in Germany.
However, while the war in Europe is over, the war in the Pacific against Japan goes on. Zhukov now takes control of Operation August Storm, the Soviet campaign against the Japanese.
The US drops atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August 1945 respectively, killing about 120,000 people outright and fatally injuring over 100,000 more.
On 8 August the Soviet Union declares war on Japan and launches a surprise attack on Japanese forces in Manchuria.
Japanese Emperor Hirohito surrenders unconditionally on 15 August 1945, finally ending the Second World War.
Over 60 million people have died worldwide as a result of the war, including:
- Over 26 million Soviets,
- About 11.3 million Chinese,
- Over seven million Germans,
- About 6.8 million Poles,
- Almost two million Japanese,
- Between one million and 1.7 million Yugoslavs,
- 985,000 Romanians,
- 810,000 French,
- 750,000 Hungarians,
- 525,000 Austrians,
- 520,000 Greeks,
- 410,000 Italians,
- 400,000 Czechs,
- 388,000 British,
- 298,000 Americans,
- 250,000 Dutch,
- 118,000 Filipinos,
- 88,000 Belgians,
- 84,000 Fins,
- 42,000 Canadians,
- 36,000 Indians,
- 29,000 Australians,
- 22,000 Spaniards,
- 21,000 Bulgarians,
- 12,000 New Zealanders,
- 10,000 Norwegians,
- 9,000 South Africans, and
- 4,000 Danes.
Almost half the total war dead are from the Soviet Union. Of the more than 26 million Soviets killed, nearly 18 million are civilians. About nine million servicemen and women from the Red Army have died.
Meanwhile, Zhukov returns to Moscow to review the troops at a victory parade held on Red Square on 24 June. He is hailed by Muscovites as "our Saint George" - Saint George being the patron saint of Moscow.
He returns to Berlin for the first formal meeting between the Soviet and British leaders on 9 July, where he is presented with the Knights Cross of the Order of the Bath by British Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery.
Speaking in June, the commander of the Allied offensive on the Western Front, US General Dwight D. Eisenhower says, "The war in Europe has been won and to no man do the United Nations owe a greater debt than to Marshal Zhukov."
With the pressure of the war-effort now lifted, Stalin acts to secure the gains. Soviet citizens repatriated from wartime detention in foreign prisons and work camps are deemed to be traitors and are executed or deported to Soviet prison camps. Over 1.5 million Red Army soldiers imprisoned by the Germans are sent to the Gulag or to labour camps in Siberia and the far north. Stalin even disowns his own son, who had been captured by the Germans in 1941.
Civilians repatriated from Germany are kept under surveillance by the NKVD and forbidden to go within 100 km of Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev.
Eastern European countries occupied by the Soviets are turned into "satellite states" governed by "puppet" communist regimes. The 'Iron Curtain' falls across Europe and a 'Cold War' develops between the USSR and the West.
1946 - Zhukov returns from Berlin to Moscow to enormous public acclaim. However, Stalin comes to perceive the hugely popular Zhukov as a threat to his rule and allows the secret police to bug Zhukov's home. The secret police also attempt to frame Zhukov, using torture to extract false accusations from some of his colleagues. Zhukov is subsequently posted to the command of the relatively insignificant Odessa Military District. He is later kept under virtual house arrest at his country cottage.
Though he is largely protected by his fame from further humiliation, Zhukov's life does come into danger when the head of the secret police, Lavrenti Beria, accuses him of treason. However, Stalin refuses to act against the popular hero.
1949 - Another wave of Stalinist purges sweeps the Soviet Union. On Stalin's 70th birthday most of the Leningrad party organisation, including their parents, spouses and children, are secretly arrested in what will become known as the 'Leningrad Affair'.
Believing that Leningrad's experience of independence during the German siege is a threat, Stalin forces the city leaders to confess to treason. After a quick trial they are shot.
1953 - Stalin dies on 5 March. Soon after Zhukov is recalled to Moscow, becoming first deputy defence minister in 1953, then defence minister in 1955.
Zhukov also has his revenge against Lavrenti Beria, supporting the arrest and eventual execution of the secret service head.
1956 - Stalin and his policies are denounced by Nikita Khrushchev, first secretary of the Communist Party, in a "secret speech" at the 20th party congress in February.
Meanwhile, as defence minister, Zhukov has responsibility for the invasion of Hungary in October following an uprising there against Soviet interference. He is also involved in the formulation of the Soviet Union's nuclear weapons policy.
1957 - In June Zhukov is made a full member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party after providing Khrushchev with support during a challenge from old-guard Stalinists.
However, following a disagreement with Khrushchev over the level of support to be given to the armed forces Zhukov is stripped of his ministry, expelled from the Central Committee, and confined to his Moscow apartment. Khrushchev also suspects that Zhukov may have been plotting a military coup to overthrow him.
1964 - After Khrushchev is deposed in October Zhukov is rehabilitated, though he will never return to political power. He spends his retirement writing his memoirs ('Vospominaniia i Razmyshleniia' - 'Reminiscences and Reflections') along with recollections of the battles in which he fought.
1974 - Zhukov dies on 18 June. A million people pay their respects as his body lies in state prior to his funeral. He is buried with full military honours in Red Square at the Kremlin Wall.
1996 - In commemoration of Zhukov's 100th birthday, the Russian Federation inaugurates the Zhukov Order and the Zhukov Medal.
Who really defeated the Nazis in the Second World War? In Europe it is often assumed that it was the Western Allies led by Great Britain and aided by the US. Many in the US believe that it was their country that saved the day. All too often the critical role of the Soviet Union is forgotten or ignored.
While all the Allied armies had their part to play in the defeat of fascism it can be argued that it was the Soviet Union that really broke the back of the Third Reich. Certainly the Soviet Union suffered more than any other country during the war, as the 26 million Soviet war dead testify. Part of the explanation for this extraordinary high toll is the tactics adopted by Zhukov and other Soviet commanders during the conflict.
In 1945 Zhukov is reported to have said to US General Dwight D. Eisenhower, "If we come to a minefield, our infantry attacks exactly as it were not there." The shear weight of numbers eventually drove the Germans back, along with the Soviet leadership's determination not to relent, whatever the cost.
- Soviet Union - A Country Study - Library of Congress Country Studies Series
- BBC - History - World Wars: The Battle for Berlin in World War Two
- Foreign Military Studies Office Publications - Counterpoint to Stalingrad, Operation Mars (November-December 1942): Marshal Zhukov's Greatest Defeat
- The World at War - Biography: Marshal Georgy Konstantinovich Zhukov
- Great Belorussian Military Commanders: Marshall Georgy Konstantinovich Zhukov