Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Who was Alexander Menshikov?

Alexander Menshikov
The man who virtually ruled Russia for about two years and amassed power and fortune that stood second only to the Tsar. Explore the life of Alexander Menshikov.

Among the men who served under Tsar Peter the Great, Alexander Menshikov was one the most powerful, wealthy, influential but also the most notorious in the Russian Empire. He began from a humble background who went against the stringent social stratification of Russian society to become at par with the traditional aristocracy in money and in power. But his rise to power eventually caused his bitter downfall.

Early Life and Background

Alexander Danilovich Menshikov, had an obscure early life. Born on November 16, 1673, Menshikov grew up as part of what in Russian society called the free townsmen or commoners. His father was a falconer for Tsar Alexis. Much of his background had been covered by mystery, myths, and gossips. Some said that Menshikov at the age of 12 worked as an apprentice to a baker and sold bread and prieogi in the streets of Moscow. One of his customers was Franz Lefort who was impressed by the boy’s charismatic appeal in selling his products. His connection with Lefort eventually led to his introduction to one of Lefort’s friends, the young Tsar Peter Romanov. Another story put Menshikov as a worker in the stables in the Kremlin before being recruited to be Tsar Peter’s servant. Menshikov himself, however, spread a story that he had been an offspring of the previous ruling Rurik Dynasty but his family became impoverished due to his descendant’s captivity in the previous wars. But Menshikov’s claim lacked the evidence in order to be convincing. Whatever his background, Menshikov started as a poor boy in Moscow.

Menshikov had no formal education and was limited only to basic reading and writing. Nevertheless, he became practical, witty and clever, growing up in the avenues and roads of Moscow. Eventually, these skills of him got the attention of the Tsar.

Companion and Friend of Peter the Great

Menshikov took part as a member of Peter the Great’s toy regiments. Peter the Great had lived in the suburbs of Preobrazenskoe since his enthronement as a young boy in 1681. In Preobrazenskoe, Peter became fascinated with military affairs and decided to form his own regiment – which later became known as the Preobrazensky Regiment. In 1686, Menshikov became part of this regiment. Peter did not developed an elitist mindset. He did not believed that rank should be based on aristocratic birthright but on merit, ability, and skills. Hence, with this nature of Peter, Menshikov had a chance of promotion and living a better life by staying in the graces of Tsar by performing well.

Menshikov became a close companion of Tsar Peter. In 1695, he fought alongside Peter in the capture of the Turkish held port city of Azov. He also accompanied the Tsar in his Grand Embassy to Europe from 1697 to 1698.

In the personal level, the two shared a lot of things. They both had passion for drinking when Menshikov also took part in Peter’s Jolly Company. Peter was also the godfather of Menshikov’s children. In addition, Peter also made Menshikov in charge of his son Alexei’s education in 1705. Menshikov, like Peter, also acted brutal, domineering and controlling over the Tsarevitch. As a result, Alexei also feared Menshikov the same way he feared his father.

The two men also shared their love for women. Menshikov, in 1700, met a Lithuanian peasant woman named Marta Skavbronska. They had a relation for a short time, before he introduced Marta to Tsar Peter. Peter fell in love with Marta, and she converted to Russian Orthodoxy and took the name Catherine Alexeyevna. Catherine and Menshikov became close allies in the Russian court due to the fact that they both knew each other personally and they both were outsiders to the court filled with ancient old aristocrats.

Menshikov the Commander and Official

Boris Sheremtyev, a fellow commander of
In addition from being charming, Menshikov earned a reputation as a good commander in war. In 1700, Peter dragged Russia into the Great Northern War that lasted for two decades ending in 1721. Menshikov shared command of the Russian military with Boris Sheremetyev. In 1704, Menshikov took control of the Noteburg Fortress in the Neva River, a stepping stone for the conquest of the region of Ingria in the Gulf of Finland. In the middle of 1700’s, he went to Poland to command Russian troops assisting their Polish ally King Augustus II. In 1706, he won the Battle of Kalisz (or Kalitz). He earned the respect and admiration of the Polish King which later repaid him in kind. In 1708, when Sweden invaded Russia, he led the Russian cavalry forces in defeating a Swedish supply convoy in the Lesnaya. After which, he then went to Ukraine to defeat Sweden’s ally, Ivan Mazepa, a Cossack Hetman, capturing and ransacking their capital city of Baturin. In 1709, he again fought alongside with Tsar Peter during the momentous Battle of Poltava.

For his actions, he earned military promotions, positions and titles. He was promoted to the rank of Field Marshall. Besides his rise in military rank, he also became the head of the newly established College of War in 1717.

His prestige skyrocketed when he earned new titles such as Prince of the Holy Roman Empire, Duke of Izhora, Knight of the Order of St. Andrew and Knight of St. Alexander Nevsky. Other than titles and position, he received land as reward not just from Peter but also from King Augustus of Poland. He received villages, factories, and mines both in Russia and Poland.

Menshikov also served as an official of the Russian Empire. He proved to be able and reliable. In 1703, he became the first governor of St. Petersburg, supervising and overseeing the construction of the new capital city from scratch. He also managed state affairs during Peter’s absence, carrying out the reforms and policies of the Tsar.

His effectiveness as a government official, however, had a darker side. Although he earned a reputation as a good administrator, he also earned the notoriety of being corrupt. In fact in 1714, he became a subject of a corruption investigation that led to his short fall from grace to Peter. He grabbed properties by using government projects as reasons. Besides lands, he also used projects as another way to embezzle huge sums of money allowing him to amass huge fortune. For instance, in 1718, he became once again a subject of another corruption case where Menshikov stole about 1.5 million rubles from a budget meant for supplies for the military. His corruption allowed him to build a palace in Oranienbaum in the outskirts of St. Petersburg. The Palace placed in magnificence, splendor and size second only to Peter’s. All in all, he owned 90,000 serfs, six towns, and numerous villages, in addition to millions of rubles. Peter knew about Menshikov’s corruption, but he did not punish him severely or even kick out from the government because he trusted him very well and Menshikov showed his loyalty and dedication to his service to the Tsar.

Catherine I

Menshikov, Virtual Ruler of Russia

Menshikov further rose to power after the demise of Peter the Great. In 1725, Peter left Russia without naming his heir. Menshikov maneuvered around the court in order to install the widow of Peter the Great, Catherine Alexsayevna, as the new Tsarina and Empress of Russia. He and Catherine had been allies for more than a decade. Especially, when Catherine owed her position to Menshikov. Catherine, who had a background of a Lithuanian peasant girl, had no idea of governing such a new powerful and large empire.

In 1726, Catherine instituted the Supreme Privy Council to handle state affairs in her behalf. It was composed of seven members namely, Gaviil Golovkin, the diplomat Peter Tolstoi, Count Dmitry Golitsyn, Baron Andrei Osterman, Admiral Feodor Apraksin, Catherine’s son-in-law Charles Frederick Duke of Holstein, and off course, Alexander Menshikov. Menshikov dominated the council and effectively became the virtual ruler of Russia. His rise to power led, however, to the further disgust of some of the old nobles of Russia.

Menshikov had many rivals, especially from the ancient aristocratic families of Russia. Menshikov came from a very humble background, and his rise to great wealth, power, prestige, and influence became the subject of irritation of many in the nobility. These nobles included the families Golitsyns and Dolgurukys. These families in particular had played important roles in Russian history. The Golitsyns (Galitzines) produced several high ranking officials for Russia. The Dolgorukys (Dolgurukovs) founded Moscow and also gave the Tsardom some Tsaritsas and high ranking officials as well. The nobles did not accept that a man who once sold bread and pierogis in streets of Moscow or a stable outshined them. Some of the stories of Menshikovs corruption might even had been exaggerated by the nobles in order to discredit him. Nevertheless, under Catherine I, the old nobles had not yet stood in a strong position to remove Menshikov from power. But they had their chance once the Empress suddenly passed away.

Fall of Menshikov

In 1727, Catherine I held her last breathe after living extravagantly and excessively. Menshikov managed to control the succession once more by convincing Catherine to sign a will before her death to designate the young teenager Tsarevich Peter Alexeyevich, grandson of Peter the Great, as successor. Menshikov planned to cement his family’s connection to the Romanovs by announcing the marriage of his daughter Maria Menshikova to the new young Tsar. For months, Peter lived in Menshikov’s palace while Menshikov once again ruled strongly in the Tsar’s behalf.

In the middle of 1727, however, Menshikov suddenly fell gravely ill. For days and months he was inactive in the government. Meanwhile, Peter II fell to the influence of the old noble families, especially the Dolgurukovs. They convinced the Tsar to move out of Menshikov’s palace.

The Dolgorukovs, Golitsyns, and in an alliance with Baron Andrew Ostermann deposed Menshikov from the Privy Council. They launched a commission to investigate Menshikov’s corruption. The conclusion of the investigation had been predetermined and the commission found Menshikov guilty. As Menshikov returned in September 1727, he was arrested for corruption and he loss all his positions, titles, and properties. Finally, he was exiled to Berezov, Siberia. There, he lived for two more years as a broken, disgraced and impoverished man, dying on November 23, 1729.

Summing Up

Menshikov had been one of the product of the Peterine age. He became the product of Peter’s meritocracy. He rose up from a street seller to one of the most powerful men in Russia. Although lacking in education, it did not deter him to become an effective administrator. The negative side of this however, he used his position to enrich himself, driven by his excitement for wealth, which he did not enjoy at his youth. Eventually, his rise to power caused the envy and anger of traditional families, who then sought his demise. Ultimately, the quick pace of his rise equaled the speed of his demise.

Explore also:

Encyclop√¶dia Britannica Online, s. v. "Aleksandr Danilovich Menshikov", accessed October 10, 2015,

Hughes, Lindsey. "Menshikov, Alexander Danilovich." Encyclopedia of Russian History. 2004. (October 11, 2015).
Ogorodnev, Igor. "Prominent Russians: Aleksandr Menshikov." RT Russiapedia. Accessed October 11, 2015.

Cracraft, James. The Revolution of Peter the Great. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2006.

Moss, Walter. A History of Russia Volume I: To 1917. London: Anthem Press, 2005. 

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