By Michael Austin, Manuscript Cataloger, Houghton LibraryThe José María Castañé collection of material relating to major conflicts of the 20th century, held by Houghton Library, contains an incredible variety of artifacts: chiefly papers, such as correspondence, military orders, work permits, and personal identification cards, but also a significant number of photographs and objects. In my previous two posts, I looked at items from the Second World War associated with obscure or unknown individuals, with an aim to illustrate the everyday tragedies and moral ambiguities that the war visited upon them. For this post, however, I’d like to take as my madeleine an item once owned by a major military figure: I feel that it symbolizes the vicissitudes of destiny that strike even those considered movers and shakers of history. The man in question is Marshal Georgii Zhukov, four times declared a “Hero of the Soviet Union”; the item is his pocket knife.
Born in 1896 into a poor family, Zhukov was drafted into the Russian Imperial Army during the First World War, served with distinction in the cavalry, and was promoted to the rank of non-commissioned officer for bravery in battle. In 1917, at the outbreak of the October Revolution, he cast his lot with the Bolsheviks and was later made an officer, in part due to his humble origins as well as his service during the Tambov Rebellion. Success followed success in his career thereafter, with campaigns to solidify and secure the newly-born Soviet Union in Mongolia and Manchuria. As tanks began to replace horses in armies across Europe, Zhukov became a master at coordinating this new technology with infantry, artillery, and air support.
For the first two years of the Second World War, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were at peace, having signed a non-aggression pact, and the two nations maintained strong economic ties, including trade in military equipment and raw materials such as wheat and oil. However, Hitler and Stalin’s opposing geopolitical aims, chiefly over the fate of eastern Europe, brought them inevitably into conflict. When Operation Barbarossa commenced in June 1941, Stalin charged Zhukov with defending the Soviet western front against the German onslaught. Though his was a foe of staggering resources and aggression, Zhukov prevailed, most notably saving Stalingrad and ultimately occupying eastern Germany itself.Zhukov had a sound working relationship with Stalin, who respected him both for his military expertise and for his frankness. After the war, however, Stalin’s pathological paranoia led him to demote Zhukov to insignificant commands far from Moscow. Even though the marshal tried as much as possible to stay out of politics and was never an ideologue, there was no avoiding the intrigues associated with the Soviet leadership of that period. Zhukov narrowly escaped death or the gulag on trumped-up charges brought by Lavrentiy Beria, Stalin’s notorious chief of the NKVD (internal security service), related to some relatively minor war booty that Zhukov brought back from Germany. When Stalin died in 1953, an intense power struggle for his successorship followed; Zhukov personally arrested Beria and sat on the tribunal that very summarily condemned him to death. Under the premierships of Malenkov, Bulganin, and Khrushchev, Zhukov’s political fortunes rose and fell. However, he continued to maintain his reputation as the commander who never lost a battle; for the Soviet people, he held a place equal to that of Eisenhower for America or Montgomery for the British, and he never fell out of favor in the hearts of his countrymen. Indeed, Eisenhower had a great personal liking for Zhukov and felt that if the two of them could get on and work together, it would bode well for US-Soviet relations. These, in brief, are the main features of Zhukov’s life and career, as can be found in a multitude of sources. But what about the pocket knife?
The knife is a multi-purpose tool, more or less equivalent to a modern Swiss army knife, with 18 instruments including several blades, as well as a fork, corkscrew, small saw, screwdriver, etc. Some bear the stamp (in Cyrillic) “A. I. Borisov,” which could refer to a factory or foundry in Barysow, Belarus, long an important industrial region. For me, the knife’s most compelling quality is that it clearly saw hard use, most probably by Zhukov himself: some of the blades are stained; a slot that once contained a toothpick is empty; and a couple of tools appear to be broken off, including what was once a small pair of scissors.
But what embeds this object in the web of history is that the handle is inscribed with a dedication to Zhukov from the tank units of the 1st Belorussian Front, the army group that he commanded from November 1944 to June 1945 as the Soviets turned the tide of war beyond their borders into eastern Europe, liberating Poland and ultimately taking Berlin. The inscription reads as follows: “To Marshal of the Soviet Union Comrade Zhukov from the tankmen of the 1st Belorussian Front.”
We today can scarcely imagine the soldiers’ joy and relief that must have inspired these words: four years of unremitting horror had finally come to an end—and the Allies had prevailed. Beyond this, Zhukov himself was crowned in personal glory: the man who dealt the final blow to the Nazi regime, the man who had saved the Soviet Motherland. For a brief time, he was little less than a god, second only to Stalin himself.
Mr. Castañé, the donor of the collection from which the pocket knife comes, provided Houghton with some extra information about its provenance. He acquired the knife through the efforts of his good friend in Moscow, Boris Nikiforov, who had amassed an impressive archive of original documents written and/or signed by Stalin, Molotov, and other Soviet leaders. The knife was among them, having found its way from Zhukov into the family of Marshal Kirill Meretskov, the military leader who had broken the 900-day siege of Leningrad. According to Castañé, Zhukov heard that Meretskov had been put in charge of the Soviet forces projected to invade the northern Japanese islands and offered him the knife, saying “This knife has brought me very good luck in the war in the West. Now take it and, with it, enjoy good luck in the East.”As we know, there was no invasion of the Japanese home islands—not by the Soviets, nor the Americans, nor the British. Fearing massive loss of life both among Allied forces and the Japanese civilian population, President Truman ordered nuclear bombs dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These bombings quickly brought the war to a close.
Luck: it’s a slippery notion. Was Zhukov a lucky man? Was Meretskov? Were the Allied soldiers and sailors saved from invading Japan lucky? Could we consider the Japanese—or the Germans—who survived the war lucky? In 1945, the Soviet Union was a towering hegemon in Europe; today, 75 years on, it no longer exists. Germany was reduced almost entirely to a field of rubble—an American general at the time expressed the desire that Germans would henceforth be a “nation of shepherds”, incapable of playing a major part in world affairs—yet shortly after the war’s end, it was well on its way to accomplishing the Wirtschaftswunder, the economic miracle that it maintains to this day. Japan arose the ashes in a similar fashion. And the United States…the country that for the entire postwar period served as a source of aspiration for people the world over, a model of domestic stability and good governance, and a guarantor of its allies’ military security, is now riven by toxic political discord and stands at the brink of social collapse.
Strange indeed are the ways of destiny.