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Aleksandr Danilovich Menshikov

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Menshikov in Exile

Aleksandr Danilovich Menshikov (Александр Данилович Меншиков) (16731729) was a Russian statesman, whose official titles included Generalissimo, Prince of the Holy Roman Empire and Duke of Izhora. Highly appreciated associate and friend of Tsar Peter the Great, he was the de facto ruler of Russia for 2 years.

Contents

Early life

Menshikov was born not earlier than 1670 nor later than 1673. It has been disputed by his enemies whether his father was an ostler or a bargee; it's more likely that he was of petty noble stock. As the story goes, he was gaining his livelihood in the streets of Moscow as a vendor of meat-pies at the age of twenty. His handsome looks and smart sallies attracted the attention of Francois Lefort, Peter's first favorite, who took him into his service and finally transferred him to the tsar. On the death of Lefort in 1699, Menshikov succeeded him as Peter's prime favorite and confidant.

Ignorant, brutal, grasping and corrupt as he was, he deserved the confidence of his master. He could drill a regiment, build a frigate, administer a province, and decapitate a rebel with equal facility. During the tsar's first foreign tour, Menshikov worked by his side in the dockyard of Amsterdam, and acquired a thorough knowledge of colloquial Dutch and German. He took an active part in the Azov campaigns (1695-96), and superseded Ogilvie as commander-in-chief during the retreat before Charles XII in 1708, subsequently participating in the battle of Holowczyn, the reduction of Mazepa, and the crowning victory of Poltava (June 26, 1709), where he won his field-marshal's baton.

Avidity and corruption

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A tower built by Menshikov in Moscow

From 1709 to 1714 he served during the Courland, Holstein and Pomeranian campaigns, but then, as governor-general of Ingria, with almost unlimited powers, was entrusted with a leading part in the civil administration. Menshikov understood perfectly the principles on which Peter's reforms were conducted, and was the right hand of the tsar in all his gigantic undertakings. But he abused his omnipotent position, and his depredations frequently, brought him to the verge of ruin. Every time the tsar returned to Russia he received fresh accusations of peculation against "his Serene Highness."

Peter's first serious outburst of indignation (March 1711) was due to the prince's looting in Poland. On his return to Russia in 1712, Peter discovered that Menshikov had winked at wholesale corruptions in his own governor-generalship. Peter warned him "for the last time" to change his ways. Yet, in 1713, he was implicated in the famous Solov'ey process, in the course of which it was demonstrated that he had defrauded the government of 100,000 roubles. He only owed his life on this occasion to a sudden illness. On his recovery Peter's fondness for his friend overcame his sense of justice.

In the last year of Peter's reign fresh frauds and defalcations of Menshikov came to light, and he was obliged to appeal for protection to the empress Catherine. It was chiefly through the efforts of Menshikov and his colleague Tolstoi that, on the death of Peter, in 1725, Catherine was raised to the throne. Menshikov was committed to the Petrine system, and he recognized that, if that system were to continue, Catherine was, at that particular time, the only possible candidate. Her name was a watchword for the progressive faction. The placing of her on the throne meant a final victory over ancient prejudices, a vindication of the new ideas of progress.

Supremacy and disgrace

During her short reign (February 1725 - May 1727), Menshikov was practically absolute. He promoted himself to the unprecedented rank of Generalissimo, and was the only Russian to bear a ducal title. Upon finishing the construction of a sumptuous palace on the Neva Embankment in St Petersburg (now assigned to the Hermitage Museum), Menshikov intended to make Oranienbaum a capital of his ephemeral duchy. Pushkin in one of his poems alluded to Menshikov as "half-tsar".

On the whole he ruled well, his difficult position serving as some restraint upon his natural inclinations. He contrived to prolong his power after Catherine's death by means of a forged will and a coup d'etat. While his colleague Tolstoi would have raised Elizabeth Petrovna to the throne, Menshikov set up the youthful Peter II, son of the tsarevich Alexius, with himself as dictator during the prince's minority.

He now aimed at establishing himself definitely by marrying his daughter Mary to Peter II. But the old nobility, represented by the Dolgorukovs and the Galitzines, united to overthrow him, and he was deprived of all his dignities and offices and expelled from the capital (Sept. 9, 1727). Subsequently he was deprived of his enormous wealth, stripped of the titles, and he and his whole family were banished to Berezov in Siberia, where he died on the 12th of November 1729.

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The Menshikov Palace on the Neva Embankment


See also

Aleksandr Sergeevich Menshikov - his great grandson



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