The Forgotten Zhdanov

2014 October 23
- Excerpts from »Why Was General Zhdanov Forgotten?« based on the Serbian translation at Fakti.org, October 21

According to Russian historian and diplomat Vladimir D. Kuznechevsky, the real credit for Belgrade's liberation should go to Vladimir Ivanovich Zhdanov and his 4th Tank Corps of the Red Army; Bulgarians never came near Belgrade, while Tito's Partisans were merely window dressing.

During the 1970s, when I worked in Yugoslavia, I have been to many ceremonies celebrating the liberation of Belgrade. Every time I marveled at how the Belgrade and Yugoslav officials devoted so much attention to the Yugoslav People's Army role in liberating their capital, while neglecting the real liberator of this ancient Serbian city.

They talked a lot about YPA Colonel-General Peko Dapčević, then still alive, as if he had single-handedly freed Belgrade, and very little about the Red Army Major-General Vladimir Ivanovich Zhdanov, commander of the 4th Armored Corps, who was actually in charge of liberating the Yugoslav capital from German occupiers. Then-colonel Dapčević did take part in the liberation of Belgrade -- but only a small part.

Residents of Belgrade that celebrated victory in October 1944 named one of the Yugoslav capital's main streets after their liberator. However, times changed. After the American bombing of Belgrade in 1999, the liberal pro-American government in Serbia headed by Z. Đinđić renounced its real history and renamed that street after the British Field Marshal Montgomery [1].

But Serbs are not the only ones to blame for historical amnesia. We Russians are hardly better. I am looking at the page 82 of the Encyclopedia of the Great Patriotic War (Soviet Encyclopedia, 1985, editor M.M. Kozlov), at the entry »1944: the Belgrade Operation«. There is a detailed account on two pages about the »offensive operation of the 3rd Ukrainian Front, People's Liberation Army of Yugoslavia and the Fatherland Front of Bulgaria, from September 28 to October 20, 1944«.

Where Army General M.M. Kozlov got these fantasies from, we will never find out; he died in 1992. The Belgrade Operation is referenced in two places in this Enclyclopedia (pages 82-83 and 668-69), listing all of its participants -- including those that were never there, such as the Bulgarian Fatherland Front, and even Hitler's Field Marshal Weichs who commanded the Germans in Belgrade. The only one missing is the actual liberator of Belgrade, Hero of the Soviet Union, People's Hero of Yugoslavia (a title earned at Belgrade), general Vladimir Ivanovich Zhdanov.

Likewise, in the biographical registry under »Zh« there are entries for A.A. Zhdranov (member of the Politburo of the CPSU), V. N. Zhdanov (Air Force Colonel-General), but no entry for V. I. Zhdanov, General-Colonel of the armored forces. Why?

As far as I can tell, from the information I found out personally in 1959, because Vladimir Ivanovich was the only front-line general who had the courage to oppose Nikita Khruschev and the leadership of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, refusing to go along with distortions of history. That decision steamrolled his career and sealed his destiny. I heard the story from Vladimir Ivanovich himself. [2]

In 1955, Nikita Khruschev thought he was correcting Stalin's geopolitical mistakes and visited Yugoslavia, seeking to establish ties between the Soviet and Yugoslav Communist parties and between Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union. In June 1965, J.B. Tito came to the USSR on a state visit and signed the Moscow Declaration. Relations between our countries started to develop. Then came the Hungarian events in October 1956, and Moscow sent tanks to forcibly suppress the Hungarian uprising. Tito condemned that action, under the pretext that Moscow had not consulted him. Relations between the Yugoslav and Soviet parties rapidly deteriorated, and Khruschev repeated Stalin's mistake, pushing the matters to the breaking point. He decided to force 13 Soviet citizens who received the title »People's Hero of Yugoslavia« for liberating Belgrade in October 1944, to renounced the honors. He started with General Zhdanov, and met unexpected resistance.

As Vladimir Ivanovich told me, he replied to Khruschev thus: »Comrade First Secretary of the Central Committee! Stalin did not dare suggest something that stupid to me in 1948. Do you think you will succeed?«

Insulted, Khrushchev ordered the insubordinate Superintendent of the Armor Academy to be sent to the remote Siberian garrison as sports officer. Yet he did not dare touch the other People's Heroes of Yugoslavia.

As for the liberation of Belgrade, it is true that then-Colonel Peko Dapčević took a small part in it. Here is what Vladimir Ivanovich told me happened.

In September 1944, the forces of Fedor Tolbukhin's 3rd Ukrainian Front began to advance towards Belgrade. Taking the Yugoslav capital would be a significant strategic coup, putting the Red Army astride the German Army Group E stationed in Greece and cutting off the German forces in the Balkans. For this reason, Belgrade was defended by powerful forces of the German Army Group F, commanded by Field Marshal Weichs.

The attack on Belgrade began on September 28, but it wasn't until October 12 that the 4th Guards Armored Corps led by General Zhdanov was able to reach the bridge across the Sava River. Taking the bridge in the face of a hurricane of artillery from the other side was impossible without heavy losses. On the other bank, the Germans had 40 tanks, 170 cannons and mortars, and a lot of other weaponry. Zhdanov halted his advance and asked for reinforcements.

Front commander Marshal Tolbukhin told him on the phone that reinforcements were coming: the 1st Army of the PLAY [3], led by General Peko Dapčević. The armor commander replied he did not need partisans, but air and artillery support. Tolbukhin assured him that Air Force general Sudets was promising several squadrons of the Fifth Air Army, and two artillery regiments.

Meanwhile, the Yugoslav partisans had arrived, doing nothing for Zhdanov's enthusiasm. Several dozen men in worn-down uniforms, armed with rifles, drove up in captured, broken-down, open-bed trucks. Their commander, Lt. Colonel Dapčević, was a dry and skinny man wearing captured boots and a German pistol in a side holster. Having saluted the general, the Yugoslav partisan informed him he had the orders from the Supreme Commander of PLAY, Marshal Tito, to make himself available to the Corps and liberate Belgrade together with the Russians.

After he shook hands with his Yugoslav colleague, Zhdanov pointed to the bridge. »The capital of Yugoslavia is across that bridge. Attack!« Right at that time, the Germans had noticed activity on the Soviet line and opened heavy fire on the bridge. Seeing that, Dapčević made the correct assessment and replied: »I'm not crazy to send my men into certain death«.

»Which means I'm crazy, then?« fumed Zhdanov and stormed off to the communications officer, leaving the Yugoslav ally behind. He called up Tolbukhin again and explained the situation. At the end of the conversation, he said angrily: »This is their capital. They want to liberate it. I'm fine with that. Let them charge. I'm not sending my men ahead until I get support«.

After a short silence the Marshal responded: »Vladimir Ivanovich, the Boss [Stalin] ordered this. The Partisans must enter the city together with your eagles. No objections. The Boss said you should put them on your tanks and have them charge together with your men. You will get your support, it is already on the way. You have three days to take Belgrade -- but you must enter the city together with the partisans«.

Three days after this conversation, the air support hit the Germans on the other bank of the Sava, and the artillery joined in. After that, Zhdanov had the Soviet infantry and Yugoslav partisans ride his tanks into Belgrade, and his Corps took the city. According to Vladimir Ivanovich, there were no other troops anywhere near Belgrade except for his 4th Armor and Dapčević's partisans. No Bulgarians, at all.

Twenty-one years after talking to General Zhdanov, I had the opportunity to converse with Peko Dapčević. I was working at the Soviet Embassy in Belgrade. During the celebration of the anniversary of the liberation of Belgrade, I spoke publicly of my conversation with General Zhdanov in 1959. After the official program at the reception hall, a skinny Colonel-General of the YPA approached me and introduced himself: Peko Dapčević. He was 67, but looked lively and very stylish. »You told the truth, First Secretary«, he said. »That's how it was«.

It was too late for Vladimir Ivanovich. In October 1964, after the Plenum of the Central Committee of the CPSU that relieved Khruschev, Zhdanov was proposed for promotion to Colonel-General by the Chief of Staff of the Soviet Army Marshal Biryuzov. Both men traveled to Yugoslavia to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Belgrade's liberation, but on October 19, their airplane crashed on the approach to Belgrade. Everyone on board was killed.

Vladimir Ivanovich is buried at the Novodevich cemetery.

I hope that this time the Serbs will give the proper honors to the Hero of the Soviet Union and People's Hero of Yugoslavia, General Vladimir Ivanovich Zhdanov.

Vladimir Dmitrievich Kuznechevsky is senior adviser at the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies. The original article, in Russian, can be found here.


[1] Here the author makes a slight mistake by saying the street named after General Zhdanov was renamed in honor of the British Field Marshal Montgomery. Under Tito, it had been renamed »May 1« (1951-65), then renamed after Zhdanov again, until its old Serbian name (Resavska) was restored in 1997. Zhdanov was honored with a new street in the south part of Belgrade in 2010. The street honoring Marshal Tolbukhin in central Belgrade was indeed renamed after a Briton during the ?in?ić government, but that was the diplomat Francis Harford Mackenzie, who developed the area in the 1880s, under the pro-British and pro-Austrian Obrenovic dynasty.
[2] The portion of the text that follows, omitted here for brevity, explains that the author met Zhdanov in 1959, in the Siberian garrison of Chita, where the general had been exiled.
[3] People's Liberation Army of Yugoslavia -- literal translation of Narodno-Oslobodilačka Vojska Jugoslavije, the official name of Tito's formations.

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