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Soviets switch commanders in drive to halt Germans

On this day in 1941, chief of the Soviet general staff, Georgi K. Zhukov, assumes command of Red Army operations to stop the German advance into the heart of Russia.

Zhukov’s military career began during World War I, when he served with the Imperial Russian Army. He then joined the Red Army in 1918, taking time off to study military science in both the Soviet Union and Germany. By the outbreak of World War II, Zhukov was commander of the Soviet forces stationed on the Manchurian border and led a counteroffensive that beat back the Japanese attack in 1939.

By the time of the German invasion of Russia, Zhukov had been promoted from chief of staff of the Soviet army during the “winter war” against Finland, to commander in chief of the western front. It was in this capacity that he now prepared to beat back the German invaders, first from Moscow, and then from central Russia altogether. He would eventually be promoted to general and become a key player in the planning or execution of virtually every major Soviet engagement until the end of the war. Ultimately, he would represent the USSR at Germany’s formal surrender and take command of the Soviet occupation of Germany.

Stalin’s wise choice in handing so much power and responsibility to this one man was regretted only after the war, when Zhukov’s popularity threatened his own. Stalin “rewarded” the general with obscure positions that wasted his talent and kept him out of the spotlight. Zhukov was finally made minister of defense after Stalin’s death in 1953 in Premier Nikita Krushchev’s new government. But as the military attempted to remove itself from the iron grip of internal Communist Party politics, Zhukov, who supported autonomy for the army, began to butt heads with the premier, who wanted to keep the Red Army under the Central Committee’s collective thumb.

Ironically, when the Presidium, the “conservative” (in this case, Stalinist) legislative body that opposed certain “democratic” reforms proposed by Krushchev, attempted to push the premier from power, it was Zhukov who flew Central Committee members to Moscow to tip the balance of power and keep Krushchev’s position secure. As a reward, Zhukov was made a full member of the Presidium, the first professional soldier ever to hold such an office (it also served to have a man who proved himself loyal on a body that was otherwise hostile). But Zhukov’s renewed attempt to free the army from party control resulted in his dismissal by Krushchev. Zhukov would once again be lost to public view—until Krushchev’s fall from power in 1964. Zhukov would eventually win the Order of Lenin medal (1966) and publish his autobiography (1969).

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