An outstanding Soviet commander in World War II, General Ivan Stefanovich Konev (1897-1973) was a leader in the offensive against the Germans and twice named "Hero of the Soviet Union"(1944, 1945).
Ivan Konev was born on Dec. 28, 1897, to a peasant family in Lodeino, Russia. He was drafted in the army of the czar in 1916, but after the Russian Revolution, he joined the Red Army in August 1918. He also joined the Communist party, becoming military commissar of successively larger units. By the end of the civil war, he was a corps commissar. After graduating from the Soviet military academy in 1926 and completing special training at the Frunze academy in 1934, he emerged from relative obscurity with the 1937-1938 purge of the military. Actually Konev, a civil war veteran, was in danger of being purged himself. Instead, he not only survived but promoted his rise in the Bolshevik party, becoming a candidate member of the Central Committee in 1939.
During World War II, as commander of the 1st Ukrainian Forces and then of the 2nd Ukrainian Forces, General Konev achieved considerable fame, particularly during the Soviet offensive in 1943-1944. Technically the subordinate of Marshal Georgi Zhukov, Konev became his chief rival. With the death of General Nikolai Vatutin (1944), Konev became second only to Zhukov in the drive on Europe.
Konev tried to get authority to have his army take Berlin, but Stalin gave that honor to Zhukov. However, Konev did capture several major targets, including Prague, Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic) and had the final satisfaction of being involved in the capture of Berlin when Zhukov, unable to overcome stiff German resistance, required the aid of Konev's forces.
Konev became one of the most decorated and praised Soviet generals, becoming a marshal of the Soviet Union in 1944 and twice cited as a hero of the Soviet Union in 1944 and 1945. However, he remained discontented because of the greater tribute paid to Zhukov, an unhappiness Stalin may well have exploited to keep Zhukov's wartime feats from becoming troublesome.
In the postwar years, Konev's political involvement increased, while Zhukov was forced into semiretirement. In November 1946 Konev became deputy minister of war and commander of land forces. In 1950 he became chief inspector of the Red Army. The Nineteenth Party Congress in 1952 confirmed his prominence in party circles, making him a full member of the party's Central Committee.
Konev's major importance, however, came after Stalin's death in March 1953, when Konev was the highest-placed member of the so-called Stalingrad Group, an informal group of Soviet military officials who dated their association from the war. For a time, Konev even shared a common cause with Zhukov, who reemerged as a prominent leader, collaborating to rid the party of Lavrenty Beria, the notorious and previously omnipotent head of the secret police. In fact, Konev presided over the special military tribunal that tried and ordered the execution of Beria and several top security officials.
Turning back to his Stalingrad Group associations, Konev drew close to Nikita Khrushchev, then first secretary of the party. As a result, when the Warsaw Pact of European Communist nations was formed in May 1955, Konev became first international commander. As first deputy minister of defense in 1956, and again nominally Zhukov's subordinate, he collaborated with Khrushchev to have Zhukov deposed in October 1957.
Despite Konev's open role in the denunciation, he was passed over for Zhukov's post and lost his last chance to become the leading figure in Soviet military circles. In July 1960 his position was further vitiated when Marshal Andrey Grechko replaced him as head of the Warsaw Pact. Although the move was for "reasons of health," it appeared more likely that his views on the size and composition of the Warsaw Pact forces were involved.
During the 1961-1962 Berlin crises, Konev again became prominent as commander of Soviet forces in East Germany. After that, his career leveled off. He survived the 1964 fall of his former patron, Khrushchev, and retained high posts in both the party and army, continuing as a member of the Central Committee and, from 1962, general inspector of the U.S.S.R. Ministry of Defense.
Konev's published interpretations of the wartime battles minimize his earlier aggrandizement of Khrushchev as a war hero. Although an often-quoted, highly praised military official, he no longer had access to the power that seemed almost within his reach in the 1950s. The outstanding Soviet military leader died in Moscow on May 21, 1973.
There are no studies of Konev. His career is discussed in John Erickson, The Soviet High Command: A Military-Political History, 1918-1941 (1962), and Alexander Werth, Russia at war, 1941-1945 (1964). His later career is recounted in Otto Preston Charney, Jr., Zhukov (1971). An appreciation of the milieu in which he moved, and particularly of the Stalingrad Group, may be found in Roman Kolkowicz, The Soviet Military and the Communist Party (1967).