Isaac Deutscher 1957

Did Zhukov Carry De-Stalinisation Too Far?

Source: The Reporter, 14 November 1957. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

Within a few hours of his return to Moscow from a journey to Yugoslavia and Albania, Marshal Zhukov was dismissed as Minister of Defence in a humiliating and insulting fashion. This affront to the famous soldier has certainly caused resentment among his many followers in the Soviet officers’ corps, where there is great opposition to a return to Stalinist methods of party control over the army. It remains to be seen whether the marshal and his adherents must bow to defeat or whether they can fight back with any chance of success. The Zhukov affair indicates that relations between the party and the military officers’ corps, or at least an important section of it, continue to be tense.

Several questions arise in this connection. What has been the background to the conflict between Khrushchev and Zhukov? What are the specific issues over which they have fallen out? How far can the army, that is, the officers’ corps, be regarded as an entity holding the same political views?

The major issue that has divided Zhukov and Khrushchev concerns the scope and method of de-Stalinisation. The ex-Minister of Defence has favoured a much more radical approach to this problem than that which the First Secretary of the Communist Party has been willing to adopt. Although during the session of the Central Committee early last July both men acted together against Molotov and Kaganovich, the leaders of the Stalinist die-hards, the fact that there were quite a few differences between Khrushchev and Zhukov had already become apparent.

According to some reports from Moscow, the marshal made at that time a number of new revelations about the Stalin era which greatly embarrassed Khrushchev. He had obtained from the archives various letters that Zinoviev, Bukharin and Kamenev had in their time addressed to the Politburo and the Central Committee; he read out these letters in full session, thus posing anew the question of the rehabilitation of the leaders of the old anti-Stalinist oppositions and other victims of the Stalinist purges. He intended this as a blow at Molotov and Kaganovich, but he went much farther than Khrushchev wished him to go.

Then, in the middle of July, while Khrushchev and Bulganin were touring Czechoslovakia, Marshal Zhukov took an important political initiative designed to force their hands. He addressed a large public meeting in Leningrad, about which only enigmatic and embarrassed hints appeared in Pravda. He demanded that full light should be thrown on the whole thirty years’ record of Stalinist misrule and, in particular, that those who were officially responsible for conducting the great purges of the 1930s should be brought to trial.

Molotov, who two decades ago held the office of Soviet Prime Minister, appeared to be the chief culprit. But there were others involved too. Marshal Voroshilov, the present head of the state, could not disclaim responsibility. It was he who officially presided over the military tribunal that sentenced Marshal Tukhachevsky and many other Soviet generals to death, and the officers’ corps has neither forgotten nor forgiven him for this.

But far more important, Khrushchev himself could not disclaim his share of guilt, for as the boss of the Ukraine and then as the Secretary of the party organisation in Moscow, he had played a not negligible part in conducting the purges. The marshal’s speech was therefore a bombshell designed to undermine Khrushchev’s position.

A Hero Tells of His Heroism: For yet another reason Zhukov’s appearance in Leningrad was a challenge to the party Secretary. It was, as I wrote in The Reporter of 8 August, ‘more than an ordinary event; it was a dramatic opening of what looks like Zhukov’s bid for leadership, a test of his popularity in the country’. He was received with far greater acclaim than had been given to any of Stalin’s successors, including Khrushchev. He was celebrated as the commander of Leningrad’s heroic defence in the last war, and in a manner most unusual for a Soviet general he extolled his own record in the epic. Khrushchev sensed the threat of a ‘Bonapartist’ coup in the marshal’s moves, and suspected Zhukov’s motives all the more because Zhukov appeared to have taken advantage of Khrushchev’s absence from the country.

On his return to Moscow, Khrushchev had to deal with the consequences of these events. At the same time, further differences developed. Having defeated Molotov and Kaganovich, Khrushchev did what Stalin had often done in struggles against rivals: he tried to steal the thunder from his defeated opponents.

Having charged Molotov and Kaganovich with obstructing Soviet attempts to conciliate the West and to secure peace, Khrushchev himself adopted a tough line in foreign policy and spoke in a voice that sounded almost like Molotov’s. He called a halt to de-Stalinisation in domestic policy as well. He revived something of the Zhdanov line in strictures on writers, artists and historians. Zhukov, who had backed Khrushchev against Molotov, was in no mood to go on supporting him when he began to speak in Molotov’s voice.

These were the reasons that impelled Khrushchev to turn against the marshal. He paid him tit for tat; and just as Zhukov had made his moves while Khrushchev was abroad, so Khrushchev engineered the coup against Zhukov while the latter was in Belgrade and Tirana.

The moment for the showdown has been shrewdly chosen for another reason. Soviet opinion is thrilled with the launching of the Sputnik, the prestige of government and party leadership stands at the moment as high as ever, and the mood of the country does not favour any opposition. On the other hand, Zhukov’s popularity in the country stands much higher than Khrushchev’s.

Thus the political balance is far from stable. Since Beria’s fall and the degradation of the political police, Khrushchev has been dependent on the army’s support. This has been a most uncomfortable position for him. For some months now, reports from the Soviet Union have indicated that he has been trying to boost the political police and to give back some of the power taken from it. These attempts have apparently not yet gone far, nor have they, so far as they’ve gone, been very successful.

People are no longer as easily intimidated as they used to be, and the marshals and generals have not been greatly impressed by the threat of a revival of the old terror. Consequently, Khrushchev has acted against Zhukov not so much with the help of the political police as with the aid of some of Zhukov’s rivals in the army itself.

The Problems of a Pretender: The officers’ corps, too, has been divided over the issues that have agitated the party leaders. While Zhukov and his associates, representing an ‘old Bolshevik’ group in the officers’ corps, have pressed for the abolition of the Stalinist type of party control over the army and for more rational methods in domestic and foreign policies, another group, led mainly by Marshal Vasilevsky, has been more or less opposed to ‘liberalisation’ at home and has represented a markedly chauvinistic and unconciliatory attitude in foreign policy. It is to this group of marshals and generals that Khrushchev has appealed for support against Zhukov.

He has not dared, however, to bring back to power Marshal Vasilevsky, the former Minister of Defence and next to Zhukov the most important military figure, because Vasilevsky has been discredited by his intimate association with Stalin’s policies in Stalin’s last years.

Instead, Marshal Malinovsky has been placed at the head of the Ministry of Defence. Although Malinovsky is politically colourless, he seems to have stood closer to Vasilevsky than to Zhukov.

Khrushchev evidently aims at achieving personal power as Stalin’s real, if ‘moderate’, successor. Yet it is too early to assume that he has already achieved this. His position is much weaker than Stalin’s was. For one thing, age is against him. Stalin was in his forties when he entered into the contest for power; Khrushchev is in his early sixties. It took Stalin a long time, about fifteen years and many bloody struggles, before he was able to defeat and eliminate his rivals. Khrushchev hasn’t that much time at his disposal.

More important, of course, are the differences in the social and political background within the Soviet Union.

The USSR of the late 1950s is not the same as the USSR of the late 1920s. The ferment in society, the craving for freedom, the disgust with Stalinist methods – a disgust Khrushchev himself had done so much to inspire – all make it very difficult for any pretender to fill the vacancy that was created by Stalin’s death.

Meanwhile, Zhukov’s dismissal may have its effects in foreign policy. The chauvinistic element in the officers’ corps appears to be strengthened, and this may already have influenced the Soviet behaviour over the Syrian – Turkish crisis – a behaviour that reflects the fresh rise in confidence caused by the Soviet lead in developing ballistic missiles.