Was Zhukov's wit portrayed accurately in The Death of Stalin?

History Asked by EvilSnack on December 22, 2020

The Death of Stalin is a black comedy about a period of Soviet history running from the event from which the title is taken to the execution of Beria near the end of the film.

I am perfectly aware that the film takes liberties with history regarding the events as they unfold; among other things, Beria is not whacked the same day that he is first arrested, but after a period of several months.

What I am curious about is the portrayal of Marshall Georgy Zhukov. In the film he is portrayed by Jason Isaacs (who is clearly having more fun than a human being should be allowed to have) as a witty and confident person.

The confident part I believe we can accept as being true to life; the fellow was, after all, the chief ranking officer of an army that had won its last major conflict.

What I am curious to know is if the historical record depicts the same fountain of dry humor that we see in the film.

If the correct answer is that history has nothing to say on this, that’s acceptable.

2 Answers

No Zhukov's biography I read ever mentioned humor or wit of any kind.

The personal trait they consistently emphasize if ruthlessness.


  • Зенькович "Маршалы и генсеки"
  • Карпов "Маршал Жуков: Опала"
  • Исаев "Мифы и правда о Маршале Жукове"

PS. His role in the war is also quite exaggerated but this is a different story...

Correct answer by sds on December 22, 2020

It seems unlikely. While Eisenhower noted that Zhukov liked to joke, there are no other references to Zhukov being particularly witty. Among western military men, diplomats and journalists, Zhukov was generally perceived as friendly and more honest than most of the Soviet hierarchy. However, many of those who served under him in the Red Army painted a far less appealing portrait; he could be harsh and demanding, and was considered by some to have quite an ego.

There is little (if any evidence) to support the depiction of Zhukov's wit in The Death of Stalin but the journalist John Gunther, in Inside Russia today (1958), wrote that

He had the friendliest, heartiest smile of any of the [Soviet] leaders we met, and otherwise looked as blunt as a bollard in the Venice lagoon.

Montgomery's staff officer Major-General Sir Francis Wilfred de Guingand also found Zhukov friendly (and Monty himself refers to 'friendly relations') and (then General) Eisenhower also noted Zhukov's smile. According to Eisenhower, Zhukov used to joke during their "wartime association" but that when they met later (during Eisenhower's presidency), the Soviet general was a changed man:

In our wartime association he had been an independent, self-confident man who, while obviously embracing communist doctrine, was always ready to meet cheerfully with me on any operational problem and to cooperate in finding a reasonable solution.… Now in Geneva, years later, he was a subdued and worried man.… He spoke as if he was repeating a lesson which had been drilled into him until he was letter perfect. He was devoid of animation, and he never smiled or joked, as he used to do. My old friend was carrying out the orders of his superiors. I obtained nothing from this private chat other than a feeling of sadness.

Cited in: G. Roberts, 'Stalin's General: The Life of Georgy Zhukov' (2012)

Perhaps one example of a Zhukov joke which Eisenhower was referring to above is this, in June 1945:

The western representatives wanted the ACC [Allied Control Council] to start functioning immediately but Zhukov insisted British and American troops first withdraw from the Soviet zone of occupation....Zhukov’s delaying tactic did not please General Eisenhower, the American representative on the ACC, who was keen to get on with business. When the American went to leave the banquet arranged by the Soviets for their guests, Zhukov exclaimed jovially, “I shall arrest you and make you stay!” But Eisenhower stayed only for the first toasts. Apart from this incident Zhukov and Eisenhower got on well and formed a good working relationship.

Source: Roberts

Time magazine Moscow bureau chief Richard Lauterbach gives some details Zhukov's personality in These Are the Russians (1945). Despite these details, he makes no mention of Zhukov's wit. Instead, he wrote that the general was a talented accordion and piano player and that

Zhukov likes to attend military and diplomatic parties where he is known as an intelligent, somewhat didactic conversationalist.

Lauterbach also writes that when Zhukov orders or discusses strategy he speaks directly, sharply and precisely in a calm, low voice. His full strong face is so dominated by his willfulness that few men readily object to his proposals. In upholding his views he can be extremely stubborn, but on occasions when he is outvoted by other members of the Supreme Command he executes their plans as precisely and solicitously as he would his own proposals.

Answered by Lars Bosteen on December 22, 2020

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